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Yes, Feature Phones DO Still Matter In Mobile SEO
Google recently released an addendum to their guidelines for optimizing for smartphones that gives more detail around how to optimize for feature phones as well.
I know some of you are thinking, “Feature phones? What is this, 2005? Let me pull out my Razr and look for ringtones on WAP sites. Why on Earth would anyone need feature phone traffic now that everyone has an iPhone or an Android?”
In 2012 in the US, this is often what it seems like. Smartphone penetration is at an all-time high according to Nielsen, with half of the US market owning smartphones, and 2/3 of new phone owners electing to buy smartphones and not feature phones.
What’s more, smartphone users tend to browse and search more — especially in the United States, where smartphones have about 90% of the mobile browser share and 57% of smartphone owners use their phone to search every day.
If you’re based in the US and just targeting an audience in the United States that is Hispanic, Black or Asian that’s younger and more affluent, you’re more likely than not to reach this audience by building content for smartphones only according to recent data from Nielsen.
Death Of Feature Phones Greatly Exaggerated
However, according to this same data, if you’re targeting an audience in the U.S. that is white, older and/or economically disadvantaged, you won’t reach most of them in the U.S. if you are only making content accessible to smartphones.
As Cindy Krum pointed out earlier this year in her post on the uncertain state of the feature phone index, there are still many feature phone users out there, in the US and worldwide.
IDC reports that, in spite of the 10% decline in the feature phone market year over year, many feature phone users are holding on to their phones rather than upgrading to a smartphone. As a result, they forecast that feature phones will still comprise 61.6% of the total mobile phone market this year. And late last year, comScore reported that 5 of the top selling handsets in the US were feature phones.
You can make the case that certain audiences in the US can’t be reached with smartphone only targeting, but if your audience is global and you’re looking for reach, there’s really no arguing against building for feature phones.
Which Mobile Browsers Are Used By Feature Phones?
Opera Mini is the world’s most popular mobile browser, with Android a close second, and it’s mostly used by feature phone users. As of April 2012, there are 166 million Opera Mini users globally, which is over 20% of the total global market. What’s more, these are active Internet users, having viewed over 109 billion pages in April 2012. They also search more than the average user according to Opera (PDF), which makes them relevant to search marketers like us.
You may have heard about India’s milestone of having mobile traffic surpass desktop traffic. What you might not have heard is that Opera Mini is the preferred mobile browser in India, and that many mobile Web users in that country don’t use desktop Internet. In the US, we might eventually reach this milestone with our smartphone and tablet usage, but India reached it first using mainly feature phones.
Opera Mini does have support for media queries in its current version, but no previous versions. Therefore, if you want to optimize for Opera Mini users or most other feature phone users, it’s best not to use responsive Web design, but to follow Google’s guidelines for feature phone content and design your mobile content either using dynamic serving or separate URLs.
Make New Friends But Keep The Old
So what does this mean for you and your marketing campaigns?
First, if you want your site to be optimized for both feature phones and smartphones, don’t jump on the responsive Web design bandwagon just yet. Responsive Web design is great for smartphones (provided the user experience and goals are the same as they would be on the desktop), but Google doesn’t recommend it for feature phones.
So if you’re not targeting young, wealthy males in the United States exclusively, you should consider building a mobile user experience using dynamic serving or separate URLs. This type of experience, as Google says, works best for content that’s optimized for feature phones and smartphones.
Next, the growth of smartphones is great for our market, as more people search generally when they have a positive experience doing it, and smartphones provide exactly that.
As more people search from their mobile devices it will create opportunities for all who understand how to optimize for mobile search, as brands shift budgets or create new ones to get visibility in the channel.
It looks likely that smartphones and tablets will eventually replace feature phones in the market, but that time is definitely not today. If you’re optimizing for reach or for certain demographics, especially on a global scale, you can’t just build a site for smartphones and expect it to be enough.
Still confused? Use this simple decision tree for a guide to the right decision for your business in 2012:
Finally, there are things you can do to optimize for feature phone traffic today. Certainly following the Google guidelines is a great start, but don’t stop there. Cindy Krum has a number of tips for optimizing for feature phone traffic here, and Ankit Gupta, formerly a Google engineer, published slides from his talk at Google India Searchmasters ’09 here that’s still relevant to optimizing for feature phones. You can also watch the video of the talk, but be warned that the audio quality ironically sounds like it was recorded on a feature phone.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.