The Mobile Search Tipping Point: A Global Perspective

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We knew this day would come. Google finally announced this week that mobile search volume has overtaken desktop search, not only in the U.S., but in 10 countries including Japan. “This presents a tremendous opportunity,” the announcement goes on to say, “for marketers to reach people throughout all the new touchpoints of a consumer’s path to purchase.” The post appears on the AdWords blog, with a focus on search advertising. But the mobile shift is having an equally dramatic impact on local, which has become an increasingly smartphone-based activity.

We might pause a moment to consider the global nature of the mobile search phenomenon. Smartphones seem ubiquitous today in the United States, but penetration is actually just a small majority at 57% of the population, compared with 85% for mobile phones in general, according to 2014 Consumer Barometer data sponsored by Google. (Pew Research, however, puts the figure at 64%.) That same 85% figure represents the penetration of smartphones all by themselves in Singapore, followed closely by South Korea at 80%. Hong Kong and China aren’t far behind at 74% and 70% respectively, all four countries easily outpacing U.S. adoption.

Asia, in short, has become a mobile-first continent. In fact, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, China, and South Korea all have higher adoption of smartphones than computers. All of this translates to a considerable volume of mobile search activity across the continent.

European countries are mostly on par with the U.S., but the U.K. and Australia are out ahead with smartphone adoption at 68% and 66%. In the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia stand alongside many Asian countries at 78% and 77% respectively, and Israel beats the U.S. at 62%. South America and Africa have the lowest penetration of smartphones, though mobile phone usage is exploding, especially in Africa, and transforming local economies and lines of communication. One expects smartphone growth will soon follow suit.

The global dominance of smartphones establishes, as Google’s announcement indicates, a new and different kind of marketing opportunity. As I noted above, only 57% of the U.S. population own a smartphone. Compare that with the 72% of the population who own a computer and you begin to see how important the transition to mobile has become in terms of total share of consumer attention. Mobile searches could not outpace desktop unless people spent a lot more time on mobile than any other device – which in fact they do. U.S. consumers spend more time on mobile devices today than they do watching television, a remarkable average of 4.7 hours per day. Similar trends can be found across the globe; in Germany for instance, smartphone owners unlock their phones an average of 33 times per day and spend 59% of their total time online on their smartphones, compared to 41% for computers.

We also know that consumers who are looking for local information now use smartphones more often than any other device. 2015 research from the LSA shows that the device most commonly used for local lookups is the smartphone at 49%, followed by the desktop or laptop at 40% and the tablet at 11%. Just one year ago, the same study put computers at 49% and smartphones at 42%.

The LSA data relates to U.S. consumer activity. I don’t believe there’s a comprehensive global study out there of local search as a segment of total search activity on mobile, but it’s safe to assume that local lookups form a significant segment of search activity in multiple countries.

As a corollary, we can point to Consumer Barometer data indicating, for instance, that the majority of consumers in most Asian countries use the Internet to do product research, comparison shopping, and searching before an immediate purchase. Online to offline as a percentage of total online purchases stands at nearly the same figure for Singapore (55%) as for the U.S. (57%). Given the overwhelming dominance of smartphones in countries like Singapore, we can assume most of that activity is taking place on mobile.

Oversimplifying these trends should be avoided. Different countries use laptops, smartphones, and mobile phones in different ways. In Saudi Arabia, 72% of consumers use smartphones for social networking, compared with only 27% in France. In Singapore, 47% of smartphone owners use their phones to look up maps and directions, compared with only 15% in China. Still, the smartphone by its nature is portable, location-based, and focused on immediacy. Whether local search is a major segment of consumer activity or not today in a given country, there’s little question that it will be, and soon.

Damian Rollison is Director of Market Insights at SOCi. SOCi is the leading CoMarketing Cloud for multi-location enterprises. They empower nearly 1,000 brands to automate and scale their marketing efforts across all locations and digital channels.