Whither the Search Engine in the Age of Mobile?

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The path to purchase ceased being linear some time ago, probably as soon as online-to-offline became a standard part of the marketing lexicon. But as mobile has begun to wield increasing influence over the shopping process — at home, on the go, and in-store — the path has grown even more convoluted, in part because search engines are no longer automatically the first resource to which consumers turn.

The latest evidence comes from a new study, “Local Search: Unleashing Opportunities for National Brands,” conducted by International Data Corporation (IDC) on behalf of YP. The two partners unveiled the research yesterday at an Advertising Week XII workshop in New York.

Slide1The key finding of the study, which polled 750 U.S. adults, boils down to one word: multiple. Almost of half of those surveyed (49 percent) who were looking locally for national products and services said they had conducted four or more search activities, while nearly one in four (24 percent) reported conducting six or more.

As is to be expected with today’s consumers, multiple also characterizes the number of devices they use. More than one-third (36 percent) said they used two or more devices (smartphone, tablet, laptop, or desktop). More than one-third (35 percent) also conducted local searches from multiple locations (home, work, shopping, on the go), while 27 percent indicated they added two or more offline searches to the mix — all further proof that today’s consumer is literally a moving target. “The customer journey is not a straight line anymore. Instead, today’s consumers are zigzagging,” said Karsten Weide, IDC program vice president for digital media and entertainment, in a release.

The preponderance of search activity continues to take place at home. The indices for home-based searches in the YP/IDC survey were higher across the board, regardless of device type (smartphone, tablet, laptop, desktop), and all roughly in the 80 to 90 percent range. Outside the home, smartphones were the common dominator, especially while shopping, where 57 percent of respondents said they used their devices.

But in spite of more search activity on more devices in more locations, to say nothing of the variety of searches, the survey found surprisingly less of something central to the process: search engine usage. Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of those polled said they started their searches outside a general search engine, resorting instead to vertical- or topic-specific sites.

The YP/IDC data doesn’t mean the majority of consumers have discarded Google et al altogether, but it does indicate that the mainline search engines aren’t necessarily their first port of call when they’re trying to find something. This goes back to the challenge of winning the local market: balancing sufficient reach and scale with specificity. It also speaks to greater fragmentation, a trend affecting seemingly every media channel.

The upside is marketers have more opportunities to intersect with consumers. The challenge is that keeping up with today’s searches means committing more time, attention, and resources than ever.

Images courtesy of YP/IDC.

Noah Elkin is Street Fight’s managing editor.