The difference between web search and mobile search

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Not all search platforms are created equal. Developers often find themselves using web-based information to guide their mobile marketing decisions. This is a common but avoidable misstep. According to Apple, 70% of all app downloads come from search. So, wasting valuable time and resources on web data for mobile success only leads to a dead end in all efforts to increase visibility and discoverability on an app store. At first glance, web and mobile users’ search queries have some similarities, but their respective search capabilities and platform-specific user behaviors vary significantly.

Understanding user behavior on the web and on mobile is essential to knowing how, why and what users are looking for. Yet these differences are sometimes difficult to identify based on a developer’s experience with web and mobile search behaviors.

Marketers and mobile developers need mobile-based data to guide their decisions. Using web data for mobile marketing decisions is a lot like using a fork instead of a spoon to eat soup; both have a purpose, but for very specific situations and reasons. Let’s take a closer look at some of these differences, so you can better understand the requirements for mobile-specific search to further guide your App Store Optimization (ASO) strategy.

Web queries

Google Ads Keyword Planner is an invaluable tool for search engine optimization (SEO). Google Ads Keyword Planner uses three categorical descriptions for all user search queries. Web queries, by nature, are usually a place where users insert as much information and keywords as possible. And let’s be honest, we’ve all seen large amounts of text equal to the size of the dictionary in a search bar. Moreover, users expect precise and hyper-specific information directly derived from their search query. How, what and why users search for what they are looking for depends on a multitude of factors; However, Google Ads Keyword Planner ranks three different search queries across web platforms:

The “Do” transactional request

Transactional “Do” requests typically include an actionable verb, such as “buy a red dress”, “record a live video”, or “buy a concert ticket”. Users expect to find results that enable them to perform the desired action, and they expect the results to be relevant to their needs associated with that action.

The request for information “Know”

The “Know” information query search is a reference for users looking for specific and relevant information regarding their search query. As the name aptly suggests, a “Know” query typically sounds like “retail store near me”, “who sings ‘everyone’s working for the weekend'”, or “sanitation standards for nail salons in Idaho”. Users performing this type of search query expect to find a plethora of information that directly answers the question they have and any possible additional information related to the query.

The “Go” navigation request

In the “Go” navigational search query, users expect their search query to help them “go” to the desired destination or web platform. Users can search for general terms or more specific terms to perform a “Go” query. Typically, a “Go” query looks something like “Lady Gaga’s Facebook Page”, “Chicago Bulls Merchandise Store”, or “Free Online Games”. While some of us may be guilty of searching Google for “Google” from time to time, “Go” searches are one of the most popular search queries among users who want direct access to what they search simply and easily.

Web search queries as a whole are simultaneously more specific and often employ more terms and phrases. Unlike mobile search queries, web search queries can be longer, more specific, and longer to identify exact user phrases and terminology. On mobile, search queries are short, to the point, and generally have to do more with a lot less.

Mobile search queries

A study reveals that 80% of all search queries in the App Store fall between 2-3 word phrases, a big difference from the often long and drawn out web search query. As you can see, mobile searches and web searches are actually very different. What works for the web just doesn’t work for mobile.

The fundamental difference is in the intent of the user; this helps explain why user search behaviors often differ between web and mobile search queries. For mobile, developers and mobile marketers need to strike a balance between highlighting app functionality and app branding to adequately capture user intent.

To illustrate, let’s look at the following example for a popular, hypothetical application called Widget King. Widget King is an application that allows users to buy and sell valuable widgets and allows them to exchange their widgets for concert tickets, gift cards and other experiences or interesting things.

On paper, Widget King might assume that their user search queries look like this:

Search queries: “buy and sell widget”, “buy widget”, “sell widget”, and “buy widget app”

However, it’s important to remember that mobile search queries should capture user intent. In reality, users may actually search more attributed to some of Widget King’s specific offerings, or they may use completely different terminology:

Search queries: “buy a gift card”, “widget exchange”, “concert widget”, and “redeem my widget”

But how exactly can mobile marketers and developers target these terms? How should they know what terms their users are using? Although it can be difficult to capture user intent, the ASO process allows users to more accurately identify the search queries, terms, and words that best match their application with the user intent. ASO provides more discovery, visibility, and relevance on an app store, much like what SEO does for web pages.

Switch to mobile

Users initiate a search query on mobile expecting web-like results, so it is up to marketers and mobile developers to deliver these expected results in the best way possible. Web results often have the ability to target adjacent terms without the restriction of a limited search query population.

Breaking away from web search data is hard to do, but it’s one of the biggest changes a mobile developer can make to improve app performance. Mobile app developers and marketers can effectively increase their visibility and organic performance on app stores simply by changing their search data strategy. However, moving to mobile data requires developers to assess their audience’s search behaviors at a more granular level.

To do this, developers need to capture user intent by optimizing their app’s metadata assets to include all relevant terms a user might search for. While capturing user intent is fundamental to effective mobile search targeting, developers should always aim for relevance and target market refinement. If a developer decides to target a wide range of terms and keywords that are unrelated to their app or brand, they lose the opportunity to increase their visibility to an audience most receptive to their value and its features.

Mobile search requires app metadata and keywords to do a lot more with a lot less. User intent is the fundamental difference between web search and mobile search. So mobile marketers and developers need to go beyond web data to more accurately and effectively capture their users.

Dave Bell is CEO of gum cube.

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