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Mobile Searcher Behavior Should Drive Design & SEO

To better understand mobile searcher behaviors, researchers who work at universities and the commercial web search engines use a variety of methodologies. One common methodology is a large-scale log analysis. Log file data provides a large amount of information within a specified period of time. Log file data can tell us what people search for and how people search, and even how searchers interact with search engine results pages (SERPS).

But log file data does not tell us why people search—their goals and the intentions behind their keywords. Other methodologies, such as usability testing and diary research, reveal information about user/searcher goals and motivations. With usability testing, researchers can determine a number of items such as:

  • Whether or not test participants complete their desired tasks
  • If participants were able to complete their desired tasks, how efficiently they were able to complete it (time, number of steps, keystrokes, etc.)
  • Roadblocks encountered
  • Possible workarounds (error prevention)
  • User satisfaction

Diary studies are a methodology in which participants record the dates, times, location, and context of search tasks. These three methodologies combined have revealed some noteworthy differences between mobile searcher behavior and desktop searcher behavior.

Characteristics Of Mobile Searchers

With mobile devices, the searcher’s context heavily influences informational needs. For example:

  • Where is the searcher located?
  • What is the searcher doing at the time that the information need arises?
  • Who is the searcher talking to?
  • Does the searcher need the information now or later?
  • What information does the searcher need in order to complete his or her desired task?

Location and time limitations (context) heavily influence mobile search queries.

What are some examples of geographical influence? Sometimes, the mobile searcher wants to find a physical location and directions to that specific destination. Mobile searchers often want information about something near the vicinity to where they live or work. And the answer to a question depends on the searcher’s physical location, such as, “Where is the nearest Japanese restaurant?” or “What is the fastest way to get to O’Hare airport?”

I admit that I was a bit surprised by one of the most popular mobile query types: trivia. Trivia can be categorized as an informational query (quick fact). These types of queries often arise based on social interaction—the people a mobile searcher is talking to at the time of the mobile search query. When you are optimizing your site for mobile search queries, here are some things to consider putting on your site and on local search listings:

  • Directions
  • Points of interest
  • Business hours
  • Phone number
  • Quick facts

One of my physician clients in a large city had a novel approach to both local and mobile search. He put maps and directions to the nearest parking garages to his office. Not only did these pages help his site for mobile and local search, it also helped his organic search listings as well as increased his brand and credibility. Also, in terms of search usability, people often overlook the obvious. If a person has a phone, then an obvious item to show on a mobile web page is a phone number. That way, a mobile user can touch the phone number and dial your business instantaneously. When we build mobile interfaces, we often make different pages for mobile devices than we do for desktop devices. In the mobile design, the phone number is featured more prominently.

Search Behaviors And The Mobile Interface

Speaking of obvious, many interface designers and search professionals often forget that the screen on a cell phone or a smartphone is considerably smaller than a desktop screen. Therefore, the amount of information that can be shown on mobile devices is much smaller—not only in terms of search results but also in terms of website content.

How does the smaller interface affect mobile search use? For one, it takes longer for a mobile searcher to type in keywords. Therefore, mobile searchers report high satisfaction with the keyword auto-suggest feature. Mobile searchers’ perception is that their task completion is faster with this feature.

As a designer/developer, I understand that it might be simpler to develop a single website and use one style sheet for desktop computers and another style sheet for mobile devices. However, due to the considerable differences in mobile searcher goals and behaviors, I tend not recommend this. I tend to find that a mobile version of a site needs to be considerably different than a desktop site, with a slightly different information architecture and everything.

For those of you who have different mobile and desktop sites, what are the differences you see? Do you find that you get better results with the same website, different style sheet? Or do you tailor your web content to different interfaces?


For those of you who wish to read more about mobile search research, here are some great resources. And for those of you who are interested in mobile search optimization? I highly recommend Cindy Krum’s excellent book, Mobile Marketing: Finding Your Customers No Matter Where They Are.

  • Church, K. and Smyth, Barry (2009). “Understanding the Intent Behind Mobile Information Needs.” In Mobile HCI ’08: Proceedings of the 10th International Symposium on Mobile Human-Computer Interaction, ACM, 493–494.
  • Kamvar, M. and Baluja, S. (2008). “Query Suggestions for Mobile Search: Understanding Usage Patterns.” In Proc. CHI 2008, 1013– 1016.
  • Kamvar, M. and Baluja, S. (2007). “Deciphering Trends in Mobile Search.” Computer. vol.40, no.8., IEEE, 58-62.
  • Kamvar, M. and Baluja, S. (2006). “A Large Scale Study of Wireless Search Patterns.” Proc. CHI 2006, ACM, 701-709.
  • Sohn, Timothy et al. (2008). “A Diary Study of Mobile Information Needs.” In CHI ’08: Proceeding of the twenty-sixth annual SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems, ACM, 433–442.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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