Why Smartphones and Tablet Searches are Longer than Desktop
Common sense tells us that online searches initiated on mobile devices would tend to be shorter and more concise than those initiated on a desktop. However, in this case, common sense is dead wrong. Our analysis actually found the exact opposite to be true. In case after case, across industries and countries, searches conducted on mobile devices were longer, on average, than those conducted on desktops.
The chart below shows the average word and character length, by device, of searches resulting in clicks to sites in key industries. The analysis revealed, for example, that the average desktop-initiated search that resulted in a visit to a Food or Beverage site is 2.2 words or 13.8 characters in length, on average.
In case after case, across industries and countries, searches conducted on mobile devices were longer, on average, than those conducted on desktops.
Compare that to the average mobile-initiated search Food or Beverage search that measured 2.5 words or 15.5 characters in length, a relative increase of 16 percent and 13 percent, respectively, in search length.
A further analysis looked at the device breakdown by number of words. Among searches driving traffic to the Food and Beverage industry again, we observed that 56 percent of one-word searches were initiated on a mobile device (recall that the average devices split for this industry overall is 72% mobile/28 percent desktop).
Between two words searches, however, 73 percent were mobile-initiated, as were 77 percent of three word searches and 79 percent of four word searches. Among food and beverage-focused searches consisting of five or more words, 82 percent were conducted on a mobile device. This same pattern repeated across every industry analyzed providing further evidence that this is a solid trend.
Let’s now take a look at a specific set of searches focused on mattresses to further illustrate this pattern. We looked at 88 search variations including the word “mattress” or “mattresses” that resulted in a visit to a US Retail site between April 10 and May 7. Among those variations, we measured the number of characters and the share of each search variation that was conducted on a mobile device.
The chart below shows a clear trend that as the share of searches conducted on a mobile device declines, so too does the number of characters in the search. A few specific searches are called out, such as the fact that 90 percent of searches for “Serta memory foam mattress topper,” a variation measuring 32 characters in length, were conducted on a mobile device.
Meanwhile, just 56 percent of searches for the eight-character search “mattresses” were mobile-initiated. Of course, there are shorter variations that skew more heavily mobile and longer variations that skew more heavily desktop, however the overall trend is quite clear that the more words or characters in a search, the more likely that search is to have been conducted on a mobile device.
What’s Driving Longer Searches on Mobile?
The rapid rise of mobile devices to search dominance has consumers also constantly changing their behaviors as they adopt new ways to search. During this period of transition, there’s been relatively little industry research done exploring the differences in length of searches across device.
There are a few things we observe in the data, however, that can help us to better understand why mobile-initiated searches tend to be longer. For starters, demographics is likely playing a role in driving this pattern.
In the UK, for example, the average search that results in a visit to a non-map travel site is 1.9 words in length. Those who perform a travel search exceeding four words in length are 22 percent more likely than average to be digital natives. Digital natives are those consumers between the ages of 18 and 34 who largely grew up with the internet and mobile devices at their disposal. This generation seem to have an almost innate skill for finding the information they need online.
Part of that may include a tendency to perform longer, more specific searches, even from a mobile device. Conducting longer searches, they may have found, gets them the information they are seeking from a single search rather than needing to perform multiple subsequent queries with refinements made until they obtain the information they need.
Another factor that could be driving up word counts of searches performed on mobile devices is the increased use of question words in mobile searches. Searches that start with words like “how,” “can,” “when” and “are,” for instance, generally skewed more heavily mobile than average in our analysis. The simple addition of these words to a search query will naturally add length to a search.
A 2013 study conducted by researchers at Microsoft and the University of Illinois found a similar trend where searches conducted on Bing were longer searches when initiated on a mobile device than when initiated on a desktop.
Since this analysis, smart mobile keyboards with predictive text capabilities have arrived on the scene, adding another tool that users can lean on to perform longer, more detailed search queries on a mobile device.
The authors of that report suggested that query auto-suggestion played an important role in driving up the search length of mobile searches. Specifically, the report revealed that mobile users in their analysis were more likely to rely on auto suggestion which, at least by the Bing search engine, often suggests longer queries. They posit that the increased reliance on this feature is due to the difficulty of typing on a mobile device.
Since this analysis, smart mobile keyboards with predictive text capabilities have arrived on the scene adding another tool that users can lean on to perform longer, more detailed search queries on a mobile device.
Voice and the Future of Search
Voice search, already commonly used by Apple’s Siri, Google Now and Microsoft’s Cortana, may be the next technology to have a major impact on mobile search—or even device-less search. Connected devices like Amazon’s Echo and Google’s yet to be released Home smart speakers are providing consumers with ways to perform search queries and get information without the use of a screen.
As these devices become more common and as virtual assistants become more advanced, consumers will become more comfortable interacting with a browser—if one could even call it that in this context—by voice. One likely result is that searches will become even longer and more conversational in tone reflecting the way we speak rather than the way we type.
Marketers should be monitoring this trend closely to ensure that they are able to capitalize on these rapidly changing behaviors and ensure that the content they deliver as a result are optimized for the channel, whether it’s a smartphone, smart TV or even a virtual assistant.