Every month Google delivers results for about 50bn mobile searches, and in May the search giant revealed that mobile devices produce more searches than their desktop cousins in 10 countries, including the US and Japan.

So it's no surprise that marketers are paying a lot of attention to mobile search, from ensuring that their sites live up to Google's mobile-friendliness standards to pouring money into mobile paid search.

But has the importance of mobile search been overestimated?

Charles Arthur, a freelance journalist who previously served as technology editor of The Guardian, recently published a blog post with an attention-grabbing headline: 50% of people do zero searches per day on mobile.

The math seems straightforward: if there are 50bn mobile searches per month and 1.8bn smartphones in use outside of China, the mean number of searches per device per day is .92.

Arthur's estimate mean figure for desktop – 1.23 – doesn't seem much higher, but his model suggests that 93% of desktop devices produce at least one search per day while just 47% of mobile devices produce at least one search per day.

For Arthur, the conclusion is simple: "Search isn't the gatekeeper to mobile."

Mobile search is a real problem for Google: people don’t do it nearly as much as you suspect it would like.

But there’s no obvious way of changing that behaviour while users are so addicted to apps on their phones – and there’s no sign of that changing any time soon, no matter whether news organisations wish people would use mobile sites instead (clue: most people get their news via Facebook online).

Obviously, it's possible that Arthur's model is way off, and therefore his conclusions are incorrect.

But others have come to similar conclusions and a number of his observations about search behavior on mobile are intuitive.

Marketers need to pay attention to apps

One of those observations is that mobile consumers use apps more and browsers less. "People do not, in general, type 'Facebook' or 'Gmail' into their mobile browser’s search bar. They go to the relevant app – Facebook or email," Arthur explains.

This behaviour is surely a big reason why mobile searches have been behind desktop for a long time, even though smartphones’ use has rocketed, and time spent on them is greater than for PCs, and they’ve been nudging a comparable installed base for some time.

Unfortunately for marketers, build an app is no panacea. The most popular apps account for the vast majority of time spent in apps.

Competition in the app stores is fierce and marketers must contend with high churn and user acquisition costs. For these reasons, some companies are throwing in the towel on their apps.

But that doesn't mean marketers shouldn't look to apps to reach mobile consumers. Indeed they should – just not their own.

Smaller, local businesses should look at their presence in the apps consumers might use to discover businesses like their own.

These might include apps like those offered by review services like Yelp. Having a strong Facebook presence can also pay dividends, as Facebook's mobile app is the most popular in the US.

Larger brands also have opportunity to put mobile eggs in baskets other than Google's.

The past several years have seen the emergence of a plethora of in-app ad products, and some of the most popular mobile apps, such as Instagram, Pinterest and Snapchat, have been particularly active in working to develop innovative mobile-specific ad formats.

Wither mobile search?

Marketers should be aware of the fact that behavior around and frequency of mobile search could be different than desktop search, and some might even find value in considering that all their efforts around search – organic and paid – are related but not directly connected.

But despite the popularity of apps and the importance of using them to reach mobile consumers, it would be unwise to write mobile search off even if it ultimately can't deliver in the same fashion as desktop search.

Patricio Robles

Published 26 October, 2015 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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