October 24, 2011

Why Mobile Is Spinning Our New Invisible Web

(Read in entirety at Search Engine Land. Published 2011)

It’s been about a decade now since marketers woke up to the reality of the deep “invisible Web” – that mass of dynamic content search engines couldn’t see, index, or associate with keyword search.

Remember the days when engines bragged about how many pages they indexed? Seems like forever ago. Search was new, the sitemap protocol didn’t exist, and achieving indexation through URL manipulation alone was basically enough to be a competitive edge.

Those days are long gone – search engines, marketers, and site architecture have all arguably overcome basic visibility challenges. And yet, for different reasons, there is a new invisible Web emerging – the mobile Internet.

In this and upcoming columns, I’ll explore this new invisible Web, and what I think it means for mobile search, social, and app marketers to once again focus on making content visible.

Measuring The Invisible Mobile Web

I was intrigued earlier this year when Google said 79% of advertisers do not provide mobile-formatted content. I was curious whether that holds true of the leading retailers in the US – who have the most to gain, or lose, through mobile commerce. Indeed, I’ve written columns here at Search Engine Land previously in order to raise awareness of this topic.

So in Q2 of this year, my company embarked on a research project. I wanted to quantify just how accessible mobile content was for smartphone consumers of the top 100 retailers in the US.

To answer this, we developed a mobile crawler analysis technology, which we call Mobile Site Analyzer (and have since made publicly available). We used this tool to request a sample of approximately 100 of the most important page URLs for each brand (derived from the Internet Retailer 100 list).

These pages were typically the “hub” pages, like category and subcategory pages, but included product pages as well. Our theory was like a mobile version of PageRank – if a smartphone user were to randomly select site URL entry points, we wanted to measure the likelihood that they’ll get a relevant mobile-friendly site experience.

In all, we crawled about 6,350 URLs from leading brands for the analysis.

Basically the Mobile Site Analyzer crawler first requested each of these desktop URLs and recorded the file size of each page. Then it requested the same URLs again as a simulated Android browser, then as an iPhone browser, and finally as a BlackBerry browser, comparing the file size of the content received against the original desktop URL. (A few brands didn’t permit the crawl so they were left out of the analysis. A few others used javascripts redirections which the crawler couldn’t easily detect.)

For the remaining 75 retailers we then deduced, recorded and spot-checked whether the content received for each URL was in fact a “mobile friendly” and contextually relevant page, and tallied each brand’s results by device type.

One-in-Five Chance Of Getting Mobile Content

What we found was interesting. I’ll share with you our two key findings. (Visit the Pure Oxygen blog to view the detailed results of the mobile retail site analysis either by brand or by retail category).

First, 60% of leading retail brands did in fact provide a mobile-formatted site, and just 40% do not. This was much higher than the “average” advertisers Google talked about, where 21% do provide mobile content and 79% do not. But even though 60% of leading retail brands provided some level of mobile-formatted content, how easy is it to access the mobile content?

After all, if we learned anything from search marketing the last 10 years, surely it is the fact that each page is an entry point. We learned that consumers don’t want to be forced through our home page hierarchy to find content; they crave shortcuts, like keywords, to get faster, direct access to the relevant content.

In other words, we learned you must make deep pages directly accessible (dare I say, more mobile) from channels like search engines. Fail to do that, and you’re part of the invisible Web.

Yet that’s exactly what we find on the emerging mobile Internet. Of the 6,300+ webpages we analyzed, 67% of the pages that belong to brands offering mobile content fail to recognize and connect iPhone, Android, and Blackberry users with relevant mobile page versions.

So, our second finding was that mobile consumers have about a one-in-five chance (19%) of getting relevant, mobile-formatted content when navigating leading US retail brands from their smartphone. Put another way, 81% of retail pages, when requested from a smartphone, disconnect you from relevant mobile content.

Indeed, the invisible Web appears to be going mobile.

The news isn’t all bad however. Some brands are doing a terrific job of connecting users to mobile content when they request deep entry point pages from smartphones. REI, Footlocker, and Lowe’s are a few that we called out for exceptional accessibility in our analysis.

Figure 1: A mobile search for “mountain bikes” connects with REI’s mobile version of the mountain bike category page.


Here’s the thing: site content is destined to diverge for each device type (meaning your mobile site product page will eventually be different from the desktop product page, and different again from the tablet page, and again from the Internet TV version, and again from the version you access on your fridge, etc). At that point, you may not have a mobile page for each desktop page, or vice versa.

But let’s be practical. What about right now?

Right now, standing on the edge of the 2011 retail shopping season, this invisible Web is affecting mobile search quality: Your desktop site URLs, after all, are what engines index, rank, and display as organic listings for mobile searchers to click. That means every indexed desktop page right now doubles as your entry point for mobile searchers.

When 81% of those pages break the mobile connection, you have frustrated mobile shoppers, this of course kills conversion. Lower conversion means reduced payoff, and lower ROI on mobile investments. All brands are resource-constrained, but this issue will predict how the rich will get richer, and the poor will get poorer in our mobile age.

Because unlike a decade ago, what makes the mobile Internet invisible (and problematic) isn’t just a lack of indexation in search engines; that problem looks simple in comparison. Now the issue is whether that content is accessible and optimized for all the shortcuts we lean on as mobile consumers: from keyword search, to social sites, to SMS messages, to email, inter-app linkages, to QR…

Call it splinternet, site fragmentation, content divergence. The mobile imperative is about hyperconnectivity. The alternative is invisibility. Next time we’ll dig into a few of the issues making the mobile Web invisible to mobile search and social users.

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