With B2B and B2C customers increasingly using their smartphones to browse for, shop for, and buy the products and services they need, marketers have increasingly turned to mobile search as a major component of their pay-per-click ad campaigns.

This makes sense given that 100% of search volume growth in 2013 came from mobile and the category overall is expected to bypass desktop search sometime this year.

But recent data shows that many marketers are unhappy with the performance of their mobile search activities. They’re not seeing the ROI they’ve come to expect from search overall, and increasingly worry that their search marketing activities aren’t working. Which begs the question: does mobile search work?

The answer unequivocally is yes.

So why then are so many marketers dissatisfied with mobile search? Why is it that they’re not getting the results they expect? What makes them think that mobile search doesn’t work? Read on and see.

Difference Between Mobile and Desktop Search

Mobile search has a few major differences from traditional desktop search. First, due to the limited screen real estate available to your customers, fewer placements exist for search ads to appear. So instead of the six or seven or ten typical ad placements we’re accustomed to on desktop search, mobile provides at most two or three opportunities for your ads to appear. The good news is these ads typically have a lower cost-per-click than desktop ads. But the reduced conversion rates so typical among mobile customers often drives up your overall cost of acquisition.

More importantly, analytics for tracking mobile search aren’t as robust as desktop search. Put more simply, mobile search doesn’t suffer from a performance problem; it suffers from an attribution problem.

For instance, data strongly suggests that mobile overall, including mobile search, leads to increased call volume and foot traffic for many businesses. The problem is tracking the performance of these channels—voice and foot traffic—is much harder than we’ve grown accustomed to on the web. Much, much harder. But neither is impossible and gathering any data about those activities will provide deeper insights into your customers’ behaviors than most marketers accurately collect today.

What Can You Do?

To ensure that you’re crediting mobile search effectively, you must take the following steps:

  • Make sure you’ve got a mobile-friendly site. Obviously, your customers won’t convert well if they can’t take the actions they want on your site. Look at responsive design to provide an appropriate experience for your mobile customers.
  • Track click-to-call conversions. Both Google Adwords and Bing Ads offer effective tools for tracking call activity from your ads and from your website. Make sure you’re using these tools to track call volume. While these only measure whether the customer called, not whether they converted, you can marry this data with your POS or CRM data (or, frankly, pencil and paper tracking by your sales staff), to determine what percentage of calls were sales-related vs. customer support, scheduling, directions, or some other activity. Use this data to appropriately credit call volume to your organic and paid search activity from mobile.
  • Track in-store or foot traffic. Tracking mobile search activity to in-store is significantly more challenging than tracking calls or online conversions. It’s expected that Google will begin offering device tracking soon, which will determine the physical location of your customers’ devices and enable you to determine whether your ads led to in-store activity. Obviously, potential privacy concerns may limit both when this happens and the data available to marketers. In the meantime, continue to use coupons or offer codes in your mobile promotions to track activity through to conversion. And remember, the offer code doesn’t require a discount. You can use them solely to measure the effectiveness of your advertising.

If you’re offering apps to your customers, you can also track mobile app downloads, in-app purchase, and in-app activity for their contribution to sales.

Finally, start moving away from last-click attribution and begin exploring more robust attribution models within your favorite analytics tool. I’m particularly partial to time-decay attribution as a starting point, which gives more credit to each action closer to the final conversion. This makes sense to me logically as, if the earlier actions worked, the customer would have converted. With an appropriate attribution model in place, you can view your mobile segments independently to see exactly how much value mobile search provides – and how much value you’re discounting today.


Mobile search will only continue to grow in the coming months as more customers shift away from desktop activity. Your major competitors are all likely exploring how to make mobile search work better for their business. Given the volume of mobile search in play today, it’s unlikely that it doesn’t work, and far more likely that it’s not credited properly. Provide your customers a positive mobile experience and use the tools available to you to attribute mobile search’s performance accurately. Mobile search does work, no doubt about it. Or, it does as long as you do the work to measure it correctly.