Google’s growing problem: 50% of people do zero searches per day on mobile


Amit Singhal in 2011 showing a comparison of search volumes from mobile and “early desktop years”. Photo by Niall Kennedy on Flickr.

Amit Singhal, Google’s head of search, let slip a couple of interesting statistics at the Re/Code conference – none more so than that more than half of all searches incoming to Google each month are from mobile. (That excludes tablets.)

This averages out to less than one search per smartphone per day. We’ll see why in a bit.

First let’s throw in some more publicly available numbers.
• more than 100bn searches made per month to Google (total of desktop/ tablet/ mobile).
• about 1.4bn monthly active Google Android devices. (Source: Sundar Pichai, Nexus launch.)
• about 1 billion monthly active Google Play users. (Source: Sundar Pichai, Nexus launch.)
• about 1.5bn PCs in use worldwide.
• about 400m iPhones in use worldwide. Probably about 100m of those are in China. (Analyst estimates.)
• about 100m other smartphones in use (70m Windows Phones, 30m BlackBerrys)
• the mobile search market only generates a third as much revenue as the desktop. (Source: Rob Leathern, via the IAB 2014 report.)

Singhal had already said in July that mobile was larger than desktop in 10 countries; now it’s for the whole world. Google’s numbers effectively exclude China, of course, since Google doesn’t have any presence there. (Android phones and iPhones both use Baidu, the local search engine, as the default there; Google is banned from the mainland, and though people can use it, they overwhelmingly don’t.)

So let’s put these numbers together.
• In all, there are 1400 Google Android + 400 iPhones – 100 iPhones inside China + 100 other = 1.8bn smartphones in use outside China.
• 50bn mobile searches per month = 50bn per 30-day period

Today’s not the day to search

Calculate! 50bn / (1.8bn * 30) = 0.925 mobile searches per day. (Even if you exclude the Windows Phones and BlackBerrys, you still get 0.98 mobile searches per day.)

That’s right – the average (“mean”) person does less than one Google search on mobile per day. The mode (most common number) will be below that too. Over a 30-day period, the mean number of mobile Google searches is 27.8.

For desktop+tablet search, you get roughly the same figure – assume 1.5bn PCs and 300m tablets. But not all of those devices are available to make searches: many PCs are sitting in corporate environments where they aren’t connected to the internet, or can’t be used to make Google searches: think of all the machines in call centres, or functioning to run shop tills, or in factories. They reduce the potential base that can be used to make queries, and so ramp up the real average of per-active-PC/tablet monthly queries.

On the basis that
• the world PC installed base is split roughly 60-40 between corporate and personal users, so 900m and 600m
• guessing that 50% of those corporate machines, ie 450m, can’t make Google searches

then the total number of PCs/tablets available to make Google queries is 600m personal PCs + 450m corporate PCs + 300m tablets, or 1,350m devices.

Do the maths on 50bn searches per 30-day month across 1,350m devices and you get 37 searches per month, or 1.23 searches per day on average. The mode (most common figure) is likely to be 1, but the median (point where you have half as many behind as in front) will be higher. Probably not much higher – this will be an asymmetric distribution, where most of the (in)action is on the low end, so it may look like a Poisson or Pareto function.

Desktop: steady as she goes

This is my rough model of how search distribution might look, generated by plugging figures we know into a Pareto generator and then doing a distribution function for N = integer number of searches per day.

Here’s how it looks for the desktop, using a mode (most common) of 0.9 searches per day and mean of 1.23:

Per-user searches on desktop on Google

Estimated profile of number of searches per day per person on Google on desktop.

What this is saying is that on any given day you get about 55% of people doing just one search, a bit less than 15% doing two searches, just under 5% doing four searches, and so on. Small proportions, but big absolute numbers. And who does what searches isn’t fixed; so someone who did zero searches yesterday might do 10 tomorrow. But equally, the 10-searcher yesterday does none or one or four today. And so on.

(It took some experimentation to get this shape; using a higher mode meant that the number doing zero searches was itself zero, which doesn’t make sense: there must be some people who by accident or design don’t ever hit Google during a day. Here, the proportion of users doing zero searches per day is 6.5%, which seems reasonable.)

Here’s how it breaks out when you look at cumulative percentages:

Google searches on desktop

My model suggests that most people don’t do much searching, but nearly everyone does some.

Note that lots of people don’t do many searches, but huge numbers of people do some searching. Further confirmation: the data release from AOL in 2006, which was just for desktop users, was “~20m records from ~650,000 users over three months” which translates to an average of 31 records per person over that 90-day period, or one-third of a query per day. AOL users in 2006 might not be directly comparable to Google users today, but it’s a useful check that the numbers here are probably broadly correct.

Incidentally, a lot of those present-day searches will be very low complexity. Watch people use a desktop. The most common Google query is “Facebook”. Probably the next most common? “Yahoo”, “Gmail” and “Hotmail”. People literally type those into the Google search box, or their browser search bar, to get to those sites. To a technical audience that’s stunning – why would someone do that? – but it’s observable behaviour. Remember the AOL data leak in 2006? Data there showed that some people used to just hit “Search” when the text box was empty which in turn meant that some advertisers got AdWords hits on the phrase “search terms” (which used to be the text in the box).

Mobile: all change

However on mobile, things are different. 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. 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.

Thus where someone using a desktop/laptop might fulfil their “average” one or two searches per day by typing “Facebook” when they open their browser, on mobile that doesn’t happen because it doesn’t need to happen; they just open the app.

For Google, that means it’s losing out, even though Google search is front and centre on every Android phone (as per Google’s instructions as part of its Mobile Application Device Agreement, MADA). People don’t, on average, search very much on mobile. The miracle of Google, in retrospect, is building a multi-billion dollar business by accreting millions of rare actions – people doing searches and then clicking on ads. Of course, Google has helped that latter activity by filling the top of its search results page with ads, and making them harder to distinguish from search results. But it’s still a hell of an achievement.

I tried modelling what search activity probably looks like on mobile: I used a mean = 0.925 (as per Singhal) and mode = 0.5. The mode must be below the mean because of the long tail of higher values; 0.5 is a guess, but moving it around doesn’t have a large effect. This gives a median of 0.94, close to the mean, which you’d also expect.

Google mobile search modelled

If mobile searching follows a power law, it might look like this.

You can see that (if we allow these assumptions, which I think are reasonable – remember that they’re based on Google’s own data) then only 5% of users do more than seven searches per day on average. That’s very like the desktop scenario.

Mobile search percentage

As on desktop most people don’t do more than 7 searches – but most people also don’t do one search.

But here’s where things are suddenly very different from the desktop: although the proportion doing more than seven searches per day is about the same (5% or so), you have a far greater number who don’t ever get beyond zero.

Incidentally, this echoes Horace Dediu’s analysis from April 2014, when he noted how the internet population was growing rapidly, but Google’s revenues from non US/UK sources weren’t: US/UK users seemed to generate about $86/yr, while those outside that space generated only $12/yr. (This picture might be distorted by Google’s tax arrangements, of course.)

So there is the problem for Google: the PC base is static or even falling, while the number of people holding smartphones is growing. But the latter group tends not to use search, and so doesn’t see its most profitable ads. (There are in-app ads, but it’s never been very clear how much revenue they generate compared to other search ads. One suspects if they were very lucrative for Google it would be touting its “run rate” from them.)

Hence Google pushes people to use the mobile web more; and also, notably, to expand beyond simple search into services such as Google Now, Now On Tap, and pretty much anything. Seen through that lens, the reorganisation of Google into Alphabet makes sense: it’s seeking to get as many potentially moneymaking new ideas fired off as soon as possible, while search and search revenues are still growing, and before the growth of mobile really pulls the averages down. Dediu, in the link above, notes that 2016 will probably mark the point where internet population growth begins levelling off. And most of the new additions will be mobile-only.

You can see that effect most clearly in data from Google’s financials, where it discusses the number of paid clicks it gets, and the cost-per-click. It doesn’t take much effort to combine the two together to get the “total payments per click”.

Google paid clicks, cost-per-click and product

Paid clicks up, CPC down. Source: Google financials.

What’s clear is that
(a) the number of paid clicks has zoomed up – increased nearly ninefold since the end of 2005 (where the graph starts)
(b) CPC is on a steady downward slope, despite Google’s best (and successful) efforts in mid-2011 to shore it up
(c) combining the two shows that revenue hasn’t increased nearly as fast as paid clicks. In other words, the new users and new platforms on which Google is available aren’t as valuable as the old ones.

In conclusion

So what do we conclude? 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).

This is a structural reality of how mobile is now. Buying Android and make it freely available was a defensive move to stop Microsoft being the gatekeeper to the mobile web (more in my book..).

But it turns out that search wasn’t actually the gatekeeper to mobile; having a well-stocked app store is. That’s where the searching really happens. Now Google faces the second stage of the mobile web. What will its answer be?

91 thoughts on “Google’s growing problem: 50% of people do zero searches per day on mobile

  1. As a developer who uses AdMob to generate revenue from in-app advertising, it’s easy to see that Google makes almost no money from their “new growth” mobile countries. Even if web search from “the next billion” users was an important use-case and used frequently, they don’t generate as much revenue. An ad click from the US/Germany/Japan/Taiwan can be worth from 5 cents to $1 depending on the day/season, but clicks from China/India/Brazil/Vietnam are worth fractions of a penny to maybe 1 penny. It will probably take a long time for Microsoft/Google/Amazon/Facebook to recover their investments from “the next billion” users.

  2. I am wondering how the other Google properties perform and will perform. That is Gmail, YouTube, Google Maps and the Play Store. Google recently announced native ads on Gmail. YouTube offers ads and subscriptions. My guess is that Google Maps and the Play Store will follow soon.

  3. It will be interesting to see if voice interfaces will help increase the number of searches on mobile. However many of the voice searches may result in direct answers rather than a traditional SERP with ads which may not help Google with this problem. And with Apple currently default to Bing for Siri web results, Google definitely has a challenge.

    • I don’t think voice search is a significant number even compared to the (comparatively) low number of searches per day on mobile. Data welcome as always.

      • I agree.. and voice and voice search is still a taboo, plus not technically advanced yet because of the lack of context technology

  4. I’d be more concerned with growth problems of social networks like facebook, the next AOL and the former MySpace where social networks will never make as much revenue as Google. Google is a utility, like water, we will always need to search no matter where we are. Google is also truly innovative to the core.

    • You assert that social networks “will never make as much revenue as Google”, but don’t explain why not. Facebook gets more of its revenue from mobile than desktop (which is reckoned to put it ahead of Google), for example, and so would be better fitted for a mostly-mobile world. If Google is a utility, should it be regulated like one? And do we only need to search on Google, or is search a fungible product, like water? And what does “innovative to the core” mean in this context, and if we can find a way to usefully define that, what difference does it make to the behaviour we’re seeing on mobile?

      • GOOG revenue: $70 Billion annual http://finance.yahoo.com/q/ks?s=GOOG+Key+Statistics

        Twiiter, facebook and all the social networks combined do not make that much. You can only be put in that kind of revenue position when your core as a company is based on true innovative technology.

        facebook was a cut and paste of myspace. Text entry boxes are not innovative. Search algorithms are. The difference in value is exemplified in the difference in revenue.

  5. Does the 1.4bn devices quoted by Sundar quoted by Sundar include or exclude Android devices in China?

    How do the other search engines stack up in comparison and can it still be claimed Google has a dominate seqrch market position?

    • The number excludes the ones in China, because they aren’t running Google, as the article says.
      Other search engines have varying shares, depending on country. Google has a dominant position in Europe, where it is under antitrust investigation. It doesn’t in – from memory – Japan, South Korea or Russia. In the US its share is actually lower than in Europe, where it’s 90% or higher.

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  10. Although I agree with the argument of the article, it is all based on those first few numbers which seem strange to me: You substract 100M iPhone users from China but no Android users? The numbers I find online are for ~ 500M smartphones in China (600M by the end of the year) so shoudn’t you strip that from the smartphone base since they do not make Google Searches?

    So that would make 1,400 Android, +400 iPhone – 100 Chines iPhone – 400 Chinese Android &/or Others + 100 Other = 1,400 million smartphones outside of China.

    50bn (1.4 * 30) =1.19 searches per mobile ?

    Again I think you are globally right in your article. Mobile search advertising’s economics are not as profitable as Desktop search advertising (this is quite intuitive) but some very large advertisers like Booking.com also explain Mobile Search advertising has a significantly higher Return on Investment than Mobile App advertising so the picture is not that obvious to me.

    I would say however that Google agres with you, they have recently launched “Now on Tap” which shows how they envision a mobile experience where nobody would search anymore but rather go straight to an app or a website to get information or something done.

    • “You subtract 100M iPhone users from China but no Android users?”

      In the article, very near the top below the bullet points: “Google’s numbers effectively exclude China, of course, since Google doesn’t have any presence there. (Android phones and iPhones both use Baidu, the local search engine, as the default there; Google is banned from the mainland, and though people can use it, they overwhelmingly don’t.)”

      Google can’t know how many Android handsets are operating in China, because they’re AOSP, without Google Play Services or Google Mobile Services installed. The 1.4bn figure that Pichai gave is “Google Android” phones outside China.

      The question of ROI on mobile advertising is a subtly different one. And yes, “Now on Tap” is clearly an aim to make search something you don’t have to do explicitly in a browser search box when you’re on mobile. But so are Google Now, Siri, etc.

  11. I believe Google is still setup to be a huge player in 10 years. Why? Because online (mobile + desktop) search is still the way to find new products / services. I’ve worked at a very large online travel company and I know the demand for buying travel on mobile / desktop is still growing rapidly because it’s a growing market + people are still moving from offline to online booking. Google remains one of the major traffic sources for returning and new customers in the west and the east and conversion rates are increasing on mobile. I believe that if household incomes will keep increasing in the east the revenue per user will also increase for Google. The main difference will be the shift from PC to mobile and although the number of searches may be lower (less and less searches for big players with good apps like facebook and amazon), the most profitable searches (those for new products and services) will remain and grow in my vision. Where would you otherwise go if you want to buy a car insurance or flight ticket to New York?

    • Thanks for this – great to have solid input of experiences. Do you think booking or airline apps will have an impact here? For instance I can book tickets on any of the airline apps on my phone; it’s just a question of knowing when and how I want to travel. Not discounting your experience at all; only wondering whether it will stay static in terms of behaviour. If you were Google, is that how you would bet?

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  14. A very large part of the the 1.8bn smartphone users don’t have data plans.
    probably episodic wifi.
    therefore they should not be considered in the calculation.

    • Why shouldn’t they be considered? Their phones can connect to Wi-Fi; we’ve seen from the number of mobile users of Facebook that people don’t necessarily need data plans to use the internet. And further: even if we do say they shouldn’t be considered because they don’t have data plans, they become part of the non-searching population that Google wants to reach.

      I certainly know people who own smartphones who don’t do any searching on them. But they use them for apps. I don’t think they’d use their PC without doing searches – even if they are the “find Facebook” searches I describe above. Should those searches be ruled out of desktop too?

  15. Reblogged this on candometa and commented:
    Great piece on the challenges that Google has in relation to time and user interaction models on mobile. Search provided consumers with simplicity of discovery and pathing on desktop, but on mobile the user journey is more fragmented and also a single tap to discover (and with voice interfaces even easier) so the number of searches per day, per user is dramatically less on mobile than desktop. This is creating an exponential challenge for Google, as Apple integrates search into the core iOS, Android is an open OS, so is not one flavour on all mobiles and also the tap/app/tap/app model means that consumers have the information they are interested in right there …no need to use the Google box to navigate to it.

  16. It would be really interesting to see an analysis of ad click through rate for web based searches that you could call “access searches” (e.g. someone typing Facebook just to reach Facebook.com) vs. all other searches (e.g. where someone is looking for something). I’d wager a guess that access searches have low click through because people already have a destination in mind. If that’s true then you have to be curious about the “quality” (by that I mean whether it drives ad revenue to google) of those access searches that they are losing in the shift to mobile app environment. If Google is losing searches that are very low revenue generators, is it really that bad? If ads were still based on impressions rather than clicks I think it would be a big deal.

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  19. “Watch people use a desktop. The most common Google query is “Facebook”. Probably the next most common? “Yahoo”, “Gmail” and “Hotmail”. People literally type those into the Google search box, or their browser search bar, to get to those sites.”

    One good reason is down to fake sites sitting on typos of the names of real sites. All it takes is one slip of the fingers and, instead of landing at mybank.com, you land at mybnak.com. If that site has been set up to look like your real bank’s site, you may end up accidental typing in your username/password and give them access to your account.

    • Have you tried asking people why they do this? I don’t think their reply will be “to avoid getting phished”. If that were their motive, they would use bookmarks (similar level of one-step-removed sophistication where they’re worried about being phished).

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    • Have you considered that you might not be typical? Have you asked non-technical users you know how many searches they do on their phones?

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    • I haven’t looked at its results in detail yet. Youtube isn’t included in Singhal’s claim, I think, but that has a lot of value. And it is a standalone app for most people.

      • The GOOG has had two quarters of significant stock rise including a $5bn stock buyback. Is YouTube picking up the slack? Are advertisers increasing budget to Google? I wonder what is really going on?

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  42. Thank you Charles for the amazing insights. These are interesting times and it will be amusing to see what Google does next in order to make up on the lost growth in terms of search advertising(because of the lesser number of searches on mobile).

    I was wondering how much has the app business hampering Google’s revenue because the apps are certainly decreasing the number of searches happening on mobile. Any insights/data around this?

    • Apps reduce searches, but Google gets a cut from apps sold on Google Play – so it is swings and roundabouts. You can look at sales data from Google Play but no obvious way to compre that to “lost” search revenue.

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