Desktop vs. Mobile Search: The Impact of Coronavirus
Posted by Anna Hall on October 20, 2020
It wasn’t that long ago that we were all going mobile crazy. Talk moved from ‘That Flash banner looks great on my monitor screen’ to ‘What do you mean Flash isn’t supported on iPhones?’ in one fell swoop, and it felt like we were all mobile-first for good.
But then coronavirus reared its ugly head, restricting our movement and forcing us to spend extended periods at our home office desks. And what was in front of us? Not a smartphone, but our long-lost friend – the desktop or laptop.
With more time to spend on our laptops instead of craning over a smartphone screen on the tube, what has this meant for search? Are we in the midst of a desktop revival?
In this post, I reveal the key differences between desktop and mobile search trends before analysing how they have changed as a result of the pandemic. Finally, I cover what this shift means for our SEO strategy and how we should adapt to it (if we should even adapt at all).
Desktop vs. Mobile Before Coronavirus
First, let’s remind ourselves of a better time. Before the R number was the daily topic of conversation and before we even knew how to pronounce furlough.
The advance in smartphone technologies and widespread internet access saw us turning to our mobile phones for entertainment during our daily commutes, for quick recommendations on where to eat when visiting somewhere new, and for directions to the nearest supermarket.
On the other hand, our desktops were reserved for projects that relied on a bigger screen. We used them to create presentations for work, conduct academic research and play with huge spreadsheets that simply wouldn’t fit in the palm of our hand.
With coronavirus causing us to change our habits in all parts of our lives, how have our search and device habits changed as a result?
How Search Behaviours Have Changed During The Pandemic
According to research by SimilarWeb shared by The Telegraph, the coronavirus has caused the share of web traffic coming from desktop browsers to overtake that of mobile browsers for the first time in over a year.
But what exactly is it that has caused this boost in desktop traffic?
To find out, let’s look at the ratio of organic visits conducted on desktops vs. mobile devices during the peak months of the pandemic (March-May 2020) compared to the same period in 2019. Our data comes from a number of Blue Array’s clients as well as SEMRush traffic analytics for other well-known brands in a cross-section of industries. We have separated this data out into sectors in order to account for their nuances.
With many people turning to skills development and new hobbies during lockdown, it’s no surprise that brands in Education saw much higher levels of traffic between March and May 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.
When analysing organic traffic by device, though desktop has traditionally been the preferred device of people browsing educational sites, the proportion of desktop visits grew even greater during the pandemic. We took traffic data from a selection of 18 sites in this sector and, on average, desktop visits accounted for 59.66% of sessions (which equates to a rise of +2.97% YoY) compared to mobile at 40.34% (-2.97% YoY).
For one of our own tutoring clients, the rise in the proportion of desktop traffic was just as great, with organic desktop traffic overtaking mobile for the first time in years. Desktop accounted for 56.37% of sessions (+10.79 YoY) compared to mobile at 43.63% (-10.79% YoY).
Learning often requires a user to analyse lots of information in the form of videos, text and images, which would be far more comfortable and easier to absorb on a larger screen. With more time spent at home during the pandemic, a desktop is likely to still be the preferred choice of device for these learners.
In ecommerce, mobile devices have traditionally ruled the roost. Our smartphones are in our pockets, ready to satisfy an urge to spend whenever inspiration strikes. At no time has this been more true than during the pandemic. With bricks and mortar stores closed, shoppers have remained able to access their favourite brands online without the risk of crowded high streets. Instead, we’re shopping on the sofa while watching TV, in the garden or even in bed.
It’s therefore understandable that mobile traffic has continued to contribute the majority of traffic for our ecommerce clients and other brands. By analysing data from a selection of 18 ecommerce sites, we saw, on average, desktop visits accounted for 52.85% of sessions (which equates to a decline of -3.91% YoY) compared to mobile at 47.15% (+3.91% YoY).
For one fashion brand we work with, between March and the end of May 2020, mobile devices were responsible for 59.30% (+2.73% YoY) of organic sessions. But desktop has seen growth too, accounting for 32.88% (+4.85% YoY). To make up the difference, organic sessions from tablets have halved down to 7.82% (-7.58% YoY).
Perhaps it’s not fair to blame the tablet’s demise on the pandemic, as sales and usage figures for tablets have been falling for the past few years. But with desktops enjoying growth as a result, shoppers may feel more comfortable spending money using the larger screen, ease of use and the wifi security offered by their desktops.
Traditionally, B2B companies see a higher proportion of desktop traffic than mobile, owing to the widespread use of laptops and desktops in business environments. With that in mind, we may not expect the business sector to experience much of a shift in the device used to interact with these websites.
Despite this, by analysing traffic data from 18 different business services brands, we did witness desktop take a slightly higher majority over mobile than in previous years. On average, desktop visits accounted for 56.3% of sessions (which equates to an increase of +0.7% YoY) compared to mobile at 43.7% (-0.7% YoY).
However, one freelance business insurance client saw an even greater percentage of desktop traffic between March and the end of May 2020. The proportion of organic desktop sessions reached 77.34% (+12.04% YoY) while mobile dropped to 22.66% (-12.04% YoY).
Previously, people wanting to start their own freelance business may have researched how to do so on their mobile phones on the journey to or from their current jobs. With the traditional commute a thing of the past during the pandemic, they may have turned to their desktop computers at home for this research instead.
Transport, Travel & Recreation
Another industry that seems to have traditionally had a slightly higher proportion of desktop visits than mobile is Transport, Travel & Recreation. This may be due to the need for a larger screen when planning business trips or booking luxury holidays.
When analysing the traffic for 18 different brands in this space, most brands understandably saw reduced traffic levels in spring 2020 compared to the same period in 2019, owing to worldwide travel restrictions. Where increases were seen, these are likely to have been for customer service focused queries relating to cancellations or amendments.
Looking specifically at the split between mobile and desktop traffic in this sector in the period between March and May 2020, we saw desktop’s majority grow slightly higher than mobile in comparison to previous years. On average, desktop visits accounted for 53.98% of sessions (which equates to an increase of +1.07% YoY) compared to mobile at 46.02% (-1.07% YoY).
Though one client in the Parking industry understandably saw much lower traffic levels overall during the peak of the pandemic, the ratio of desktop to mobile visits was closer than it has been for years. For example, between March and the end of May 2020, desktop accounted for 42.44% of organic clicks (+10.39% YoY) while mobile accounted for 57.56% (-10.39% YoY).
Though mobile traffic was still slightly higher for this brand, a potential reason behind desktop’s growth is that parking is often required at the last minute, while people are out and about and struggling to find a vacant space. The pandemic has meant we need to plan much further ahead about where we are going to be and when. This research and planning is often more comfortable to do from home on a desktop.
News, Lifestyle & Media
When analysing organic traffic by device, it was a surprise to see that desktop has traditionally been the preferred device of people browsing domains in the News, Lifestyle & Media sector.
Taking traffic data from a selection of 18 sites in this sector, we even saw the proportion of desktop visits grow ever so slightly during the pandemic. On average, desktop visits accounted for 52.57% of sessions between March and May 2020 (which equates to a rise of +0.28% YoY) compared to mobile at 47.43% (-0.28% YoY).
However, one women’s lifestyle magazine bucked the trend completely. For this client, desktop accounted for 21.07% of organic visits (-15.44% YoY) between March and the end of May 2020, with mobile contributing 78.93% (+15.44% YoY).
Looking deeper into this client’s analytics, we can see organic visits gradually rise throughout the day before peaking at 9 pm when most users may be relaxing or browsing whilst watching TV. As this was a much more common activity during the pandemic, this could be a reason for the increased mobile visits.
How does this shift affect our SEO strategy?
All in all, we have seen a mixture of desktop and mobile growth across industries. But I’m confident in saying that these changes are connected to our changing lives throughout the pandemic.
It was previously widely stated that mobile devices will be responsible for 72% of all internet usage by 2025. But with some industries and clients experiencing increases in desktop traffic, should we now adapt our SEO strategy away from mobile?
After all, Google’s widely publicised plans to switch all websites to its mobile-first index by September 2020 have been delayed to March 2021. Has Google taken note of this increase in desktop usage and decided to act? Is their decision telling us we should be optimising for desktop once again?
In short, no. They haven’t cancelled the move completely – just delayed it to give us more time to get it right. To help us prepare, Google has reiterated its Mobile-first indexing best practices, which, in brief, cover:
- Make sure that Googlebot can access and render your mobile page content and resources by using the same meta robots tags on both the mobile and desktop site
- Make sure that content is the same on desktop and mobile
- Make sure any structured data is present on both versions of your site
- Put the same metadata on both versions of your site
- Check your images, and make sure that the mobile page content quality is as good as the desktop page
Key Takeaway: Optimise for both
Despite desktop’s ‘comeback’, Google’s advice remains the same: optimise for mobile first, but ensure your desktop and mobile sites have parity. This means that all content available to mobiles should also be available to desktops, and vice versa.
However, not being one to follow its own advice, a fascinating study by SEMRush analysed Google SERPs and uncovered some key differences depending on the device you are using to search:
- Only 13% of of websites retain the same position in SERPs across devices
- 30% of pages that are present on the first page of desktop search results are moved beyond the top 10 results in mobile search
So, Google may say mobile first, but if these statistics are anything to go by, we really do need to optimise for (and track) both separately if we want to maximise our visibility.
This is echoed by the results of our study. While desktop may have been a brief resurgence during the peak of lockdown for some industries, it’s not enough to stop us focusing on mobile first. But we never know when another pandemic may arrive to change our habits once again. We’re better off optimising for both, all of the time.