The Mobile Web May ‘Suck’ For Advertisers And Users, But Apps Face Challenges Too

Still, the adoption of mobile deep linking to make apps more searchable seems like yet another reason to dismiss the mobile web.

mobile apps galore boxAlthough 226 billion apps are likely to be downloaded this year, it is expected that consumers will abandon most of them, a recent Forrester study pointed out.

That’s the difficulty retailers and brands face as they place their bets on tying their smartphone apps to beacons and other indoor marketing technologies. The Forrester research not only makes it clear that users regularly tend to use a mere 5 percent of the apps they download, the largest amount of time spent — 21 percent of all average “app minutes” — are devoted to social networking and communications.

App Usage Is Dominant

That said, there can be no doubt of the hold apps are having on consumers: the same Forrester study highlights that 85 percent of smartphone users’ time is spent within apps. In an example of a typical use case hurting Google’s search ads with regard to the rise of mobile apps, Fortune’s Erin Griffith pointed out, “if a person wanted to buy movie tickets, instead of searching for movie times on Google (as they would on a laptop), they’d open the Fandango mobile app.”

In a sense, the battle between the mobile web and apps is a proxy war between Google and Apple, though the search giant has been taking notice of the importance of apps lately as part of its growing mobile ad strategy lately. In May, Google said that its Google Now app, which is available on both its and Apple’s systems, “understands” the context of 100 million places.

In addition to that Chrome app update, 9to5 Google’s Tom Maxwell reports that Google has made sure its recently released Eddystone beacon platform works with the search giant’s latest iOS browser app, bridging the “Physical Web” and Apple’s “Today” notification list. For example, when a consumer walks into a store, they could get a prompt on their iPhone. No matter the competition between Google and Apple, both want to their beacon platforms to work when it comes to connecting online and offline commerce and marketing.

linking the web“[In terms of Google’s] offline conversion efforts, we obviously know that mobile activities are influencing offline behavior, and we’re very busy investing in new dynamic products that help bring mobile users to stores,” said Omid Kordestani, Google’s SVP/chief business officer. “We’re seeing strong results from clients using our tools to bridge this digital and physical world.”

Why Does The Mobile “Suck?”

Still, considering the perennial grumbling about the mobile web experience — as can be found in The Verge’s Nilay Patel bluntly headlined “The Mobile Web Sucks” — it seems that advertisers relying on smartphone browsers will continue to be constrained both creatively and on the basis of reach, when compared with apps.

Patel’s argument breaks down to this: both Safari and Chrome are exceedingly slow versus a smartphone app, as well as when compared with desktop versions. Plus, mobile sites are mostly just poor versions of what appears on the PC. Obviously, the desktop’s dependence on wifi in a fixed place like a home or office is always going to be stronger than a cell phone tower or satellite signal.

In any case, no one is suggesting that people are giving up on the mobile web. But expectations and preferences have changed how content from a mobile browser is perceived and sought out by consumers.

Though it will require much more vigilance, particularly in terms of search rankings, even if SMB marketing tech services companies like ReachLocal have suggested that the recent Google “mobilegedden,” which threatened to depress traffic to some older smartphone-based sites, was “overblown.”

Sense360's Eli Portnoy
Sense360’s Eli Portnoy

Mobile Apps vs. Mobile Web

Both enterprise and SMB brands have enough to worry about when it comes to their mobile marketing strategy. For the next few years, brands will be expected to make their biggest reach for consumers via apps, says Eli Portnoy, whose startup, Sense360, which uses sensor-intelligence to determine the context of a person’s place to determine and anticipate the kinds of app-based notifications a person might want to be alerted of.

In a way, it’s not too dissimilar from “deep linking,” which provides greater search capabilities similar to the web to be applied to apps on a users’ smartphone, whether they’re open or not.

It’s worth noting that the changes Sense360 is working on will get a huge boost from Apple’s iOS 9, which will give its mobile digital assistant Siri and its device-based search tool, Spotlight, the ability to crawl through apps to find information that consumers are looking for.

In his view, Portnoy outlined three fundamental benefits of an app versus the mobile web, with some caveats:

  • Quick access: this is a much bigger deal on a mobile device than it ever was on a desktop. “However, you could solve the same thing for web with bookmarks,” Portnoy added.
  • Speed: Apps let you pre-download much of the experience, making them snappier and faster on subsequent visits. “This is a bigger deal on mobile than web because of bandwidth constraints,” he said. “Though I wonder if this one becomes less of an issue as mobile speeds get faster and cheaper.”
  • Deeper hooks into the OS: “Apps let you tap into deeper parts of the OS and access parts that aren’t available on the web. However, this too is solvable over time, as they can be made accessible to browsers. See how Chrome is making notifications work in the web.

“Bottom line, I think apps are way better now because of the three advantages above,” Portnoy concluded, “but over time, these will subside. I wouldn’t be surprised if the argument gets more heated with web winning over the next 5 years.”

Candyspace's Greg Crockart
Candyspace’s Greg Crockart

Solving Creative Conundrum

From a creative advertising standpoint, apps would also appear to have a slight advantage, as publishers like The Weather Company incorporate more native placements that also rely heavily on a phone’s location.

Greg Crockart, a veteran creative ad executive who has long focused on the possibilities of mobile said he believes that that there are equal creative opportunities available in native applications and mobile web experiences.

“Good creative agencies will of course work with clients to understand if a native application is really required, as we all know that getting consumers to download an application is a significant barrier,” said Crockart, who is the CEO of WPP Group cross-platform agency Candyspace. “Native applications, of course, allow more direct access to all features of the smartphone — camera, microphone, accelerometer, but even in this regard, mobile web experiences are catching up. Mobile web certainly offers the benefit of also being much easier to update, so should urgent creative changes be required, it is possible to make updated much more rapidly.”

Deep Linking Gives Apps Greater Advantage

Nevertheless, Crockart does say that for the time being, when it comes to getting the attention of consumers through advertising, the balance appears to be shifting slightly back in favor of native app.

“We’re seeing a trend where consumers in native applications are being given richer in-app experiences — for example, ads which expand full screen allowing the consumers to explore in the ad unit, while remaining in the app,” Crockart said.

He continued: “As deep-linking between apps becomes more prevalent, I think we will also start to see usage change again. Brands will be able to use search to drive users back into apps, which they may have long forgotten.”

Mary Meeker
Mary Meeker

Does “Mobile First” = “App First?”

As Mary Meeker, the Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers venture capital analyst who’s been chronicling internet trends since 1995, said in her most recent report, Americans spend roughly 24 percent of their time using their mobile devices — equal to time spent on the general internet, where total ad spending is $50 billion a year.

For years, publishers, marketers, and agencies have needed to demonstrate a “mobile-first” approach to their respective businesses. But there are so many differences between the app and mobile web experiences, how do they know which of those comes first? And is there anything in particular that offline retailers and brands should consider when fashioning their mobile strategies?

“From my perspective, I would say that mobile always works in conjunction with other mediums,” Crockart said.

Mobile advertising currently is rarely customized to the environment in which it is running, Crockart added.

“Mobile can certainly be that ‘last mile’ medium, but it should not be developed in a silo,” he said. “Brands wanting to exploit mobile need to consider where else consumers may have been exposed to their messaging, and how mobile [whether apps or the mobile browser] can be used to build on what consumers have already absorbed. I would also encourage brands to consider what tasks and objectives consumers have in mind when they are on certain sites or apps.”

About The Author
David Kaplan David Kaplan @davidakaplan

A New York City-based journalist for over 20 years, David Kaplan is managing editor of A former editor and reporter at AdExchanger, paidContent, Adweek and MediaPost.