Content Strategy, Mobile

Mobile > Local

Just because someone is doing a search from a mobile device doesn’t make it a local search. And just because someone is looking for local content doesn’t imply they’re using a mobile device. Just because many local searches are from mobile devices does not imply that most mobile searches are for local information. If you’re a visual thinker, here’s a Venn diagram that may help:

Mobile is more than local. Don't generalize that all mobile content is local content.

Why belabor this point? Because too often, when people talk about delivering different content to mobile users, what they really mean is prioritizing content differently in a local context.

But not every mobile user is looking for:

a hotel 
—Darin Wonn, Situational Awareness: A Method for Mobile Content Planning

or a restaurant
—Bryson Meunier, Why Restaurants & Other Local Businesses Need Mobile (Not Responsive) Sites

or a train
—Christiaan Lustig, The case for responsive web content: it’s all about the users

This is one of the most hotly debated issues in content strategy for mobile right now, and I’m pleased to see this topic get so much attention from so many smart people. I don’t deny that I have a strong point of view on this subject — and it’s because I have a clear point of view that I value a healthy debate.

Call it local

If you’re making an argument for delivering different content to mobile users, or prioritizing content differently based on their context of use, stop for a minute and ask yourself if you mean local content. And if you do mean local content, then say that. Claiming that your travel example extends to cover the “mobile use case” leaves out millions of tasks and users.

Just to belabor this point: people use mobile devices in every location, in every context. Just because you know what type of device someone is using or where she is doesn’t tell you anything about her intention.

But it does! you might think. If you’re delivering local content. Fine. Call that what it is. Let’s have a separate debate about how to do that well. Don’t confuse the rest of the people trying to deal with the bigger problem of getting content on mobile devices. Use the narrowly defined local case to figure out how to use real research and data to prioritize your content. Report back — I’m sure you’ll learn some things that will benefit the rest of us.

Local is not the priority

I travel. A lot. I am like, a professional traveler. I personally am the target audience for this idea that content should be tailored and prioritized differently based on my local context. If you do that well, I would benefit.

In my mind, that’s second order business. It’s a fun and interesting problem, the kind designers and developers like to solve. I personally don’t think it’s a problem that merits the focus it’s getting in this debate.

First order business is getting all of our content on mobile, in a format that’s readable, navigable, and searchable. Someone called me out recently for calling that “content strategy,” suggesting that making that happen isn’t really a “strategy.” You know what? It’s not. It’s tactical, it’s wonky, and it’s hard work. It’s also our most important job.

If I could prioritize the efforts of our community over the next 3-5 years, I’d spend 80% of our efforts on the problem of cleaning up our desktop content and getting it all (at least, all the good stuff) onto mobile. Let’s use our 20% experimental time to explore how to prioritize content differently based on what we think we can intuit about user intention based on device and location. And let’s give each of those problems the appropriate weight in our discussions.

More like this

“Let me make a long story short: just make quality, relevant content with appropriate tasks, and offer all of these to all users, unless said content or functionality is dependent upon device capabilities (such as a camera). Then make it easy for the user to decide what it is they want to do.”
—Stephen Hay, Great Works of Fiction Presents: The Mobile Context

“The whole “multiple screens need multiple sites” theory just doesn’t make sense. We have never designed separate TV commercials for 13″ CRT screens and 70″ plasmas – even though people watching them are usually in very different places/situations.”
—Ryan Jones, Mobile SEO is a Myth



19 thoughts on “Mobile > Local

  1. Mobile needs functionality, not content says:

    For a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

    For God’s sake, please try to step out of your tiny ‘content and browsers’ box. Mobile needs a new view!

    • Karen McGrane says:

      My whole schtick is content strategy for mobile. There are lots of other people talking about functionality on mobile. Totally important subject, just not my thing.

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  3. Honored that my article was taken to task on a Karen McGrane Rant! Some points of disagreement from me:

    1. Mobile IS Local. If you are crafting something for mobile that doesnt consider “in the wild” usage, then don’t call it mobile. Call it a small screen. Desktops are great at semantic relationships between things, but mobile shines at temporal relationships between people and places (see Hinman). Mobile content should be driven through this lens of temporal relationships.

    2. For the hotel-room portion of travel, tailoring local content based on these temporal relationships IS a first order of business, not just an interesting/experimental design problem. Some hotel companies report same-day bookings (bookings that are made the same day the guest checks into the hotel) as high as 80% on mobile devices, compared to < 10% on desktops. A majority of these are distressed travelers. Not only is this a huge portion of mobile bookers, it is also a critical group because it represents an INCREMENTAL growth opportunity and not just cannibalization of the desktop channel. These are travelers that could not be reached before through the desktop. This distressed traveler will have different concerns, anxieties and intentions than those who are a planning a trip 2 weeks out and the content should be tailored as such.

    3. I hear ya about cleaning up the desktop content, but it feels like desktop websites have 15 years of accumulated features and bandaids. So, why spend the next 3 to 5 years cleaning up everything that is wrong with desktop content? Let's figure out what we need for mobile and start fresh. Let's work outward from the needs of mobile users. If you are working at a large organization, it can be impossible to move the needle on a 15-year desktop site, but you have the opportunity to plant the seeds for something that is responsive and future-proof if you start with mobile.

    • Karen McGrane says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful remarks! A few comments back:

      1. Like so many things in technology (dialing the phone, return key) the word “mobile” has come to mean something different than the literal meaning. Mobile is the word we use to mean devices (of varying screen sizes) that are not desktops. People use them in a variety of contexts, only some of which are “on the go.” I prefer calling out local context as its own thing, because if you believe that you should be optimizing for local context then you should do that on both mobile and desktops.
      2. If you’re a travel company, you are correct that optimizing for local and temporal context is important, I totally agree with you there. What I’m asking to guard against is claiming the specific case of the travel industry generalizes to other types of content on mobile.
      3. Unfortunately, “starting fresh” on mobile implies a separate mobile website, forking your content, and creating duplicate editorial workflows and maintenance nightmares. I strongly advocate for thinking holistically about your web content and having a strategy that helps you deliver the best content to all your users, regardless of platform. If you believe you can clean up your content for mobile, then do that for the desktop too. Yes, I know it’s an organizational challenge, but mobile can be a catalyst to make things better.
  4. Adam S says:

    If we’re focusing all of our efforts on Responsive won’t the need for a mobile site disappear? The flow, functionality and capability will feed new development possibilities and eliminate limited-form mobile sites. Form follows functionality – users follow content.

    • Karen McGrane says:

      Responsive design is one tactic that works great in some cases. There are lots of reasons, pro and con, for adopting a responsive strategy. There are situations where organizations would be better served by having separate mobile templates. This debate tends to get religious so I’ll be clear that I’m not saying we should focus all our efforts on responsive — it’s just one potential approach.

    • Adam, I don’t agree that we should be focusing all of our efforts on Responsive Design. There are a number of problems that this can introduce as well. Many of us are dealing with huge legacy web applications… and not everything can be done in a mobile web browser at this point in time (nor should that be the case). Our team recently released a white paper on our thoughts of when to build a mobile-specific site vs responsive design that outlines some of our pros/cons for both.


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  7. I think fundamental to the whole issue is that context doesn’t guarantee intent. That is to say, you with the current technologies of user agents and media queries, you can tell what device I’m using. But the devices does *not* specify to the website my intetions it only implies them. As Karen says, Local can be a subset of both Mobile and Desktop.

    I could be in a meeting, I pull out my phone and browse to Am I bored and trying to plan my weekend, or am I desperately trying to find a press release that I had just read on my desktop before the meeting and should have brought to the meeting? 95% or even 99% of the time an average user will be looking for a cheap getaway. But what about the poor bastard with the entire senior management glaring at him as he finger taps his way through screen after screen of hotel booking process trying to find the one tiny link to the media centre.

    Take another example: has been around for at least a decade and it interface has change only a little and gradually over that time. On my desktop I can find information I want easily and without thinking. However on Friday night I’m at the pub or in the video store, I pull out my phone to settle an arguement, browse to imdb. First up I told to download the app, I’m in a hurry and only on 3G, so I click my out of it. Then rather than information being where I expect it to be I’m greeted with a new interface that I have to try an learn on the spot. By simplifying the experience it’s actually made life harder and more frustrating.

    In both these examples, the “improved mobile” experience is results in a degraded user experience. I could give many more examples that have happened to me in recent times. But argueing from example is limited.

    So what’s my solution? I don’t have one yet. The best idea I’ve come up with so far is a mobile landing screen. One that is very quick to load, consists of one logo, one main mobile/local function and one link to the regular resposive site. That way the user gets the optimised local experience for the 80%-99% of the time and easy non-penalised access to the whole site for those visit

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  10. Karen, I appreciate you mentioning my Search Engine Land article here, and I also value healthy debate. As I said in my review of your book on this topic, I disagree with your approach that all content needs to be included on mobile sites, just because there’s an infinitesimally small chance that someone may be looking for it on a mobile device. A better approach is to use adaptive content when appropriate, and mobile-specific content when user behavior requires it. I took over the MarketingProfs University Mobile Content Marketing course for you in December, and presented a mix of adaptive and mobile-specific content, all based on user data, as a better solution for most marketers who don’t want to leave money on the table or frustrate users. Enjoyed your book, and I’d recommend it, but I think there’s room for user-focused mobile content, and I disagree with you and Ryan about mobile SEO. Full review is here if you’d care to read it:

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