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Mobile web: how many people really use their phones to access the web?

14/12/2011

The mobile web is coming of age. At least that’s the impression you’d get from the research statements and digital marketing press. Back in August Ofcom reported that one in three adults used a smartphone to access the web. More recently it emerged that nearly 10% of eBay’s UK activity is done via smarthphones. There are plenty of other articles and blogs talking about the value of mobile commerce, the need for apps and of course, the pros and cons of each of the main mobile operating systems.

But is mobile usage of websites really that high? We took a look at a couple of client sites and the data suggested otherwise. This led a hypothesis that the published data is probably biased by usage of a small number of hugely popular sites and apps from the big publishers, retailers and brands as well as massive use by gamers. If so, what’s the reality for most businesses and organisations?

To test this we decided to analyse data from a range of websites. In partnership with HEERA we gained access to 21 academic and educational websites alongside 5 from the commercial sector. This gave us a decent sample – on average the sites receive over 350,000 unique visitors per month and 700,000+ visits. Total traffic ranged from 6 million unique visitors month to over 10 million.

So what do the results tell us? The results for both segments are shown in the chart below showing the percentage of visits coming via mobile devices:

Mobile is definitely growing. In August 2010 it accounted for less than 3% of all visits in both segments. In the education sector it had doubled by August 2011 to just over 5% before dipping back to 4% in September. For the smaller commercial segment growth was much faster passing 9% in September (and is now at 11%).

Within the HE segment there was significant variation. This can be seen on the chart below which shows mobile visits (as a % of all traffic) for eight of the respondents:

Mobile accounted for between 3% and 8% of visits to the educational sites. Usage is growing at a reasonable pace though less than for the commercial sites. This might in part be due to the younger audiences using the HE sites who are less likely to own a smartphone, or at least to have a package with extensive data/web bandwidth. This will be explored more fully in a follow up post looking at the actual devices used.

What does this mean for businesses? Well mobile is here, and here to stay. It’s growing but perhaps not quite as rapidly as we’ve been led to believe. Usage of the most popular apps, games and sites has skewed the data somewhat. The picture for most organisations is that mobile accounts for less than one in ten visits to their sites. In HE it’s much lower, for commercial sites slightly higher but still less than 1 in 8. At the very least, all site owners need to be looking at their analytics data before deciding what, if any, investments to make in mobile content, advertising or apps.

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