Type 'best iPhone price' into Google a few weeks ago and the top three results would have been occupied by O2, Orange and T-Mobile. In the UK, more than 24 million Google searches using generic mobile keywords were made in December alone. It's easy to see why search has become a key acquisition tool for mobile operators.
With the market awash with offers, consumers are using search engines to compare phones, features and services, so it's crucial for operators to differentiate themselves from competitors.
"Mobile users tend to have limited brand loyalty and are more likely to chase the best deal, leading to regular churn," says Tom Giles, head of search at Positive Digital. "Customers are always on the lookout for a better deal, and pay-per-click (PPC) is the most efficient way to deliver offer-based ads, as the format encourages and rewards good deals that are tactically applied."
In practice, a small number of the latest 'cool' handsets tend to dominate sales, but distribution of these handsets is considerably controlled by the manufacturers, not the networks themselves, according to Matt Isaacs, founding partner at Essence. "As such, when a network can find a way of adding value beyond the handset itself, it can really shift the market," he adds.
There are few markets with such a volume of competitive operators. The key to success, says Isaacs, is being able to respond to changes in pricing through agile marketing strategies. This is not an easy thing to achieve with search marketing, particularly paid-for search.
"Being able to synchronise changes in product pricing, promotion, ad copy and landing pages in near real time requires very sophisticated systems," Isaacs explains.
Competition has intensified in recent months, as the recently merged T-Mobile and Orange, rebranded as Everything Everywhere, attempts to consolidate its market dominance over rival operators such as O2 and Vodafone. With this in mind, Revolution asked I Spy Marketing managing director Nick Jones to compare O2 and Orange's search marketing strategies. Both were assessed against 10 criteria, including search-engine-friendly content, meta tags, keyword positioning and brand protection.
O2, which last year switched its digital account from Agency Republic to VCCP and also works with ZenithMedia on search, narrowly emerged as the victor, outperforming its rival in natural search, where its phone and tariff pages were rich in optimised copy. "O2 has traditionally been the dominant player in organic search, holding the number-one spot for the term 'mobile phones' until recently, while T-Mobile and Orange have relied more on paid search," says Matthew Oxley, head of search at GravyTrain.
Within paid search, O2 performed well for brand protection and its landing-page variations, with relevant content on the page for longer-tail terms. It was less convincing, however, when it came to keyword visibility - while handset-specific searches were covered well by O2, its visibility on generic mobile searches was lower when compared with Orange, particularly on Bing and Yahoo!.
Orange, which works with MEC on its search marketing strategy, fared less well on natural search, particularly in areas such as meta tags and page optimisation. I Spy Marketing's review found that Orange's title tags on many pages were too long, affecting natural search rankings and click-through rates. Of 50 tracked keywords, Orange ranked on the first page for only one of them. In paid search, Orange scored highly for the positioning and visibility of its keywords, appearing in positions one to four for most generic mobile terms, revealing a substantial investment in this area. This is a tactic that has become even more visible since the merger with T-Mobile, says Mike Jennings, search director at Reform.
"Overall, the search marketing tactics of Orange and T-Mobile appear to be an attempt to gain as much coverage as possible for top non-brand keywords by using both brand names to take up two spots on results pages," he says.
He believes that Orange's paid-search program performs particularly well, not only revealing handset names but also displaying copy and landing pages relevant to the handsets being searched for. "This is PPC best practice and allows Orange to get additional traffic from long-tail keywords that come, in many cases, with lower cost-per-click than more generic keywords such as 'mobile phones'," adds Jennings.
There are areas that both O2 and Orange could explore further. Oxley believes that the network operators' search tactics are poorly optimised for niche phrases. "A search for 'new android phones' on Google returns no natural results for any of the operators, and only one paid result from O2, which doesn't even reference the operating system," he says. "With operating-system searches on the rise, this suggests an opportunity for Orange/T-mobile to steal market share in search."
Location-based search via mobile devices can tailor results to a consumer's whereabouts. New features from Google, such as map extensions, which displays a store's location below the PPC ad and site links, could enhance location-based search for network operators, particularly as all the major ones have shops on the high street.
Competition in the mobile industry is intense, with the likes of Orange and O2 facing mounting competition from rival operators, manufacturers and dealers such as phones4u and, more recently, mobile-phone comparison websites, all wanting a slice of the pie.
In such a contested market, organic search can often be too slow to effectively deliver offer-based messages, but it can provide broader brand messages around trust and reliability. Mobile operators wanting to differentiate themselves from the competition and offer a better shopping experience for consumers, which in turn could boost conversion rates, will need to invest further in paid search and continue to exploit new features introduced by leading search engines.
|Natural search performance|
|Search-engine-friendly page content||The home and category-level pages lack content, but the phone and tariff pages are rich in optimised copy. The reviews are excellent but are on a separate domain. 7/10||The home page is very Yahoo!, with a lot of non-mobile content. This will not help it rank better on keywords. The product page is better, but the level of content could be improved. 4/10|
|Meta tags||Title tags are well optimised on the top-level pages, but unnecessary words are included on phone pages. The calls to action in the description tags should include price points. 6/10||The title tags are too long and should be kept to 70 characters. This impacts natural search rankings as well as click-through rate. The same issue arises with description tags. 5/10|
|Site structure and URLs||The site has been clustered by product type, such as phones and broadband, and the URL structure is clean. This should help the site rank well and make it easy to navigate. 8/10||The shop site structure is very clean, similar to that of O2. The clustering of content also makes the site easy to navigate for both search engine and user. 8/10|
|Link popularity||The O2 site has more than 3.5 million links from 45,000 domains. This is a huge amount of links and will no doubt be helping the site rank well for any targeted terms. 9/10||Orange has nearly 15 million links from 85,000 referring domains. This will help to counteract some of the poor on-page elements. 10/10|
|Ranking performance||From the 50 generic keywords analysed, the O2 site had 15 first-page positions on Google with no number ones. There is definite room for improving its visibility. 6/10||Orange's visibility is hindered by poor on-page optimisation. Of the 50 tracked keywords, Orange ranked on the first page for only one of them. 4/10|
|Paid search performance
|Keyword positioning and strategy||O2 generally appears in above-the-fold positions, but rarely breaks into the top three. It is more prominent on handset-specific terms, with low positions on generic keywords. 6/10||Orange appears in positions one to four for most generic mobile terms and is prominent on handset keywords on Google. On Bing and Yahoo!, it is restricted on handsets. 8/10|
|Keyword visibility||Handset-specific searches are covered well but visibility on generic mobile searches is lower. Bing and Yahoo! visibility is very limited with some strengths on handset terms. 6/10||Visibility for handset keywords is high, indicating a substantial investment on Google. Generic keyword visibility is also high. Less impressive on Bing and Yahoo!. 8/10|
|Ad copy and variations||The ad copy is relevant to handset and generic searches. Incorporating the seller rating is effective as O2 has a strong star rating. It is also using good sitelinks. 8/10||Orange has different ad copy for desirable handsets and uses varied messaging for generic searches. Google Checkout is offered. Orange also uses sitelinks on generic terms. 9/10|
|Landing-page variations||O2's landing-page selection is very good, with relevant content on page for longer-tail terms. Sitelink landing pages are accurate and direct to the offer available. 9/10||Most Orange ads direct to the home page for generic terms, even if copy refers to a specific handset. Sitelinks are used but do not link with total accuracy. 6/10|
|Brand protection||O2 is visible on all brand variations. There is some variation in ad copy, but when one row of sitelinks are used, only two show. Shorter sitelinks would resolve this. 9/10||Orange is visible with top ranking for brand terms. Ad copy is varied for different brand-related keywords. 9/10|
O2 - 74/100
ORANGE - 71/100
O2 has a strong approach to paid search, but risks missing out on some potential volume due to lower positions and reduced visibility around generic keywords. The site links are good, promoting O2's offers very well, although when used on a single line, two site links are lost due to character limits.
The overall look and feel of the brand's homepage is clean with clearly defined product areas, but these are housed within a rollover tabbed section that is not intuitive to use. Online chat services, meanwhile, can be a very effective customer service tool, but the O2 virtual agent can be frustrating, requiring very specific questions and directing users to generic content that does not necessarily answer their queries.
Orange has a very aggressive strategy that ensures good coverage on high-volume keywords. However, with the home page being used as a landing page for some terms, it is missing potential conversions as a result of a less-relevant user journey. Its integration of Google Checkout helps the ads stand out on the page while site links are short, ensuring all four appear, even when on one line.
The homepage is quite cluttered and improvements could be made to the purchase path. There are helpful features, but these are not promoted effectively. The pop-ups for flash sales and those within the phone-selection process can prove irritating, while the 'my account' area of the site claims to offer users options that are not available online, such as changing price plans.