The mobile environment is constantly evolving at a fast pace. While the mobile world (namely the app world) moves forward, the mobile web seems to unfortunately be experiencing more and more problems. We can attribute these growing problems to two different factors.
The first is that the number of ads, tracking scripts and general background processes on webpages are increasing all the time. This is the cause of the notorious slow loading that everyone has come to expect from the modern mobile web. It also causes an unsatisfactory, jagged user experience: thanks to newly-loaded elements, the recalculations of a site’s layout leave us scrolling to find the sentence we were just reading after it jumped to a different part of the page.
The second and more longstanding problem is that the web just wasn’t built for mobile. As users continue to spend most of their time in native mobile apps, they become accustomed to a certain level of capability. They’re used to, for example, mobile-optimised registration forms or even the ability to zoom in. The mobile web is finding itself at the adverse end of an increasingly wide performance gap.
How is mobile web developing to address the problem?
As we discussed in one of our previous blog posts, one unfolding development is the merging of the mobile web and apps. Since the writing of that post, Google has announced a feature called Instant Apps that further consolidate this movement. Instant Apps are a way of modularising apps so that links from the web lead to downloading a single app module. Think of it as app sampling: an app page without the commitment of a permanent download. This allows a user to browse the web but experience content and services in the (often superior) native app environment.
Comscore noted in a 2015 paper that while the majority of media time is spent in-app, traffic on mobile web is growing. Yet the depth of engagement on mobile web is lower. In simple terms, people are still using the mobile web to browse a wide range of sites. But engagement in-app is deeper. This likely has something to do with the fact that web search capabilities are incomparable (in a good way) to anything in the app environment. Take, for example, the notoriously disappointing search capabilities of the Apple App Store. Additionally, the linked structure of the web allows for much easier surface-level browsing. Instant Apps aim to take advantage of both these facts.
Another perhaps unintentional development in the mobile web environment is its move away from the desktop web. Last year we saw Google release Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) that aim to take advantage of a number of performance-related technologies. These make publisher content load very quickly on the mobile web. The problem here is that it requires the publisher to make two versions of their article – one standard article which will work across desktop and mobile web, and one stripped-back article that will only work on mobile (i.e. the AMP pages). While this might be causing headaches in the publisher world, they may find they don’t have much of a choice. Google are surfacing AMP articles at the top of the search page on mobile web, which makes them the most likely place the user will click. Publishers must engage with these developments to remain competitive.
Google have also released another technology at the other end of the spectrum called Progressive Web Apps (PWA). These take a different approach by trying to make websites more app-like. These websites can be pinned to the user’s homescreen, as an app would be, and they can even be viewed without a visible URL. Again, this requires two versions of site content: one standard site and one PWA site.
As this article points out, these technologies are causing a split between mobile web and desktop web. The two are moving further and further apart, evolving mobile web into its own distinct realm. We have reached a point where there are links that will only work on the mobile web. And this goes against the very core of the web, which was always accessible over any device.
So what is the future of the mobile web?
To answer this question, we must consider the mobile web as one part of the larger mobile ecosystem. The answer may lie with voice assistants.
Comscore have estimated that by 2020, 50% of all searches will be voice searches. With voice assistants, we are seeing a more holistic type of search. The recent demonstration of Viv showed us how integrated the content and services on our phones could be. With Apple opening up Siri to third party developers, we will see a lot more of this in practice.
It could be that the growth of voice assistants will contribute to a larger trend that sees the building of larger fluid systems on mobile. These systems will enable more holistic search across all elements on our phones. And they will help us integrate the now-conflicting elements we are trying to develop answers to.
These systems will likely be coupled with strengthening integrations such as Instant Apps and Google Now on Tap. And these will help to forge the connections between the elements in this system. This will allow for more fluid movement between the different elements on mobile web. Unfortunately, it looks like mobile web will likely move further and further away from desktop web as mobile-specific integrations and systems continue to rise.
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Read more from Megan: A Merging of Worlds: Discovering App and Web Content and Dark Traffic and Its Rise, Part 1: What is Dark Traffic?