For a long time now English has served as the lingua franca, or common language, of the Internet. English is still the most commonly used language online but it still represents only just over a quarter of total usage.
The growth rates of various foreign languages also far outstrip the growth in English usage, which may be heading for saturation point.
Over the past decade the number of English speakers online has grown by just over 300 percent. Compare this to Spanish (807 percent), Chinese (1,479 percent) or Arabic (a massive increase of more than 2,500 percent).
These figures represent the constantly increasing rates of Internet penetration and accessibility in developing markets such as Latin America and Asia. For now English remains on top of the pile, but foreign language marketing already represents a hugely important growth area in e-commerce and digital marketing.
Many businesses have recognized the importance of issues such as localization and international SEO. The Internet is a constantly shifting battleground, however, and the way people search for information has been undergoing a significant change.
According to Google mobile searches quadrupled in the U.S. last year. Said Google's Head of Mobile Advertising Jason Spero:
“Roughly one in seven searches, even in the smaller categories, are happening on a mobile phone, but how many of you are putting one seventh of your resources into mobile? Your customer is trying to engage you… it would be like not doing business with your customers on Thursdays.”
Mobile searches can be even more important when dealing with international markets. Only around one in five Americans regularly use their mobile phone for searches while in Japan it's almost a third. China's own data, meanwhile, suggests it has the largest mobile web community in the world, with almost half of users regularly searching on the go.
The incidence of mobile search is also high in other developing markets, including the other emerging economic powerhouses of the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China) and the CIVETS grouping (Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey, and South Africa). Some of the reasons for this may include the relatively cheap costs of mobile phones compared to laptops and desktop computers and the lack of effective broadband connections in many areas.
In rural regions, for example, there may be a lack of broadband infrastructure. Even where it does arrive, ingrained search habits are likely to remain.
Going for Mobile Gold
The 2012 Olympic Games provided a unique insight into the increasing popularity of international mobile search. Events such as the Oscars or the Super Bowl might draw international audiences to greater or lesser degrees, but the 2012 Summer Olympics, featuring participants from more than 200 different nations, had truly global appeal.
Google issued a report on the London 2012 games that reveals some fascinating insights into mobile search behaviour. The first week of the games saw a tenfold increase in mobile search for related terms compared to the previous week. One explanation is the 'multi-screen' nature of the event, meaning the audience has a tendency to watch events unfold on one device (be it a TV, desktop computer or screen in a bar) while simultaneously searching for related information on a mobile device.
When former Beatle Paul McCartney performed "Hey Jude" at the start of the opening ceremony smartphone and tablet searches surged ahead of static searches. The overall mobile search share (combined figures for smartphones and tablets) during the first two days of the event showed significant increases all over the globe. Japan led the way with 55 percent of searches undertaken on mobile devices while the U.S., UK, and Australia all came close with 47, 46 and 45 percent respectively.
The ratio wasn't quite as high in developing regions such as Africa and South America but the numbers were still significant. An interesting anomaly that Google unearthed was that tablet searches outnumbered smartphone searches on several island nations such as Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. This reversed the usual trend where searches on smartphones generally outnumber tablets by a significant degree. A possible explanation is that tourists are increasingly using tablets to stay connected on their travels.
A huge global event like the Olympic Games presents a unique set of circumstances. It might not accurately represent day to day search trends, but the statistics do help illustrate the increasing popularity and international importance of mobile search.
Many commentators have predicted that annual mobile search rates will overtake static searches by 2015. The wise online operator will be prepared long before that tipping point is reached.