MobileSmartwatches & Search: New Form Factors, New Behaviors, New Rules

Smartwatches & Search: New Form Factors, New Behaviors, New Rules

Search marketers have a new set of screens to contend with. What are the rules of content strategy and SEO in this new ecosystem? What techniques will help you get found? And, more important, what kind of content will make you worth looking for?


We’re still in the stone age when it comes to wearable technology. For all the excitement over Google Glass and the smartwatches rolling out from Samsung, Sony, and, inevitably, Apple, we’re still far off from any of these things being the status quo of personal computing.

It is inevitable that we’ll be adopting these more personal and streamlined means of accessing the Internet en masse over the next couple of years.

Think of it as a kind of UI-centric version of Moore’s Law – every new form factor that comes out is adopted just a bit faster than the one that came before it. Smartphones caught on faster than the desktop, tablets faster than smartphones, and so forth.

It’s probably safe to assume that we’ll see the same sort of trajectory for wearable tech. As exciting as Google Glass and similar technologies may be, it’s also a safe bet that smartwatches are where we’ll see things really start to take off.

According to Juniper Research, 36 million smartwatches will ship globally by 2018 but I’d argue that that’s a very conservative estimate for several very good reasons. Cost is the most obvious factor.

So far, the price point of smartwatches is far below the $1,500 you have to shell out for Glass (though there’s no doubt that Google has plans to eventually make Glass more affordable).

But there are psychological issues to consider too; watches are a familiar form factor. Nearly everyone has worn one and would be comfortable strapping on a smartwatch vs. the sci-fi look and feel of Google Glass. Smartwatches also present a screen-based UI (albeit much smaller) and navigation system that are not so far off from the smartphone desktop whereas Glass presents a whole new type of interaction that the average user has no blueprint for.

In short, the smartwatch is a much more approachable concept for the average consumer, so when it comes to wearable, watches will win (at least in the very near term).

The question for marketers is, what sort of opportunities will they present and how will brands take advantage of them?

Smartwatches and Content Strategy

So if we accept that our near future is more “Dick Tracy” than “Videodrome”, what do we do to ensure that we are creating the right kind of user experiences? Because if the average desktop website wasn’t working well on smartphones, it’s going to have even bigger challenges on smartwatch screens.

Just by virtue of their dimensions alone, these devices are going to call for a very different approach to content strategy and, more likely than not, permanently change the way we approach the desktop altogether. Exactly how things will change, it’s too early to say, according Wired editor Kevin Kelly.

“Nobody has any idea of what a new invention will really be good for,” according to Kelly. “The crucial question is, what happens when everyone has one?”

That’s especially true here. Best practices won’t even begin to materialize until a significant amount of us have smartwatches strapped to our wrists.

We can, however, hypothesize. Here’s a few ideas of how the average brand’s approach to content strategy and delivery might change in light of the smartwatch phenomenon.

Faster Adoption of Server-Side Responsive Design

Responsive design has caught on quickly as marketers begin to realize that multiple screens call for a more fluid and flexible approach to content delivery. However, responsive design in its strictest sense would involve sending a superfluous amount of data to a smartwatch which is why it is likely that we’ll see a faster adoption of responsive design with server-side components (RESS).

This more modular responsive approach involves using device type and device feature detection to present only select elements of a site, allowing for more customized layouts and a more manageable amount of data in the final site delivered to one’s desktop, smartphone, tablet, or, in this case, smartwatch.

Of all the changes we’ll see as a result of smartwatch uptake, this one is probably the most positive overall since a more customized approach to responsive design stands to benefit users significantly by creating better, more easily digestible and contextually relevant content across the board.

Increasing Adoption of Location and Proximity-Triggered Interactions

Early predictions from analysts posit smartwatches as “remote control” devices that will simply deliver filtered content from smartphones and tablets. No doubt this will be a big part of the value proposition but they are also likely to have additional, standalone uses.

One area where the smartwatch may take over from the smartphone altogether is in triggering location-based and proximity-based messages and interactions. The option to simply glance at one’s wrist for location-specific alerts or to tap or wave one’s wrist over a sensor to pay for an item or accept a coupon has a higher likelihood of uptake given the ease of use involved.

When you don’t have to dig your smartphone out of your handbag or pocket, these types of alerts will seem much more appealing. Ease of use is everything in mobile and hence the smartwatch will play a significant role in getting users to adapt to these types of locations and proximity-based interactions.

Greater Acceptance of Brand/Consumer Messaging and Alerts

In fact, smartwatches are very likely to altogether increase our reliance on alerts and bite-sized brand/consumer messages.

The smaller screens of these devices will generate a desire for extremely succinct and efficient content because if our tolerance for extraneous and irrelevant content was limited on a smartphone, it’s going to be even more limited on these devices.

The opt-in and preference-based model of SMS and push alerts promises to create experiences that make the most of the consumer’s time and the device’s capabilities.

Growing Acceptance of Opt-in Search Models

The limited screen size of smartphones is also apt to increase consumer acceptance of behaviorally and contextually-customized models of search such as Google Now.

The smaller our screens become, the less effort we’ll be expect to expend in searching for and gathering data – all the better if we can get our search criteria pre-filtered and proactively delivered.

Heavier reliance on voice search

If you thought fat finger syndrome was a problem on smartphones, just wait until your screen shrinks to 128×128 pixels.

It’s a given that the limitations these screens put on physical input will increase the usage of, and, eventually, reliance on, voice interaction for search, navigation, and any other functions that traditionally require physical input.

Accelerated uptake of app content

Another effect of diminished screen size may be increased consumer appetite for content in native app form. The simplified, icon-oriented user interfaces of apps present greater ease of use than the more info-dense structure of mobile websites and hence, are likely to increase in appeal.

The really interesting affect here is that brands are likely to step back from the angle of creating an app that mimics their website and start to think about creating suites of modular apps that provide specific, streamlined tools and content.

Smartwatches and SEO

So we’ve established that smartwatch content will probably look much different from that consumed on smartphones and tablets – more stripped down, preference-based, and action-oriented with a greater reliance on alerts, apps, and voice input. But how this content gets found is likely to look quite different as well.

Based on our assumptions of what the content will look like, we can probably make some fairly accurate predictions as to how the SEO best practices for smartwatches will unfold.

Location Factors

Location-specific keywords are bound to increase in importance with smartwatches; the fact that smaller screens call for more precisely targeted content practically ensures it since location is one of the foremost factors that influences realtime consumer behavior.

For content providers who have locally relevant content to offer, local organic search optimization will become more of a focus than ever before with more content, offers, and opportunities based on where the consumer is.

Preferential Factors

In fact, we may find that it’s the consumer’s location that’s really the determining factor, not the brand’s. This is something we’ve already started to see taking shape with products like Google Now.

Rather than the consumer receiving search results that are customized to reflect a brand’s local presence, we’re more likely to see permission-based, Google Now type models emerge in which consumers specify what types of content they’ll be looking for or be open to receiving in certain locations and under certain conditions.

For example, Starbucks might deliver you a notice that there are special offers at your local store when you’re miles away, but only deliver the actual coupon when you step inside the door.

The economy of space on these smaller screens will necessitate this kind of segmentation and it’s very likely that brands will be more dependent on consumers to let them know specifically what they want and when.

Voice Factors

Clearly voice search is going to come into its own eventually and smartwatches will no doubt speed the process. As discussed in my last post on SEO for apps, we’re likely to see progress in optimization for natural language queries vs. keywords but in the near term, there will be an increased focus on well-optimized mobile web pages with an emphasis on local content as well as optimization for longer queries and more slang and colloquial terms.

Optimization for Apps, Feeds, Locations, and Alerts

The biggest change of all may be that search from smartwatches is likely to be less focused on website results in favor of more actionable, bite-sized pieces of content. Physical locations will obviously be a popular query but consumers will also be more apt to search for feeds, opt-in alerts, and apps.

This last one is particularly interesting because, up until now, most app search has happened within app stores but with smartwatches, consumers will be more likely to skip that intermediary step and just use voice commands to search with the devices’s built-in search engine.

The lesson? You SEO strategy will need to diversify far beyond the web page of even the mobile web page since your users are probably going to be searching for a different set of content altogether.


It may seem like an oversimplification to say that the changes brought about by smartwatches will be all about the screen size but it’s all about the screensize. Less room for user input, navigation and consumption will turn up the pressure on us all to simplify, then simplify again and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Image Credit: Slash Gear


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