Website Visitor Behavior: Mobile vs. Desktop – By Ron Stauffer

Ed. Note: Not long ago I happened upon a few amazing posts by Ron Stauffer, an Internet Marketer with a knack for research. Even though I do not normally use guest posts on our website, his writing showed an outstanding understanding of the field, so I reached out to him on Twitter and asked him if he wanted to make a short post for our website. He decided to go above and beyond, and I’m pleased to show you the results of his work below. Special thanks to Ron for his hard work.

For nearly seven years, I’ve been designing, building, and marketing websites, and for almost that entire time, there’s been an important question in the industry that hasn’t quite been answered yet to everyone’s satisfaction: what should a website owner do to optimize his or her website for mobile visitors?

Having website users visit your website on a mobile device isn’t that new—we’ve seen mobile traffic on websites since at least 2003 (albeit with extremely primitive and nearly useless browsers), but it’s grown to become such a phenomenon that as of this writing (2013), some research firms estimate that nearly 25% of all traffic on the entire Internet is the result of mobile users (!).

So while I’ve always been interested in providing the best browsing experience for mobile users, my mind isn’t completely made up on the best way to fit the right content on a smaller screen. …but I think what’s more important to consider first is to ask the question that few people ask: do mobile and desktop visitors use websites exactly the same, or differently than each other?

This is a question I’ve seldom heard asked, aside from hearing people assert that mobile users like to use websites in a different manner, presumably because they’re on the go, or have less patience, or are more distracted, etc. But I’ve never actually seen primary research done that would test this assertion. Because of this, and because my motto for the past few years in Internet marketing has been “data wins arguments,” I’m going to refuse to argue about this issue until I see the data, which is exactly what I’m doing with this post.

I currently have access to the analytical data for several hundred websites, so from time to time, I like to go “gold mining” and comb through the sites available to me to test certain hypotheses I might have.

In this case, I found five website I want to run a test on to see just how different a mobile visitor’s behavior is than a desktop visitor, if at all. The five I chose are, I think, a good sampling to take data from: all of them are completely different industries, and have completely different business models with completely different target demographics. So while this is by no means a truly scientific survey, I’m confident in the statistics for the websites I’ve picked. Here are the industries I’ve chosen for this experiment:

  • Restaurant Group
  • Hot Tub Sales/Repair Company
  • Municipal Government Website
  • City Tourism Website (for a different city than above)
  • Jeweler & Diamond Seller

Here’s what I will do: I’m going to take some of the top analytical data reports and compare the desktop vs mobile users on each website, side by side, all else being equal, to see if there is any disparity in the way these two kinds of visitors actually use the websites in question. When we have that data, and only when we have it, we can actually start to make decisions on how to create our own mobile approach.

So here goes! Let’s dive right in! First off, we’ll just look at all five websites with their total traffic, their desktop traffic and their mobile traffic, all in context:

01 All Websites

Right off the bat, you can see that the Hot Tub Sales company gets the smallest amount of traffic (9,130 visits in 2012) while the Restaurant Group gets the most (69,175 visits in 2012). This is interesting for seeing the bigger picture, but doesn’t give us any real data yet. Moving right along…

02 Mobile vs Desktop

Now we’re really getting somewhere—here we can see that the restaurant group not only gets the most traffic, but also has the highest share of mobile traffic as a percentage of overall visits (24.8%, to be precise). In contrast, while the municipal government has the third highest overall traffic, it has the lowest mobile share with only 8.2% of all visits coming from mobile devices. What does this tell us? That restaurant websites seem to have a high percentage of mobile users. It also tells us that in each case, desktop users FAR outweigh mobile visitors. Moving on…

03 Pages per Visit

This next one is interesting as well: the average number of pages viewed per visit, broken down by device. It proves that (at least my random sampling of five websites), desktop users consistently view more pages per visit than the mobile users. So the assertion that mobile users view fewer pages on average appears to be accurate. What’s interesting as well is, as I would expect, it’s different for each industry. Note the breakdown below:

  • Municipal Government: Desktop users view 19% more pages/visit
  • Hot Tub Sales: Desktop users view 45% more pages/visit
  • Restaurant Group: Desktop users view 48% more pages/visit
  • City Tourism: Desktop users view 78% more pages/visit
  • Jeweler: Desktop users view 36% more pages/visit

While we could ponder all day long about why the discrepancy exists between these industries, I’m satisfied simply proving the point (seemingly) that mobile users do indeed view fewer pages on average.

Next, I want to focus on average time on site: this is the metric that gets web designers and marketers all riled up when discussing mobile vs desktop users. Someone will say “Mobile visitors only want to get on your website and find one piece of information then leave as quickly as possible because they’re probably walking down the street, or standing in line at the bank, etc.” Then someone else will say “Not true! Mobile users like to read just as much information as desktop users! I do all the time!” So here I am, putting on my “data wins arguments” cap, so let’s see what happens.

04 Visit Duration

So is it true? Do mobile users really spend less time on site? I’m happy to report that we have found more conclusive data: desktop users spend more time on site than mobile users. While it may be hard to see in the chart above, it actually shows that at minimum, desktop users spend 11% more on average than a mobile user, and, in the case of our city tourism website, they spend a whopping 73% more time on site.

Pontificate as you wish: there are many variables that could be at work here that would explain why there’s such a difference for each industry, but for today, all that matters is that ALL the sites have a greater visit duration from desktop users than mobile. Next up: bounce rates!

05 Bounce Rate

This one shows another drastic difference! Check these out:

  • Municipal Government: mobile users have a 18% higher bounce rate than desktop users
  • Hot Tub Sales: mobile users have a 24% higher bounce rate than desktop users
  • Restaurant Group: mobile users have 95% higher bounce rate than desktop users
  • City Tourism: mobile users have 32% higher bounce rate than desktop users
  • Jeweler: mobile users have 18% higher bounce rate than desktop users

Yowza! What a difference! (In case you’re not familiar with the term “bounce rate,” that means the rate of visits where your website user shows up and immediately hits the “back” button without clicking anywhere on your website). Now, as I’ve stressed many, many times in the past few years: a high bounce rate is not always necessarily bad! Restaurants, incidentally, have always been my favorite example of this—if you’re visiting a restaurant’s website, it may very well be you’re only on their website to find out when they close. Or find a find phone number. Or see when happy hour starts and ends. So, if a website is built well, it might be that all of that information is right on the home page, and so your user’s objectives—IN THEORY—can be accomplished entirely within a “bounce” in an analytics report.

Besides, with a restaurant, odds are your mobile visitors aren’t going to be downloading a large PDF with your entire menu on it. But all that aside, I feel this chart proves with confidence that mobile users have a much higher bounce rate than desktop users.

06 Day of Week

This one’s interesting—I wanted to see whether there was a difference in the peak days in the week by device, so above is a chart showing all five websites and their traffic, by day of the week, by device.

It’s probably hard to see (since I had to make these charts so small to fit all of them in), but there’s interesting data in here: the days with peak traffic are different for mobile vs desktop users for each website! The breakdown for peak traffic by day of the week is as follows:

  • Municipal Government: desktop = Monday,  mobile = Thursday
  • Hot Tub Sales: desktop = Monday,  mobile = Sunday
  • Restaurant Group: desktop = Friday,  mobile = Saturday
  • City Tourism: desktop = Wednesday,  mobile = Saturday
  • Jeweler: desktop = Tuesday,  mobile = Saturday

What are we to make of this? I’m not exactly sure, other than to say that it’s clear that people use their mobile devices and desktop computers more on different days of the week. If I had to speculate, I’d say it’s due to being at a desk during work hours on work days: if you notice, all five websites have their peak desktop traffic on weekdays (Mon, Mon, Tue, Wed, Fri) while four out of five of them have their peak mobile traffic on weekends (Sun, Sat, Sat, Sat—the only exception is the municipal government website, which peaks for mobile devices on Thursday).

Alright… almost time for us to finish this off with three final charts. First up: seasonal spikes. I wanted to know if there’s a difference between devices in the seasonal spikes in traffic. Let’s take a look, with some slightly different charts below.

07 Seasonal Spikes

This one really kind of blows my mind: there’s an enormous difference between seasonal spikes in desktop and mobile users: the spikes and dips in traffic on desktop has wild variations up and down, while the mobile traffic is relatively steady all year long. Even when there are spikes in mobile traffic, as you can see, they often don’t correspond at all to the spikes in desktop traffic. The restaurant group, for example, has a huge spike for desktop traffic in November, while the needle barely moves for mobile users, and yet at the end of the year, desktop traffic declines while mobile traffic increases. The municipal government site has a huge spike in July, and almost no increase at all from mobile. The hot tub sales website has several spikes in desktop throughout the year with no discernable spikes in mobile at all. The jeweler has in incredible drop right at the end of the year, while mobile remains steady.

I don’t have enough information to come to a conclusion for why these variations are so large, other than the simple observation that they are. Mobile traffic seems to remain steady almost all year long.

08 Return Visits

This one isn’t completely conclusive, but it’s still interesting. It shows that mobile users seem to return to websites at the same rate or slightly higher than desktop users. Meaning: a mobile user will come back to your website more than once at the nearly the same rate as someone using a desktop computer. This is really surprising to me, since so far we’ve seen that mobile users bounce more, view fewer pages, and spend less time on your site… but they come back for a return visit quite frequently: 28% of all the restaurant group’s mobile visits are returning visits, which is pretty darn high, and they see 15% more return visits from mobile users than they do desktop users. In this case, only the municipal government website sees more returning visits from desktop users, which seems to be to be an extreme outlier, so I’m almost willing to call that a fluke since it’s so different from the other four.

09 Social Referral

Last, but not least, we have one of the most interesting charts so far, and one that shatters what was apparently an illusion I had: I used to think that mobile users were more social and interacted with websites more on mobile devices more than desktop users would, but check this out—desktop users have a much higher level of social referral (i.e. clicking through from a social networking site to your website) than mobile users do.

First of all, social media marketers take note: across the board, as a percentage of all traffic, social referrals account for 4.5% AT MOST, which is absolutely dismal if you’re trying to build your business with it. (The hot tub sales website saw the worst return on mobile social visits: only 0.01%!). Most of these websites had organic search as their number one source of acquisition, (which is part of why I’ve been a firm believer in Search Engine Marketing first and foremost, and have only suggested that businesses use social media to supplement a good search and content strategy first).

Here’s the details:

  • Municipal Government: 60% greater social referral on desktop vs mobile
  • Hot Tub Sales: 6% greater social referral on desktop vs mobile
  • Restaurant Group: 41% greater social referral on desktop vs mobile
  • City Tourism: 26% greater social referral on desktop vs mobile
  • Jeweler: 12% greater social referral on desktop vs mobile

So while I’m certainly not knocking social media (because I do believe it’s important that organizations engage on social media), this is definitive proof that the overall impact is minimal unless you’re actively engaging potential customers on social networks (in this case, only the restaurant group was doing so) but even then, four out of five of these websites are only seeing social referral in the fractions of a percent of their visitors.

There you have it! We’ve just analyzed 8 different metrics to look for deviations between mobile and desktop users. As I mentioned in the beginning, my intent was not to come to any major conclusions about how you should build a mobile website or create a mobile strategy, I can hopefully at least shed some light on the differences in the mindsets and behavior of mobile users.

If you’re a website owner, your next step is going to be to try to run these steps yourself on your own website. View your analytics reports and split up the data by device to see if your own website visitors exhibit any major differences—this can really help you understand your website visitors, which, in turn, helps you understand your customers.

As a quick recap, here are the nine different things we learned:

  1. Every industry and every website is going to see different overall traffic numbers
  2. Desktop is still, by a wide margin, much more popular than mobile generally speaking
  3. Mobile users view far fewer pages per visit than desktop users
  4. Mobile users spend far less time on websites than desktop users
  5. Mobile users have a much higher bounce rate than desktop users
  6. Mobile users have higher numbers of visits on different days than desktop users
  7. Mobile users see completely different seasonal traffic trends than desktop users
  8. Mobile users return to your website at the same rate or potentially higher than desktop users
  9. Mobile users click through to websites via social media at a drastically smaller rate than desktop users do

So go forth and test! Look at the data! Only when you’ve seen for yourself what your mobile users are doing can you truly address their needs. I’d love to hear what kind of stats you’re seeing on the websites you manage. Good luck, and feel free to leave comments below on your findings!

Author

  • Micah Abraham

    Micah Abraham is the owner and lead content writer at Great Leap Studios (https://GreatLeapStudios.com) and High Volt Digital (https://HighVoltDigital.com).
    Micah has over 15 years of content writing and digital marketing experience, and has owned and operated Great Leap Studios since 2013 and High Volt since 2022.
    He has a degree in Psychology from the University of Washington, and has researched and written content on a wide range of topics in the medical and health fields, home services, tech, and beyond.
    Micah lives with his family in California.

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