Will Mobile kill free services?

31 05 2012

Sorry to be blogging about Mobile again, but at the moment it’s my main focus of work….In this post I want to have a quick look at the problem mobile presents to companies that live, and potentially die based on advertising revenues.

 

The advertising model

The biggest player in building their business solely on advertising revenue is without doubt Google. Almost everything it does is based around gaining more information on us users, so that it can effectively deliver adverts back to us in a better fashion, so we are more likely to click on them, and Google gets paid. The more clicks, the more Google earns and can even charge. It’s this model that allows Google to deliver pretty much all of their services, and software (Android springs to mind) for free, all funded by charging for adverts. Don’t kid yourself that Google delivers services for free because it’s a loving, don’t be evil company. Most of the things Google deliver for free are there to help Google gain more data so they can advertise more effectively. Mobile is a great example, and one of the reasons Google purchased Android, so they had a mobile presence to locate us and advertise based on geographic locations.

Google isn’t the only company that lives by charging for adverts, there are many businesses out there, small and large, especially online, that make their money mainly from delivering adverts. How many times do you go to a website and there are adverts delivered on it? How many times do you read a blog with adverts delivered on it? Quite a few. Even Facebook only makes money because it charges for adverts that are delivered on the website to us users.

So what happens to companies if they cannot effectively deliver adverts any longer?

 

The Mobile Problem

Currently Facebook is becoming rudely aware of this problem, so much so that its newly floated stock is now trading almost $10 down on its launch. Why? Well it’s all to do with the company’s ability to monetize and take advantage of its 900m user base. You see, on Facebook the website (used from a desktop) we have adverts constantly being shown to us. These are tailored ads, based on what I like, what I talk about, my own personal status, and as such Facebook can charge for these. However, if I use Facebook on my mobile phone, these ads simply aren’t there. The concern is then, with so many more of us using our mobile phones as our primary device to access the web that companies won’t want to pay for adverts if no one is able to see them. This basically means Facebook can no longer deliver ads effectively.

This problem isn’t limited to Facebook. Think of those free apps we have all downloaded that have ads being displayed. They are free because the ads are paying for them. But how much space do those ads take up, and typically you can only see one single advert. The problem is that ads jar the mobile user experience, they don’t fit in well and the user finds themselves scrolling to see the actual content they use the app for. I for one have un-installed 5 or 6 apps now where I simply got annoyed with the adverts.

Don’t think though Google is exempt here. Using search on your mobile is fine, and Google still can display its sponsored links there, however, a chunk of Google’s revenue is displaying ads on other peoples websites, blogs etc. As more of us turn to mobile to access the web, these adverts start to disappear, and therefore so does Google’s revenues from these ads. The next mobile problem is that many of us prefer Apps over a browser experience on our mobile phones. This means we start to not even search using websites like Google.com, rather we use an app. I for one use the Bing app, the user experience is far better than visiting the mobile website version, and it integrates with other tools and functions, such as QR code scanning, voice and local scout (which delivers search results local to me and includes such things as local restaurants, points of interest etc.) This means the only adverts I have any chance of seeing are those sponsored links that come back in a handful of searches.

With all this in mind, can the likes of Google even see revenues falling as it too struggles to deliver ads down to mobile devices? Sure, Google has a big enough market share of search to survive, but can it charge enough to then keep subsidising so many of its ongoing projects, and even worse, the number of failed projects that have cost millions which are raking up?

 

End of free services?

We have got used to so many free services online, Search, Social Networks, watching videos etc. All these things cost money, and currently so many of them are funded purely by the ability to deliver adverts to us online. Mobile really does threaten that model, if you can’t successfully deliver a number of ads down to user’s mobile device, then why will a business advertise with you? If revenues start to fall, then how long is it possible for companies to make losses on all these free services? Google subsidises everything it does based on adverts, but if those revenues can no longer support everything Google does, will we start seeing services getting switched off, or having to pay for them? No doubt Google search will survive, but the question is can Google afford to deliver everything else it does for free?

For the likes of Facebook, the mobile threat is even greater; it really does present a problem. Keep in mind that if this is true of Facebook, a company with some 900m active users, then it will be for any business that is built on advertisement revenues. Mobile really could be the death of free services online, unless companies can figure out a new way to deliver adverts back down to our mobile devices. That’s tough, especially since ads ruin the user experience currently. At the moment, mobile could be the grim reaper for so many free services.

…We shall see….

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