mobile vs desktop usage
Research Intelligence

Our Different Devices Know Us Differently: Understanding Mobile vs. Desktop Usage Across Countries and Categories

March 13, 2018 | Updated June 22, 2022

The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet – William Gibson

While the “mobile revolution” seems like “old news,” in fact it was only in October 2016 that mobile web usage surpassed desktop usage globally. Obviously, some countries, and some categories, are ahead of the curve in terms of their mobile vs desktop usage – trends I’ll explore in this post.

Specifically, I’ll use Similarweb digital research intelligence data to explore how traffic patterns differ across 21 countries, reflecting most of the world’s key markets (with the exception of China). And for simplicity, I’ve focused on the top 100 sites within each country (although the results, in relative terms, don’t differ dramatically if the number of sites is expanded). Then I will drill deeper into our US data to explore device preferences across two dozen high-level categories. To maximize data stability, these data are aggregated over the past year, meaning they will tend to slightly underestimate mobile web usage today.

Country Close-Ups: US the Largest Market, While India Is Second Largest and Most Mobile

The US stands out as an outlier in market size, with nearly 60 billion visits monthly, roughly three times the traffic of the next largest market, India, whose population is four times larger. This reflects both the relative affluence of the US (high Internet penetration and usage for many years), and the fact that four of the top five sites globally are category dominators located in the US (Google, Facebook, YouTube and Wikipedia). Two-thirds of US traffic is mobile web – about average for the 21 countries examined.

If we remove the US, patterns become easier to spot as the remaining countries “spread out.”

  • The most mobile-heavy countries (the top of the chart) are India, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines – reflecting the developing world tends to go “straight to mobile,” skipping a computer-based phase.
  • The largest digital markets (the right side of the chart) can be thought of as “BRIC + J”: Brazil, Russia, India and China, along with Japan. China, not included in this particular analysis, would certainly go in the upper right – a huge mobile-heavy market. These five countries each have large digital markets, but a range of mobile web usage, ranging from 54% (Russia) to 82% (India).
  • Eastern European countries (along with Portugal) cluster in the lower left – smaller markets hovering around a 50/50 mobile web/desktop split.
  • Western European countries cluster in the center – 5-10 billion visits to the top 100 sites monthly, with about 60% of their internet use being mobile web.

Category Close-Ups: A Tale of Category Dominators, and How Intimately Our Phones Know Us

Turning to categories within the US, we see another outlier – search gets twice as many monthly visits as the nearest category. Removing search highlights four large categories, each with 50-60% mobile web usage, and each dominated by a giant player: social (Facebook), arts & entertainment (YouTube), news & media (Yahoo!), and shopping (Amazon).

Vices and guilty pleasures skew mobile. The adult category stands out both for its size (next closest in size to shopping), and for being over 80% mobile. Although smaller in size, gambling is the second most mobile-skewing category, followed by “people and society” (a relatively diverse category led by dating sites).

The lower left quadrant below reflects smaller categories that skew (relatively) desktop, such as travel and financial services. Categories in this quadrant tend to be transaction-oriented. Many consumers still prefer to make purchases and financial transactions using a keyboard; by some estimates, desktop purchases are still 10X mobile purchases. And transaction-oriented categories can thrive with many fewer visits than advertising-supported ones. These categories also tend to be research-intensive, driving consumers to the bigger screens of desktops and laptops.

Summing Up: Different Devices Know Different Aspects of Us

On the whole, these results underscore several familiar findings: the central importance of search in our digital lives; Google’s resulting dominance; the long tail of virtually every category; the magnitude of BRIC+J; the mobile-first developing world. More fundamentally, these results highlight how our different devices know us differently…

  • Our phones know where we are. Our computers know where we want to go.
  • Our phones know our snackable media consumption. Our computers know what we’ll binge watch for hours.
  • Our phones know what we want to skim. Our computers know what we want to study.
  • Our phones know what we shop for. Our computers know what we buy.
  • Our phones are about instant gratification. Computers are about delayed gratification – wait till you get home to use it, buy things that will arrive later, and invest for the future.
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