For a tech-savvy person like you, dear VentureBeat reader, the magnifying glass icon on a mobile website suggests the presence of a search feature.

But it appears that you are in the minority when it comes to knowing what to do when you see this most Sherlockian of icons. In fact, the magnifying glass isn’t the only “standardized icon” that produces the wrong reaction, and this is a big issue for mobile web designers everywhere.

Data released today by Moovweb — which took in over 100 million smartphone sessions — suggests that some of the most seemingly obvious mobile design elements are anything but. Fortunately, the study also reveals what we can do about the problem, and it offers up some interesting conclusions.

Let’s consider the simple search bar.

On the desktop, search bars reign supreme. According to Moovweb’s research, 80 percent of the Fortune 500 websites have an exposed search bar when viewed on a desktop browser. On mobile, it found that only 56 percent of the same sites exposed the search bar from the outset. The others? They have optimized their websites for mobile by reducing the exposed search bar to an icon that — when touched — reveals a search option.

That’s a problem, because, as you’ll see, the data clearly shows that hiding the search bar behind an icon cuts a shopper’s propensity to use the search feature by half.

That’s not all the study found.

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Prior research from Moovweb showed that mobile users don’t always recognize standardized navigation icons for what they are. In the case of the “hamburger menu,” for example, Moovweb found that a leading travel site increased engagement by 61 percent simply by labeling the three-bar icon with the word “Menu” underneath.

But surely the magnifying glass is a more recognizable icon than the hamburger?

According to the data, mobile shoppers on sites with exposed search bars were 75 percent more likely to use the search feature than mobile customers on sites with the search bar hidden behind an icon.

“All the mobile sites we analyzed had text in the search bar (such as “search keywords or item #”) but we dug deeper into the sites,” Joanna Zhong, data analyst at Moovweb told me. “Twenty-four percent had no magnifying glass, just text in the search bar. Seventy-six percent had text in the search bar and the magnifying glass. There was no difference in engagement with the search bar based on the presence or absence of the magnifying glass.”

It turns out that in mobile web design, the old rules of marketing still apply. If you want people to do something, you explicitly have to ask them — in their native language — to do it. Assuming that an icon will work in place of explicit instruction, to help save screen real estate, is a costly mistake.

Of course, doubling the interaction rate by offering an exposed search bar doesn’t mean anything unless it produces results.

Moovweb studied 45 million visits and found that smartphone visitors who used the search bar had a conversion rate that was more than 2.4X that of visitors who did not conduct any searches on the site.

You read that correctly. Shoppers who used the search bar converted at over twice the rate of those who didn’t.


“We also found that the highest engagement with the search bar was on the search results page,” Zhong said. “All the sites that offer exposed search bars stop showing the search bar at the ‘cart’ page, but both of those are passed the Search Results page.”

This suggests that your most engaged, high-converting users search and search again until they find what they want. Removing the exposed search bar at the cart is a mechanism designed to reduce cart abandonment.

Of course, Moovweb’s data isn’t suggesting that everyone should go and permanently reveal their mobile web search bars or ditch standardized icons. You still have to build a hypothesis, split-test the changes, and stick with the winning design, just as in any other conversion rate optimization process.

But the study does offer a compelling argument against assuming that the icons we take for granted are obvious to all users. And it reveals that the humble search bar is more significant than we previously knew. A hundred million smartphone sessions suggest so.

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