Google's next mobile web playApril 5, 2012: 5:00 AM ET
It's dominant in mobile ads and its Android makes up half of smartphone traffic. Now, it wants to move more businesses onto the mobile web.
By Sierra Jiminez, reporter
See correction below.
FORTUNE — Google launched a new service today allowing companies to transform their websites for viewing on smartphones. The search engine giant hopes that by making sites more accessible, it can improve its lead in the rapidly growing mobile arena.
Google's (GOOG) new service is part of its "Go Mobile" initiative, a campaign to move companies in in the direction of making better use of mobile platforms including phones and tablets. For $9 a month, a Google partner will host a mobile-friendly version of a company's website with a touch-enabled interface that almost looks like an iPhone app. Firms can test the service free for a year and customize a new mobile site Google generates from their existing site. "Anybody who has browsed a regular website on their phone knows how bad the experience is," says Dennis Mink, CMO of DudaMobile, a startup. Google is using DudaMobile's technology to generate and host the sites.
Mexicue, a New York City based food truck and restaurant chain, is using the service. The company's current site gets about 5,000 page views a week, but prior to optimizing the site for mobile, it lacked any sort of easy navigation. That was a problem, says co-founder and CEO David Schillace. "A working mobile site is extremely important for our food truck because it's constantly changing locations," he says. "The first two buttons allow people to call us and find us, which is basically what all our customers need to know," Schillace says.
Google has a strong lead in mobile. Nearly half of U.S. mobile users now own a smartphone, according to Nielsen (NLSN). About half are using phones running Google's Android operating system. The search leader's latest move is an attempt to extend its reach further. The company is already the dominant player in the mobile $1.45 billion ad market, accounting for more than of U.S. mobile ad revenues in 2011, according to digital marketing firm eMarketer.
Google sees an opportunity in helping companies optimize their sites for the mobile web. Even with the advent of fully capable browsers on current smartphones, many companies are still failing to take even the first step into the mobile space, says Jason Spero, head of mobile sales and strategy at Google. According to Spero, 62% of Google's top advertisers don't have a mobile site. "Businesses are kind of late to arrive to this consumer trend, and a large part of that is because they don't know exactly what to do," Spero says.
For companies who were quick to jump on the mobile bandwagon, the effort seems to have paid off. Major League Baseball began six years ago with a staff of three focusing on mobile and wireless technology. Today, that team has grown to nearly 50 people and the brand's monthly wireless traffic -- including the popular "At Bat" app and mobile site -- has eclipsed MLB.com traffic. By itself, "At Bat" averaged 8.2 million visits per week last year.
LIkewise, 1-800-Flowers (FLWS) launched its first mobile site in 2006 before expanding into the apps three years later. Since then, the flower retailer has added a new social app that connects to Facebook to remind customers of their friends's birthdays. The company also revamped its mobile website last year so customers could finish a purchase with fewer clicks. Its changes have decreased shopping cart abandonment by 53%. But the real key to mobile success, says company president Chris McCann, is to be on every device and platform the consumer is on. "We're trying to make a rich user experience according to each different device. Right now, we're even designing a separate tablet experience," McCann says.
That method may have worked in the beginning of the mobile evolution, but business have to take a more cautious approach now, says Mike Svatek, chief strategy officer of Bazaarvoice, a social software company that analyzes online and mobile branding for companies like Macy's (M) and Schwan's. "Ideally, you want to establish a baseline before you start tailoring to different devices or diving into apps," Svatek says. "For some brands, apps just don't make sense. There are hundreds of thousands of apps out there, so how do you get a user to find your app, install it, and continually use it?"
And that's where Google comes in. It has seen how vital the mobile web is to its future. Now, it's likely to keep looking for new ways to exploit it.
A previous version of the story mistakenly stated that Google host the mobile sites. DudaMobile, Google's partner, hosts them. The text has been changed to reflect this.