Searching beyond cities: SEA’s non-urban opportunity

Justin See / September 2019

In Southeast Asia (SEA), phones aren’t just for communication and entertainment. People use them to search for everything from up-to-the-minute news to new products to buy. Together with Ipsos,1 we studied how search fits into the lives of mobile users in non-metro areas across the region and discovered four key insights.

From 2015 to 2018, the number of internet users in SEA grew from 260 million to 350 million. In a region where 90% of users connect to the internet via smartphones, that growth is only expected to escalate as improvements to infrastructure and mobile data affordability lower the barriers to internet accessibility.

We teamed up with Ipsos equipped with the hypothesis that non-urban users make up a large portion of the population primarily using their phones for communication, social media, and entertainment. Our study looked at how non-urban mobile users in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam behave online, and the results led to four key learnings about their consumer journeys and the opportunities that lie ahead for brands.


1. Search has become the top source of information for everything from entertainment to news.

Throughout SEA, non-urbanites are increasingly relying on search to help them find the information they need, with two-thirds using search on their mobile phones. This was especially visible in Indonesia and Vietnam, where 84% and 83% of non-urban mobile users turn to search, respectively.

On average, mobile users in SEA’s non-urban areas search across 11 categories, ranging from apparel and dining to health and weather. These users also have a strong tendency to search for topics related to news and media. They turn to search to access quick and updated information on current affairs and politics.

2. Non-urban mobile users are receptive to search ads as long as they’re relevant.

We found that 58% of non-urban users find search ads useful and that relevance is key. When an ad is relevant, 62% of non-urban mobile users reported they’re more likely to click, compared to 44% of urbanites. Unsurprisingly, across all countries surveyed, the top factors that compelled users to click on ads were relevant images, promotions, and headlines.


3. Active search users tend to be present on YouTube, especially in the Philippines and Malaysia.

In Malaysia, there’s a 107% greater likelihood that non-urban active search users watch YouTube videos daily compared to their less active counterparts. This increased likelihood varies tremendously from 43% in Vietnam to a whopping 342% in the Philippines. For marketers, this opens up an opportunity to reach non-urban mobile users with online video — even if the size of that opportunity varies for each country.

4. Non-urban consumers are more likely to make purchases across leisure and tourism categories

In four of the six countries surveyed, non-urban consumers were more likely to make purchases — both online and offline — across a few specific categories. Leisure categories had a higher conversion rate, with non-urban users 132% more likely to make a purchase in the travel & tourism category and 96% more likely to make a purchase in the hobbies & leisure category after searching for those topics. In both the Philippines and Thailand, computer & consumer electronics also ranked highly. To reach these consumers effectively, brands need to look beyond traditional channels and connect with people on digital.

Increasingly, we’re seeing people turn to search not only to get informed, but also to help them along their customer journeys — whether that’s planning, researching, or making the transaction online. For marketers, moving beyond urban areas is going to be pivotal for growing their customer base in SEA. Brands are faced with a necessary shift toward digital if they want to stay top of mind among their users — and their search ads need to be relevant to this non-urban market.

Google partnered with Ipsos on custom research to uncover insights about how people use search* and its role in people’s daily lives. In November 2017 and February 2018, online surveys and offline face-to-face interviews covering both urban and non-urban areas were conducted with over 12,000 respondents across six countries in Southeast Asia. Respondents who answered the survey were smartphone users who access the internet at least once a month.

*The area of coverage includes (1) mobile and desktop search in Singapore and (2) mobile search for Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.

There is something for everyone: What are people in Southeast Asia watching online?