Top 10: Online trends for 2015, what does the future hold?

A year online can feel like a decade in the real world.

Multibillion-dollar companies are made, or broken, in a matter of months; internet use is rising exponentially in the Middle East and Africa; and some of our most ingrained daily routines – writing a tweet, or sharing a Snapchat – are through services that did not exist a 10 years ago.

Midway through 2015, Benchmark’s Ben Flanagan assesses the top trends shaping the internet in the Gulf region and beyond.

  1. Internet traffic growing apace

Not only are more and more people in the Middle East and Africa using the internet, but they are using it more heavily.

Web traffic is growing faster in the region than anywhere else in the world, according to a report by Cisco.

The technology giant says internet protocol (IP) traffic in the region will grow by an average of 44 percent a year between 2014 and 2019. That’s almost double the global growth rate of 23 percent.

2. All eyes on online video

Growth in online video is also growing sharply this year. According to Cisco, video will account for 80 percent of all consumer internet traffic by 2019, up from 64 percent in 2014.

Such growth is also playing out in the Gulf region, which already has some of the highest rates of YouTube use in the world.

Harris Breslow, associate professor in the Department of Mass Communication at the American University of Sharjah, said the rising popularity of video meant that other platforms are starting to compete with the Google-owned service.

“User-generated video will increasingly migrate away from YouTube as other platforms vie for this form of user-generated content,” said Breslow, who is also director of the Emirates Internet Project.

3. Facebook Vs YouTube

Facebook has considerably upped its video offering this year, in what’s viewed by some as a direct challenge to YouTube.

In March it introduced a function whereby users can embed Facebook-hosted video on other sites, a key feature of rival YouTube. In July Facebook said it is testing a ‘Watch Later’ button for videos, billed by Time magazine as ‘another stab at what YouTube does best’.

And it is also testing a way for video uploaders to make money by sharing ad revenue – which is, you guessed it, another pop at YouTube’s business. Such features are all geared towards boosting video views on Facebook – thus translating into more ad revenue.

Video is already one of the fastest-growing categories on Facebook, with 4 billion daily video views on the site in the second quarter of 2015.

4. ‘Mobilegeddon’ is nigh

Google tweaked its algorithms on April 21 to favour mobile-friendly websites, in a move dubbed ‘mobilegeddon’.

For most internet businesses, this did not quite mark the final judgement day implied by the gloomy nickname. But it did have an impact, with an Adobe Systems report finding that traffic to non-mobile-friendly websites from Google mobile searches fell by 12% in two months.

Ashwin Salian, Managing Partner at the Dubai-based digital agency Clique Interactive, said Gulf websites could suffer more than most if ‘mobilegeddon’ starts having a significant impact on search-result pages.

“Gulf businesses [would] be affected more by these changes than the global average. As of last year, 85 percent of mobile websites were not even mobile-friendly, just mobile-responsive,” he told Benchmark.

Salian said that, Google algorithms aside, having a decent mobile site is becoming more and more important.

“More than 42 percent of searches in the GCC were conducted on mobile as opposed to desktop or laptop last year. We are at a stage where, mobilegeddon or not, having a mobile-optimised site for a business is a must.”

5. Mobile ads poised for growth

People in the Middle East are crazy about their smartphones – but advertisers, it seems, are not.

According to the regional entrepreneurs’ platform Wamda, mobile accounts for just 3 percent of the Middle East and North Africa’s total advertising market.

That is despite the fact that, in many countries, consumers are more likely to access the web on their phones than they are on a desktop or laptop computer.

Experts forecast the value of mobile advertising to increase this year – possibly at the expense of desktop ads.

6. Clock ticking on wearables

This year saw the much-hyped arrival of the Apple Watch, to mixed reviews.

While the product has not yet officially launched in the Middle East, Salian pointed to the popularity of fitness-tracking wristbands as evidence of the rise of ‘wearable’ internet-connected devices in the region.

“Smartphones are growing in size literally, allowing space for smaller devices in the market. In the Middle East in particular, wearable tech seems to have stepped in as a unique fashion accessory,” he said.

But it remains to be seen whether 2015 will be the year of the wearables. “With every new wearable launch, there is talk of that year being the year it will take off. The trick to wearable tech is that it needs to be made desirable and indispensable to consumers,” said Salian.

“2015 might not be the year wearable tech takes off – we’re past the half-year mark already – but there could be a change in the near future. We just have to wait and watch.”

7. Shop ‘til you drop on your smartphone

Google said in July it is testing a function that will add ‘buy’ buttons to promoted mobile-search results, something designed to encourage more people to shop online. Salian said he expects such features to boost smartphone shopping in the Gulf region.

“There’s already an increase in e-commerce, and we see that increase happening on mobile as well. The Gulf already relies on mobile for many of its transactional experiences, and the recent introduction of the ‘buy’ button will contribute to this growth across regions.”

8. Sites that don’t do exactly what they say on the tin

It’s all about the interface in the 2015 online world: Some of the fastest-growing sites offer a handy shopfront, but aren’t actually involved in the nitty gritty of the services they sell.

As Tom Goodwin, senior vice president of strategy and innovation at Havas Media, wrote in March: “Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening.”

9. In-store mobile payments

Apple in July named the United Kingdom as the first market outside the US in which its digital-wallet system will be launched.

Apple Pay lets consumers use their iPhone 6, iPad or Apple Watch to make in-store payments in a similar way to contactless credit cards. It was reported in May that the California tech firm is in discussion with UAE banks about rolling out the service locally.

If talks are successful then iPhone users here could soon be paying for their morning coffee with a tap of their phone.

10. Death of individuality

Machines now know what we like better than we do – even when it comes to the underground music scene.

Recommendations algorithms are increasingly influencing what music we listen to (Spotify), the TV shows we watch (Netflix) and the books we read (Amazon).

Alexander McNabb, a UAE-based author and consultant in publishing, media and digital communications, pointed to the way suggestions are made by online music-streaming services.

And this, he says, is making cultural consumption a little samey. “It all coalesces into a soup of repetitive mainstream experience,” he said.

“A little like the way all classroom plasticine eventually turns purple-brown.”