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Mobile SEO: 3 Experts, 3 Questions, 3 Answers

by Andy Komack

30
Jan
2012

mobile SEO

While having a mobile website is a critical tool for marketers, it is just as critical to maximize your investment by driving relevant search traffic to that site.  Mobile SEO is a tactic that everyone is rushing to master, hoping to capture potential customers while they are searching from the palm of their hand.

We lined up three Mobile SEO Experts and asked them each the same three questions in order to gain insight on where the art & science of mobile SEO is heading.

Meet Our Experts

Cindy Krum

Web: MobileMoxie.com
Twitter: @mobilemoxie

Bryson Meunier

Web: BrysonMeunier.com
Twitter: @brysonmeunier

Sherwood Stranieri

Web: BarsOfSignal.com
Twitter: @sherwoodseo

Each expert was hand selected from our Mobile Marketing Map.

Question #1

Is mobile SEO an imperative right now in terms of capturing significant traffic, or are we in a stage where we are currently laying the groundwork for something coming soon in the world of mobile search?

Cindy Krum

This is a great question!

For most companies, mobile SEO is not an imperative yet, but it may be soon. The imperative, or at least the first step, is to build with SEO in mind. That means crawlable and indexable content, keyword rich file structure, editable meta data, fast load time and appropriate user-agent detection and redirection. Things are changing with the addition of GoogleBot Mobile for Smart Phones, which automatically looks for mobile redirects from your desktop site to alternative mobile pages, but those things, coupled with strong SEO on the desktop site will go a long way for most companies.

Bryson Meunier

Instead of “or”, I would say “and”.

The traffic is nowhere near as significant as it will be in the near and distant future, but it’s not 2004 anymore, when most people had feature phones and searched from their desktops. Mobile search is here, and it’s not going away. In fact, by next year more people will use their mobile phones than their PCs to get online. You can imagine what this will do to mobile search.

But mobile search is already pretty big. In May of last year Google reported that mobile accounted for 14% of their total search volume, on average, and for some verticals it was as much as 30%. Given that Google mobile searches have grown 4x since 2010, those figures, while impressive, are almost certainly outdated, and much smaller than mobile search traffic today. So not having a mobile site to monetize this traffic is like being closed on a Thursday, according to Google.

It’s similar to the early days of the web in some sense, when companies put print brochures online to get online quickly with minimal cost, not thinking about whether that print brochure would be an effective vehicle for the new medium. In hindsight we know now that it wasn’t, and the disciplines of web design, usability, SEO, conversion optimization, etc. have since emerged to help us understand what content should be targeted to what users, and how that content should be designed to make it appealing and accessible to search engine users so that they find it and perform the desired action. With mobile web design, some companies are back to putting print brochures online, making inaccessible, unappealing content and presenting it to mobile users. SEOs like me who have seen this fail before know better at this point, and do what’s necessary to help the business succeed.

The strangest thing is that this is just the beginning of this sea change. As Google Search inevitably follows Google Maps in having more mobile users than desktop users (as Google Maps did in June of 2011), more marketers are going to realize that mobile search affects their bottom line and that ignoring it would be cause for extinction. And as more marketers realize this, it will be harder and harder to rank without thinking of mobile searchers and the kind of content that appeals to them.

Sherwood Stranieri

I think the answer varies widely, depending on the business you’re in and the customers you’re chasing.

But this questions comes-up a lot, so I’ve started using a metric I call the Mobile Ratio.

Basically, it’s a keyword research exercise, where you take your existing desktop search keywords, find the equivalent search volumes for mobile, and then compare them side-by-side. The Mobile Ratio is your desktop search volume divided mobile volume.

So if you have a Mobile Ratio of 5, you know that you have one potential mobile user for every 5 desktop users. When you knock the question down to a simple metric like this, it takes the guesswork out of it, and it’s a lot easier to make an informed decision.

Question #2

If a company had time and resources to do only three things right now, what would be the three mobile SEO tactics you would recommend doing that would have the most benefit?

Cindy Krum

First: Setting up the appropriate user agent detection and redirection scheme. (FYI, I have a tool that is super easy to use, and will write the detection and redirection scripts for you: http://www.mobilemoxie.com/marketing-tools/redirection-script-generator.  It rocks).

Second: Optimizing the meta data, including title tags, heading tags, description tags, and alt tags. This is the same as you would for your desktop site, but if you have different keywords for mobile, use those here instead.

Third: Get your local-seo-mojo on. If you are a brick and mortar location, one of the best things you can do to reach people on their phone is to show up in the map results. Map results are super useful, even if people don’t always make it to your website, because people can click ‘call’ or ‘map’ to begin an offline conversion. This is harder to track, but totally worth it, because driving foot traffic and making your brand easy to reach and easy to find is a great goal.

Beyond your normal local SEO tactics, consider using the hCard microformat, and even consider including your specific GPS coordinates to the hCard, as that might help some of the mapping programs get people to your store more effectively.

Bryson Meunier

First, understand your mobile audience. At Resolution Media we have a product called ClearTarget where we use multiple data sources to get a more complete picture of your audience, and this can be used to identify a brand’s most valuable consumer and target them more effectively using their own interests and keywords. Our clients sometimes use this to understand who their mobile audience is, and how that differs from their traditional or desktop audience.

There are also some simple things that a brand can do to begin to research their mobile audience. For starters, they can incorporate mobile keywords into their keyword research process with the AdWords keyword tool. Also, Quantcast and Google AdPlanner make it possible to look at the demographics of your desktop web site and mobile web site (assuming you use a mobile subdomain, rather than handheld CSS) to get a sense of how your mobile audience differs  from your desktop audience. Many of our clients find that they made assumptions about who their mobile audience was and what they wanted that weren’t true. Understanding those truths helps make the messages more relevant, and often results in higher engagement rates and conversions.

Next, once you know who your audience is and what they’re looking for, create mobile pages. These are pages that don’t necessarily exist on your desktop site, but you know your mobile users are looking for. For example, State Farm’s mobile site foregrounds roadside assistance and phone numbers on the mobile home page (and not the desktop page) because they know that a mobile user is more likely to be looking for information on roadside assistance and towing than a desktop user. They should have taken this a step further and used the word towing, which mobile users overindex for, but changing the information architecture of their mobile site is a good start.

Finally, I would take advantage of Google’s recent old possum update and set up the proper redirects from your desktop site to your feature phone, smartphone and/or tablet pages. Google still shows a lot of desktop content in mobile and smartphone search results, even though that content almost always requires additional work for the user to process. But late last year they released a Googlebot for smartphones and a way for webmasters to place mobile URLs in smartphone search results in place of a desktop URL, even if that URL has less total link equity than the ranked version.

Sherwood Stranieri

First, assuming you have a mobile site up and running, I think some basic hygiene goes a long way. On the content side, make sure you at least have optimized title tags. Mobile pages have so little room for content, so titles matter even more than on a desktop site.

Second thing would be to get an XML sitemap in place, and registered with the Webmaster Tools at Google and Bing. As the engines get more mobile-savvy, you can bet that they’ll depend more and more on Webmaster accounts to instruct them on how to digest your content.

Third would be to borrow cellphones from all your friends and try using your website. If you can’t load it, or find the link to your desktop site, or if you have redirects to desktop and they don’t work, then none of this is working for your customers. Test, test, test, with the widest variety of phones possible.

Question #3

What will be different in mobile SEO/mobile search a year from now? What should mobile marketers be prepared for in this area?

Cindy Krum

“SSEO” stands for Siri search engine optimization in my mind.

Siri is interesting, because she makes it simple to search while on the go, and does not always pull results from the same place. Also, voice search encourages different types of queries, that are more conversational or question-oriented in their keywords, and this is not just limited to Siri on the iPhone, but is inclusive of all digital voice assistants that will rival her. 

We are going to see more and more people wondering how to address tablet traffic, and where to send people (PS: My advice is, if you are creating tablet-specific content, it should be on a ‘t.yoursite.com’ just like your mobile site should be on ‘m.yoursite.com.’ Yaaaa for the t-dot!) Also, I think we are going to see a lot more web-enabled GPS devices in cars, which will make it search results more actionable in real life (GPS’s will probably prefer the ‘t-dot’ version of your site rather than the desktop, because of the need for touch-friendly buttons). 

Last, because of the massive growth in total search volume, some of which has been caused by the growth in mobile and tablet traffic, the search engines will get stricter on load-time standards. Load time and clean, fast ‘crawling’ are tightly linked; Since crawling and indexing are critical for good results, and people are always expecting the absolute freshest results possible on their phones,  it will be necessary for the engines to show a stronger algorithmic preference to faster sites.

Bryson Meunier

Great question. Here are a few thoughts:

  • Almost certainly the mobile search results will be more competitive. You can achieve things now in mobile SEO that will become more difficult as more companies build mobile sites and optimize them.
  • I think Google may finally remember their commitment to the user and prioritize mobile content in mobile search results. They’re starting to do that now with smartphone Googlebot and their comments at their Inside Search event in June of 2011.
  • I hope that we get more tools to target tablet users. I requested a tablet breakout to the Google Webmaster Tools product manager and Google Keyword Tool product manager, so hopefully these things will see enough popular support and make their way to the product roadmaps eventually. I know that Google makes use of searcher data to optimize their own products for specific platforms, so I’m not sure why companies who are trying to build the best user experience should be denied that data. We need more marketers to ask for it, though, and I don’t think Google is hearing that demand because of louder voices in SEO last year screaming Panda.
  •  I think that marketers will start to understand the value in creating content that’s tailored to users based on the device that they’re using. It’s something that is inherent to why SEO succeeds, so I’m not sure why so many SEOs (sorry Cindy) recommend transcoding desktop content over building engaging keyword-rich mobile experiences. It may be more efficient and consistent, but it’s rarely the best approach, and one that often has to be redone. As I’ve said before, this isn’t called mobile search engine consistency or efficiency. Optimization is sometimes hard, and marketers should be prepared to do things the right way.
  • I hope that people stop listening to bad advice when it comes to mobile SEO (of which there is a lot), and start demanding honesty from those who talk about mobile SEO. I get Google alerts for “mobile SEO” and every day 95% of the content is of the “we now sell mobile SEO services” snake oil variety. There is a big opportunity out there, for both companies and agencies to prosper in mobile search, no doubt. But many of these services are doing things like excluding content with robots.txt or hosting the mobile site on an entirely different domain, which can hurt you more than help you when it comes to visibility in natural search. I’ve known Cindy has been speaking wisely on this topic for longer than I have, and Sherwood, Brian and Michael all give great advice in our Search Engine Land mobile search column, so there’s really no excuse to fail miserably in mobile SEO.
  • I also wrote a column in Search Engine Land on mobile search trends recently, and I would expect all of those to be more prominent in 2012.

Sherwood Stranieri
I think mobile search will change substantially in the next few months, mostly as a result of refinements that Google introduced in December. Google is now spending much more effort to cater to smartphone users, which they hadn’t before – ironic considering that they produce Android! As a result, you’ll see mobile sites start to eclipse their desktop counterparts, and we’ll all be able to get through life with a lot less pinch and zooming.

Summary

Here is my summary of what our experts had to say (you may have other takeaways, and feel free to leave comments):

1) Is Mobile SEO critical now, or coming soon?

  • Mobile search is moderate now (about 10% to 15% of most websites’ traffic, according to a recent study), but will be bigger within the next year.  Web access via mobile is expected to outstrip web access via desktop within the next two years.
  • This is the time to be getting everything ready for the mobile search rush that’s coming at us like a firehose

2) In terms of starting with some quick mobile SEO “wins”:

  • Have a mobile website on a clearly identified “mobile domain”
  • Make sure your mobile website is crawlable and indexable
  • Tell Googlebot Mobile where to go
  • Cover the same basics that you would on your desktop site – static URLs, editable and unique page titles & meta descriptions, keyword-relevant text (but in shorter bits than on a desktop site), etc.
  • Take the time to understand your mobile audience.  They may be looking for different things than people coming to your desktop site.  Conduct keyword research with the mobile user in mind.
  • Because mobile search is often highly location-based, it’s not just about your mobile website – make sure that you have covered your bases with local SEO (think Google Places!).

3) Here’s what you need to look out for in the next year…

  • Siri Search Engine Optimization (SSEO)
  • Mobile website speed will drive search engines’ decisions on what mobile content to index and present
  • Increased mobile SEO competition
  • Google will finally get “real” and deliver mobile search results that are truly differentiated from traditional search results
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  • http://twitter.com/martinorliac Martin Orliac

    Hi guys,

    Intersting insights, but misleading and a little bit of a non-sense from an SEO perspective.

    Mobile SEO only improves rankings and traffic for mobile-only sites, that is mobile sites that are not receiving redirects from their desktops equivalent.

    Otherwise Mobile SEO is only a defensive strategy aiming at ensuring that your desktop site redirects properly to your mobile site, and where relevant, that your mobile site does not get indexed.

    Besides, there are no evidence that Google improves mobile search rankings of website that have a mobile version. Actually if you look at the rankings, they are exactly the same as the desktop organic rankings, only Google will direct the user directly to the mobile URL to avoid the time wasting redirects.

    Also preferable to use microdata instead of microformats since it is the official HTML5 format as well as the official schema.org format.

    Would love to hear your thoughts around this…

    Cheers ;)

    • http://twitter.com/sherwoodseo sherwoodseo

      Martin, a lot has changed in the past couple months. Google’s announcement about a new smartphone-focused crawler would be a good place to start:

      http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com/2011/12/introducing-smartphone-googlebot-mobile.html 

      So Google will definitely be showing more m-dots in search results, and using a smartphone user agents to see what mobile users see.

      But even now, Google mobile results diverge from the desktop. It’s not pervasive, but it’s there, and as consultants we need to monitor those differences to catch instances where a mobile site might be underperforming – instances where, as you mention, a redirect might fail.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=711176280 Anonymous

        Hi Sherwood,
        You are right, things have changed. I actually have been asking that question over and over to Google, that is: How would you know about a smartphone website if Googlebot only spiders desktops and Googlebot-mobile only spiders feature-phones ones? The answer was always obvious, and this is what has been formalised in the post you are mentionning.You are also right in saying in it will increase discovery of potential mobilised URLs for domains. But remember, Google only displays the mobilised URL so users don’t have to go through the redirect. This is not saying they are actually ranking the mobilised version in any way. Unless of course, the mobilised version is also a standalone site, in which case all ranking factors apply.I guess the main question for marketers is: what do you want from mobile? Do you want to mobilise your site? If yes, do you want the mobile version to rank on its own (potentially competing for brand terms, and potentially attracting desktop users)? Or do you want to canonicalise it back to the desktop one? Note if you are using the same URLs this doesn’t apply.Alternatively, do you just want a mobile standalone site to fullfill a different objective? In that case the site will rank on its own.The best way to go about it in my opinion is to create a flow chart of what objectives you want to achieve as a marketer, then decide which way to go.

        I think eventually mobile sites are not going to exist as we are moving towards an era where responsive design allows the same website to exist on all platforms, exactly like Tim Berners Lee always intended the web to be.

        Cheers,

        Martin.

      • http://www.brysonmeunier.com/ Bryson Meunier

        Hi again, Martin.

        Regarding GWT data, if what we’re looking at is the
        difference between Google smartphone rankings and Google desktop rankings, the
        fact that what’s reported is average ranking makes no difference. The average
        smartphone ranking differs from the average desktop ranking by 86%. This is
        consistent with what was found by Covario in an independent study and reported
        in the New York Times last year.

        There are no vanilla rankings in Google any more. According
        to Google’s Jack Menzel at SMX West this year, there is no canonical SERP.  Location can’t be avoided, and it’s even more
        important in mobile search. As such, rankings are different. Marketers need to
        account for these differences if we’re going to successfully navigate the
        mobile search space.

        Actually there is evidence to suggest that offering mobile
        content or having a mobile site is correlated with rankings in Google
        smartphone search. In January of this year we released some
        of our initial findings in our smartphone rankings study that demonstrated
        a much higher percentage of ranking sites with mobile content than sites that
        have mobile content overall. This correlation could be an indication that sites
        with mobile content are more likely to provide a better user experience, which
        ultimately should help with ranking; but it’s enough to suggest that having a
        mobile site can be beneficial to visibility in smartphone search rankings.

        I agree with you that Google will eventually have to give
        preference to sites that offer a positive mobile search experience, and that
        they’re probably waiting until more sites offer both relevant and usable mobile
        content. I also agree that modifying desktop sites (e.g. via responsive web
        design) to account for an increase in traffic from mobile devices can provide a
        more positive user experience that could help SEO. But where we disagree is
        that this phenomenon of rewarding mobile user experiences is not happening to
        some degree today. Where you have Larry Page
        and Amit
        Signhal talking about focusing on a different mobile user experience, and
        Jason Spero and the Google Mobile Ads team recommending building mobile sites as
        the first action item for businesses, you have Google beginning to favor
        contextually aware mobile content in search. As 2014 nears and more than half
        of Google users access content from mobile devices this will likely become more
        of a priority for Google’s search quality team, but given that 1 billion people
        will access the web from mobile devices this year it’s likely that they’re not
        sitting on their hands waiting for things to sort themselves out.

        But even if there is no algorithmic advantage to having a
        mobile site, a brand can get more traffic and serve their visitors better by
        presenting content to them that they’re looking for. For example, if most
        insurance visitors are looking for accident resources from their mobile devices
        and not to buy a policy, an insurance company would be wise to show them that
        content first on their mobile site but not their desktop site. And that’s
        exactly what esurance
        and State Farm have done. A fundamental principle in SEO is to use keywords
        and content that your audience is using, and that’s becoming increasingly
        difficult to do without a mobile site as mobile search behavior often differs
        from desktop search behavior.

        Thanks for your comments. Eventually we’ll come to
        standards, but I’m encouraged that we do agree on more than I originally
        thought.

        Best,
        Bryson

    • Bryson Meunier

      Martin, it’s nonsense at this point to claim that mobile and desktop results are exactly the same. Since you have been paying attention I have looked at the difference between desktop and smartphone rankings for more than 24k unique keywords last January and found that they differ by about 86%: 
      http://www.brysonmeunier.com/differences-in-mobile-smartphone-ranking-and-desktop-web-ranking-in-google-search/

      Covario did a similar study independently and found similar results: 
      http://www.covario.com/phocadownload/design/wp_mobile-seo_101211_fnl.pdf 

      Last May I detailed 14 ways in which desktop search results differ from Google smartphone results on Search Engine Land if you want to see what would account for some of the differences:
      http://searchengineland.com/14-differences-between-smartphone-search-desktop-search-results-74687 

      Not to mention Google confirmed that they use different algorithms for mobile search, both in the New York Times last year and at their Searchology event in 2009, as I mentioned in my Search Engine Land column last August:
      http://searchengineland.com/what%E2%80%99s-the-difference-between-mobile-desktop-seo-89862 

      It would help you to do research before you disagree with three experts on a subject you obviously know very little about.

      Best of luck to you.
      Bryson

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=711176280 Anonymous

        Hi Bryson,

        I think this is where you are bieng misled. Unfortunately you should have check what is reported in GWT before using for a full scale research. I have done numerous studies using the GWT data, one of which over 18 month, compagring millions (not a few thousands) of queries across hundres of domains (not 5), and as you will see, like I did, the results reported are the actual average results seen by the end user, not the vanilla ones. During these research I compared the results with the API ones, you should try.

        Of course all these 14 factors play a role in what appears visually to users, personalisation, location etc. But when you actuall pull the vanilla rankings from the API, and I invite you to check this, you will see, as I did, that the actual organic rankings are exactly the same.

        Besides, you haven’t addressed my point in any ways above: There is no preference for desktop site being mobilised, as they are ranked in the same way they would be for the desktop version.

        However, I also think that eventually, Google will have to give preference to website owners that have gone the extra mile to provide a better user experience for their users. By the way, everything you do when mobilising your site and addressing other SEO strategies such as Google Places or even Google+ would contribute to an eventual mobile ranking, but until then, it still essentially desktop + location. I guess they wouldn’t give any preference to mobilised sites as yet.

        All the best to you to.

        Cheers,

        Martin.

        • http://www.brysonmeunier.com/ Bryson Meunier

          Hi again, Martin.

          Regarding GWT data, if what we’re looking at is the difference between Google smartphone rankings and Google desktop rankings, the fact that what’s reported is average ranking makes no difference. The average smartphone ranking differs from the average desktop ranking by 86%. This is consistent with what was found by Covario in an independent study and reported in the New York Times last year.

          There are no vanilla rankings in Google any more. According to Google’s Jack Menzel at SMX West this year, there is no canonical SERP.  Location can’t be avoided, and it’s even more important in mobile search. As such, rankings are different. Marketers need to account for these differences if we’re going to successfully navigate the mobile search space.

          Actually there is evidence to suggest that offering mobile content or having a mobile site is correlated with rankings in Google smartphone search. In January of this year we released some of our initial findings (http://www.brysonmeunier.com/influence-of-mobile-sites-on-google-smartphone-search-ranking/) in our smartphone rankings study that demonstrated a much higher percentage of ranking sites with mobile content than sites that have mobile content overall. This correlation could be an indication that sites with mobile content are more likely to provide a better user experience, which ultimately should help with ranking; but it’s enough to suggest that having a mobile site can be beneficial to visibility in smartphone search rankings.

          I agree with you that Google will eventually have to give preference to sites that offer a positive mobile search experience, and that they’re probably waiting until more sites offer both relevant and usable mobile content. I also agree that modifying desktop sites (e.g. via responsive web design) to account for an increase in traffic from mobile devices can provide a more positive user experience that could help SEO. But where we disagree is that this phenomenon of rewarding mobile user experiences is not happening to some degree today. Where you have Larry Page (http://investor.google.com/corporate/2012/ceo-letter.html)and Amit Signhal (http://searchengineland.com/top-3-takeaways-from-google%E2%80%99s-inside-search-event-82531) talking about focusing on a different mobile user experience, and Jason Spero and the Google Mobile Ads team recommending building mobile sites as the first action item for businesses (http://www.themobileplaybook.com/), you have Google beginning to favor contextually aware mobile content in search. As 2014 nears and more than half of Google users access content from mobile devices this will likely become more of a priority for Google’s search quality team, but given that 1 billion people will access the web from mobile devices this year it’s likely that they’re not sitting on their hands waiting for things to sort themselves out.

          But even if there is no algorithmic advantage to having a mobile site, a brand can get more traffic and serve their visitors better by presenting content to them that they’re looking for. For example, if most insurance visitors are looking for accident resources from their mobile devices and not to buy a policy, an insurance company would be wise to show them that content first on their mobile site but not their desktop site. And that’s exactly what esurance and State Farm have done (http://searchengineland.com/for-mobile-seo-ask-what-do-mobile-searchers-need-116072). A fundamental principle in SEO is to use keywords and content that your audience is using, and that’s becoming increasingly difficult to do without a mobile site as mobile search behavior often differs from desktop search behavior.

          Thanks for your comments. Eventually we’ll come to standards, but I’m encouraged that we do agree on more than I originally thought.

          Best,
          Bryson

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