Mobile SEO best practices for 2014
The underlying principle behind mobile search engine optimization is ensuring that your site gives mobile visitors what they are looking for in the manner that best suits their device and requirements.
In the six years since mobiThinking published its first Mobile SEO best practices guide, the mobile Web has become a very different place. The average handset is much more capable, the operator’s data networks are more reliable, data plans are more affordable and there are so many more engaging mobile-friendly, Websites. All of this has led to a boom in mobile Web traffic and with it a boom in mobile search. Now, more than ever, it is essential that mobile visitors find your site whether they are searching on Google, Bing, Yahoo or Badu.
Search engine optimization (SEO) is one of those areas that are overcomplicated with technical jargon and complex theories, but the rules are really quite simple. SEO is not about machines, it’s about people. Search engines want to deliver the site that is the most relevant and best-equipped to answer the mobile searcher’s query. Search engine spiders – the robots that patrol the Web indexing sites and content – are designed to emulate human visitors. The secret to good SEO, in many cases, is to making sure your site serves the mobile user/searcher better.
The main contributor to this guide was Bryson Meunier, Resolution Media, with additional contributions from Daniel Rowles, Target Internet, and Andy Favell, mobiThinking.
The 11 Steps to better mobile search engine optimization
1) Make it mobile – mobile optimization and search optimization go hand-in-hand.
2) Make the most of mobile – use mobile devices’ unique capabilities to serve your visitors better.
3) Mobile is different – mobile and PC users search for different things.
4) Good housekeeping – apply the basic rules of Web design and SEO will follow.
5) Content is king – the three stages of compelling content.
6) Mobile friendly or mobile optimized? – use the type of mobile site that suits your customers and your requirements.
7) Make it local – locality and timeliness is more important to mobile searchers than PC searchers.
8) Make it social – make it easy for people to recommend you.
9) Make it fast – your mobile site should load on a smartphone in 1 second.
10) Don’t hide content in apps – Web search engines can’t search in-app content.
11) Get discovered – it’s not just about search engines, nor is it just about the Web.
1) Make it mobile
• Mobile optimization and SEO go hand-in-hand.
Websites should be optimized for the user’s mobile device. There are two aspects to this: dealing with the limitations of the device and taking advantage of unique features of the device. Let’s start with the limitations. These devices come in numerous shapes and sizes, but generally have a much smaller screen than a PC and less computing power, typing on them is more difficult and generally they connect via mobile operator networks, which generally aren’t as fast and efficient as a wired Internet connection. This means sites designed for PC typically do not perform well on mobile devices, unless they have been made mobile friendly. So: as search engines want to deliver the best results, given the choice, they will prioritize a mobile or mobile-optimized site ahead of one that might work badly on a mobile device.
In June 2013, Google issued some new Guidelines for mobile-optimized sites, these included some recommendations to avoid common errors, including: using videos that don’t play on mobile devices; faulty redirects (redirecting mobile visitors to the wrong page on your mobile site); pages that deliver 404 (page unavailable) errors to mobile visitors; linking to a PC site when the same content is available on a mobile site and greeting visitors with a download-our-app interstitial ads. Despite Google’s warnings these irritating ads are still common, visit British National Rail Enquiries, on a mobile device, for example.
According to this comment by Google’s John Mueller, Google search now takes these issues into account while prioritizing results. And who can blame it? Fixing these errors will make your site more user-friendly for mobile visitors and easier for Google’s spiders to crawl your site. Mobile optimization and search optimization go hand-in-hand.
So how big a problem is this? According to research by Pure Oxygen Labs (June, 2013), two-thirds of the Fortune 100 risk being downgraded in mobile search, for failing to follow Google’s guidelines on mobile optimization of Web content.
2) Make the most of mobile
• Use the unique capabilities of mobile devices to serve your visitors better.
Next, let’s look how playing to the advantages of mobile devices will improve the mobile experience and thus improve SEO.
The terms mobile-friendly site and mobile-optimized site are often used indiscriminately, but they are different. (This is explained in 6) Mobile friendly or mobile optimized?). Mobile-friendly means the site will work well on a mobile device, where the mobile-optimized site is designed to take advantage of the functions of mobile devices such as SMS, voice, camera, global positioning system (GPS) and so on. These are functions that don’t exist on a PC and/or don’t make sense on a PC site. For this reason the mobile-optimized site is usually a different Website from the PC site, sometimes served on the same URL, some times on a dedicated URL such as site.mobi or m.site.com.
Features of mobile-optimized sites, as used by US retailers:
a) Click-to-call – this is the most commonly used mobile-only feature. When the visitor clicks/touches the phone number on the mobile site’s contact page, phone automatically dials (subject to a confirmation) the number on the visitor’s handset. It’s a simple, but very effective use of mobile’s unique application: the voice call.
b) Mobile coupons – retailers such as Target are supplementing printed coupons with mobile coupons that are delivered by SMS (so only works on mobile devices), which can be redeemed in-store, without the need to print anything off. This builds loyalty, drives sales, attracts search traffic for “mobile coupons” and encourages links, like this one: Target m-coupons.
c) Store locator – using the device’s GPS for a store locator is another good example of a feature that is very useful on mobile, but nonsensical on a PC. Coupled with mobile mapping this feature can guide the visitor straight into your store. There’s no wonder that it’s becoming increasingly common on retailers’ mobile sites, including Walmart, Target and Walgreens. If your site is still asking mobile search visitors to enter their zip code/post code, then it’s time to move into the 21st century with location-based services (LBS). This is a user-friendly way to answer the common query “where is the nearest…?”
d) Barcode scanner – Sears is leading mobile Web innovation with the introduction of a mobile scanning function to its mobile site. This enables a user to scan a product’s barcode when at home or in a competitor’s store (this type of search is called “show-rooming”), to find out if it is available, how much it costs, then purchase it…from Sears. The same function, i.e. product scanning, would have no place on Sears’ PC site.
Unfortunately a lot of mobile innovation is locked away within native/download applications. See the examples in Google’s playbook Mobile Playbook. It is frustrating for SEO experts that more brands don’t bring similar mobile innovations to mobile sites, which would both enhance the customer experience and help to drive inbound traffic to the site from both search and links from other Websites.
3) Mobile is different
• Mobile and PC users search for different things.
In addition to being a different physical device to the PC, the mobile context – i.e. where you are, what you are doing and what you want – can also be different. Both factors influence what mobile users search for. The obvious examples focus on the device itself, so mobile users might search for “mobile coupons” (PC uses tend to search for “printable coupons”), “ringtones”, “android apps” or “mobile games”.
This gives mobile-optimized sites a head start over mobile-friendly sites when it comes to search optimization. The difference is clear when you compare the dedicated mobile sites of Gameloft wapshop.gameloft.com and EA, wap.ea.com, which emphasize their mobile games content, while Disney’s games.disney.com which serves the same content to both the PC and mobile audience, does not.
Great examples of mobile context-related search are motoring incidents such as breakdown, accidents or broken windshield. Because these situations are most likely to occur while out on the road, the first port of call is the mobile Web. This means there is a higher incidence of mobile searching for terms like “towing” and “roadside assistance”, than for terms like “auto insurance” where PC searches dominate.
One company that gets this is the US insurance company State Farm. Accident Help is a prominent feature found on the mobile site m.statefarm.com, but not present on PC site statefarm.com. Accident Help states in basic terms what you should do in the case of an accident with links to make a claim and find a repair facility (which allows you to search by zip code and by language spoken). First and foremost this clever feature is for the benefit of the user, but should also be popular with the spiders.
4) Good housekeeping
• Apply the basic rules of Web design and SEO should follow.
When you understand the mobile context of the user, and what they are likely to be looking for you are in a better position to define the purpose of the mobile site and the content therein. Make sure that site sections, navigation and pages are all given titles and URLs that accurately describe the site and what is on the page, using common terminology e.g. “contacts”. Take into account what will appeal to the mobile searcher and what language they are likely to use when they search.
Start each page with a descriptive introductory sentence, use logical heading and sub-headings (humans and search-engine spiders, alike, scan pages to find out what’s there). Make Web links obvious and label them accurately so they describe the page to which you are linking – avoid 'read more' or 'click here'.
SEO experts refer to the words commonly used in searches (relevant to your site), as keywords or search phrases – allowing these to influence these naming conventions and your copy-writing is known as on-page optimization. If you are a “Hotel in Times Square” or if you make “mobile games” make this the focus of your Webpage(s). The key rule is to design the site and write the copy for the user, while making sure you have ticked the boxes for the search engines, never the other way round.
Keywords helps humans and search-engine spiders understand what is contained on a Webpage. Use them where they would naturally occur, but don’t force keywords in or needlessly repeat them for SEO purposes – search engines take a dim view of such manipulation. For example The Manhattan Hotel (N.B. this URL delivers an entirely different site and experience on a mobile device to PC) emphasizes its location in its brief copy (and URL), with four logical links to sections: reservations, accommodations, directions (with mapping), and contact us (with click-to-call/email). The New York guide is discussed below.
All sites should also take note of accessibility. Visually-impaired people use screen readers to “read” Websites, these require images to be described in alt-text and screen-readers also struggle to read non-html content such as Flash. Luckily, search engine spiders have similar preferences to screen readers. So accessibility improves search optimization.
5) Content is king
• The three stages of compelling content.
Content is the heart of all mobile sites – the more useful, compelling and regularly updated the content, the more frequently people and spiders will visit, and the more readily people will recommend the site, by linking from other sites and social media. There are three levels to this:
i) Content that promotes and sells your company and its goods and services.
ii) Content and services that ad value to the sale, including in-depth product information, advice and reviews, and regularly updated offers that drives opt-ins and increases loyalty.
iii) Helpful articles and information, entertainment, giveaways and competitions that are related to the business/customer relationship, but may not necessarily drive sales.
This third stage is called content marketing. Done well, these services should be useful to the visitor/customer, as well as being a big benefit with SEO.
This scenario fits well with health and beauty retailers, which can offer help and advice on matters of health. A great example is Walgreens m.walgreens.com mobile site that links to an extensive library of mobile-friendly health resources at health.walgreens.com and walgreens-mobile.adam.com, though perhaps from an SEO perspective it would be more helpful to have them on the same domain.
Another good example of content marketing is for hotels to supplement the essentials with useful information on the locality. The Manhattan Hotel makes a good effort with its brief guide to New York activities, shops, restaurants, shows – with addresses and click-to-call numbers.
6) Mobile friendly or mobile optimized?
• Use the type of mobile site that suits your customers and your requirements.
There is some debate about which type of mobile configuration gives the best SEO. As we have pointed out throughout this guide, put the mobile user at the centre of your mobile strategy and good SEO will follow. There are three main types of mobile site. All are supported by Google. These are often confused and in practice mobile sites will blend the approaches.
a) Responsive Web design (RWD) uses the same content for PC and mobile devices. All content is sent then reconfigured to suit the device using cascading style sheets (CSS).
b) With a dedicated mobile site, the site detects the visitor device (using a tool such as dotMobi’s DeviceAtlas) and redirects them to a mobile-optimized site on a separate URL (e.g. from site.com to site.mobi or m.site.com).
c) Adaptive Web design (AWD) or dynamic serving also detects the visitor device and serves a mobile optimized site, but this is done on the same URL (e.g. site.com).
While Google supports all three approaches and has no intention of making business decisions for you, it has recommended RWD for smartphone sites. This led advocates to claim that Google prioritizes RWD sites over dedicated mobile sites, but this does not appear to be the case – see this comment from Google’s John Mueller.
There is much in favor of RWD, but it has its drawbacks. Firstly, RWD does not work for feature phones – people forget that almost half of mobile phones in use even in western nations such as the US and UK are feature phones – for these Google prescribes dedicated mobile sites either on different or the same URL. Secondly, RWD sends the same content for PCs and mobile devices, which is fine as long as mobile and PC visitors want the same thing, but it makes it difficult for sites to capitalize on all the things that make mobile different e.g. GPS, camera, SMS and voice, or to theme the site to maximize appeal to mobile searchers, when they are searching for mobile-specific things.
All the mobile-optimized sites highlighted in this guide serve mobile visitors with a different site to PC visitors, either on a separate URL such as m.statefarm.com or on the same URL such as manhattanhoteltimessquare.com.
Responsive design v dedicated mobile site – what’s more popular? Research by Pure Oxygen Labs (June, 2013) into Fortune 100 Websites found that 45 percent had a dedicated mobile site, 11 percent had a responsive design site, while 44 percent gave off no mobile signal at all.
7) Make it local
• Locality and timeliness is more important to mobile searchers than PC searcher.
Survey results and keyword research (see below) suggest that mobile searchers are more interested in the right here and right now than PC searchers. The Our Mobile Planet survey (Ipsos and Google, May 2013) found that 94 percent of smartphone users had conducted a search for local information and 84 percent had taken action as a result. Another survey Mobile Search Moments (Nielsen and Google, March 2013) found that 63 percent of people who take action following a mobile search do so within an hour, 84 percent do so within five hours.
This is having a massive effect: local mobile search volumes are growing rapidly and are forecast by BIA/Kelsey (April, 2012) to overtake desktop local search in the US in 2015.
In many ways this is self-fulfilling prophecy. As anyone who has searched on Google and other search engines with a mobile device will have noticed, your location (if you share it) has a major influence on results (whether or not you wish it).
It is essential that companies capitalize on this trend. Anticipate that mobile users will search on “vegetarian restaurant in [your locality]”. If that’s your business, make sure your mobile site emphasizes what you do and where you are. Anticipate want they want: menu, offers, reservations, call, location and map.
Consider, the coffee chain, Starbucks, for example. People search for the nearest Starbucks on their PC, but many more people search from a mobile device. Analysis of Google Keywords shows that 72 percent of people who are searching for a Starbucks using terms such as “navigate to Starbucks”, “24 hour Starbucks” or “drive thru Starbucks” do so on a mobile device. Companies that see similar patterns with mobile queries should ensure that visitors get what they are searching for – perhaps creating dedicated landing pages for these terms.
Research conducted by Bryson Meunier at Resolution Media (Q1, 2013) shows that searches for ATM location (99 percent), restaurants (88 percent), bars (97 percent), android apps (69 percent) and ringtones (73 percent) mostly commonly come from mobile devices. The research was conducted using Google’s Google Keyword Tool, which has since been replaced by Keyword Planner. This is a disappointment for mobile SEOs because Keyword Tool, unlike its predecessor, does not distinguish between searches from mobile and PC searches. Google is expected to fix this.
8) Make it social
• Make it easy for people to recommend you.
Mobile searchers are social, and it’s important to give them options to share your content, offer or recommend your services using their favorite social platforms, by providing links with those instantly recognizable icons. Social networks have become an important influence on all search engine discoverability, but majorly so when it comes to mobile, as so many users access social networks from mobile devices. For example, 874 million or 74 percent of Facebook’s monthly users worldwide are mobile, according to Facebook’s Q3 earnings.
Adding the ability to share your content on social networks will make your content more visible in general, but especially to those users who access social networks primarily on mobile devices. Facebook’s share buttons work on dedicated mobile or responsive sites. Sharing/social networks provide easy-to-use plugins for mobile sites, see AddThis for example.
N.B. Whenever you add a new piece of code to your site, even something seemingly innocuous as a plug-in check the page speed, to make sure the new code doesn’t slow down the speed at which the page loads.
9) Make it fast
• Your mobile site should load on a smartphone in 1 second.
In August 2013 Google announced new speed guidelines for smartphone sites. Google recommends that the key content of the page, called “above the fold” (because it is visible without needing to scroll down) should be delivered and be displayed on a user’s handset in one second or less. Unfortunately the average mobile page takes more than seven seconds to load.
Regardless of whether your site is responsive or uses dedicated HTML, take steps to make it as fast as possible. Google warned in this video (August 2013) that slow-loading pages may be penalized in search ranking and that speed would be increasingly scrutinized in the future.
But why are we focused on what Google thinks? Consider your human visitor: how long do you expect them to wait for your page to load before returning to the search page and trying the next Website?
10) Don’t hide content from search engines with apps
• Web search engines can’t search in-app content
If you create a mobile experience that is meant to be accessed through a native/download application, you are severely limiting the visibility of your content. Not only will this shut out all other platforms (i.e. an iOS app won’t work on Android, Blackberry, Kindle Fire or feature phones), but it also excludes the only platform that search engines really serve: the Web.
Yes, it is possible to make your app more discoverable within app stores using “app store optimization” and mobile advertising, and Web search engines may find the Webpage that features your app. But search engines, such as Google cannot search and index in-app content, in the same way as they will a mobile site, so however excellent your article or feature; or compelling your offer, it isn’t going to display in mobile search results.
The same goes for human links. Links are the life-blood of the Internet – this is how humans, and search-engine spiders, find your latest content, its how things are recommended in the digital world. The problem with native apps is that they don’t lend themselves to linking in the same way as Websites. So someone might read your content, if they have your app on their handset, but they can’t recommend that piece of content with a link on their site, via social media, email or SMS. They can only link to a Webpage where the app is available for download.
As Google’s Jason Spero says in the Mobile Playbook: “If you have to prioritize between an app and a mobile site, your first priority should be creating a mobile-optimized Website.”
There’s a time and place for apps, but if you want your content to be discovered by a wider audience, it needs to be on your mobile site.
11) Get discovered
• It’s not just about search engines, nor is it just about the Web.
There are plenty other ways of letting the world know about your mobile site, or the new content, offers or features it contains – other than search engines. Use your existing mobile channel, such as SMS and email. Add your mobile site URL, or use a quick response (QR) code, to marketing materials, books or brochures and out-of-home or print advertisements. This is likely to prove more effective where there is a contextual relevance. Airlines are particularly good at this, printing their mobile site address directly on napkins, in-flight magazines and banners in the airport.
Back in the digital world there are mobile directories such as YesWap, galleries that highlight mobile excellence, such as Mobile Awesomeness, Media Queries for RWD sites, JQuery Mobile Gallery for JQuery Mobile sites and there are lots of different Mobile Awards where a win could bring considerable kudos and publicity.
Seek out referrals, free or through paid ads (N.B. don’t buy links from irrelevant sites) from the mobile sites of your business partners. The planning tools from Google and other mobile advertising networks can help discover the most relevant sites.
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