Does Google’s Mobile SEO Preference Change Mobile SEO Best Practices?

Google did not just tell all of you to make your sites responsive. Actually they did, but that’s not all they said. At SMX Advanced, Pierre Far of Google announced something else as well.

Responsive Web design is Google’s preferred option he said, but only if it’s best for a site’s users. You may think this is trivial, but it’s not. Just ask the sites hit by Panda and Penguin how important paying attention to users is for sustainable SEO.

Google Gives Clearer Guidelines On Mobile SEO, But Still Some Questions

Let’s review. In the overview of Google’s recommendations for smartphone sites, Google now says the following:

  1. Google recommends webmasters follow the industry best practice of using responsive Web design, namely serving the same HTML for all devices and using only CSS media queries to decide the rendering on each device.
  2. If responsive design is not the best option to serve your users, Google supports serving your content using different HTML. The different HTML can be on the same URL (a setup called dynamic serving) or on different URLs, and Googlebot can handle both setups appropriately if you follow our setup recommendations.

First of all, I want to thank Google for acknowledging that webmasters are struggling with mobile SEO issues today, and giving webmasters advice on which configurations they prefer and support. And though it’s much clearer than the many positions they’ve taken in the past, it does leave some questions.

For example, when is responsive design not the best option to serve your user, if ever?

Also, if webmasters already have a mobile site built out at mobile URLs, would Google recommend redoing the site with responsive Web design, given that their recommendations for redirecting mobile URLs for feature phones haven’t changed?

Pierre Far has agreed to answer some of the questions in a future column, but it was striking to me how few webmasters heard anything from the announcement except “responsive Web design”.

In the wake of Google’s announcement at SMX Advanced, most of the headlines and tweets read “Google Recommends Responsive Web Design”, without mentioning the part about the user, or the part about Googlebot being able to handle all three mobile configurations appropriately if webmasters follow setup recommendations.

This is because it makes a better headline than “Google Recommends Responsive Design But Supports Whatever Configuration Is Best for Your Users if Responsive Design Isn’t It.”

A Time For Responsive Web Design

So when is responsive design best for your users? Google doesn’t say in the recommendations, but leaves it up to the individual site owners. Fortunately for readers of Search Engine Land, we’ve covered this topic before.

Last month, we discussed how different search behavior in mobile and desktop could be an indication that your site shouldn’t be responsive. If you represent a restaurant, for example, your users are likely to have different goals on their smartphone than they do when searching from desktops and laptops.

Laptop searchers often search for printable coupons while smartphone searchers are largely looking for locations near them. A responsive site ends up providing or hiding a lot of content to searchers that they don’t want or need, which isn’t good for user experience or SEO.

As Pierre Far also explained on the panel that we presented on at SMX (and in this tweet), Google recognizes that some users are better served by sites that don’t use responsive design, and that’s why Google does support other configurations.

If you’re wondering whether responsive Web design makes sense for your users, I’d recommend checking out Slavik Volinsky’s Responsive Web Design: the Ultimate Guide for Online Marketers at SEOMoz and Mobile Website Optimization – You’ve Got Options, where Rachel Pasqua discusses pros and cons of the full range of available mobile configuration options at Marketing Land.

Neither of these articles have been made obsolete by Google’s new smartphone site guidelines. If anything they’ve become more important.

Mobile URLs Also Supported

A big part of Google’s announcement that didn’t get as much press is that it’s okay to use mobile URLs for your mobile website.

Prior to the announcement, there was some speculation about whether mobile URLs split link equity and social shares, but at this point, it’s clearer than ever that having mobile URLs will not affect a site’s organic search traffic.

I mentioned this earlier this month in a How the Winners Do Mobile SEO post and in my SMX Advanced presentation where I demonstrated that the clear majority of sites that get the most traffic from Google use mobile URLs for their mobile sites.

There wasn’t any empirical evidence of a reduction of organic traffic as a result of mobile URLs previously, but now Google has introduced a method of letting them know which URL is intended for mobile searchers, and which is intended for desktop searchers, so that the correct URL will always be shown, regardless of the device used to access it.

Use Of Canonical Tag In Mobile

One bombshell from the session that does change the game is the use of the canonical tag for equivalent, but not identical pages.

In the past, I would have recommended using the canonical tag for all duplicate mobile URLs, but not the homepage, as the content on the mobile homepage is sometimes different, and the canonical tag has historically been used for exact duplicates.

However, in the session Pierre Far indicated that the canonical tag can be used for equivalent mobile pages, even if the content is slightly different. What’s more, he says the content on the page should be able to rank for the unique keywords on the appropriate platform, even if the canonical tag is in place.

Given that, there’s no reason to leave the canonical tag off the mobile homepage, even if the content is slightly different. I’m waiting for Google’s confirmation or further testing is done before implementing on my own sites, but theoretically the canonical tag can be placed on mobile equivalent pages now, even if the content isn’t exactly the same.

Don’t Block Mobile Sites With Robots.txt

Finally, the session was notable for me because it confirmed something that I’ve been saying for a while: don’t block Googlebot from your mobile site and smartphone Googlebot from your desktop site.

For years, this has been the advice from well-intentioned SEOs thinking that the mobile site will split link equity and confuse Googlebot, but Google officially said that it’s not necessary for proper indexing and ranking.

Mobile SEO Best Practices Largely Unchanged

So was Google’s mobile SEO announcement a game changer? Yes, but not because of their recommendation of responsive Web design.

Rather, it represented welcome guidance from Google on how to approach mobile SEO in a way that makes sense for search engines and users. But exactly what that means for your site and your users is still best determined by the optimizer, not the engine.

If you’re still unsure what this means for your site and your users, sign up for the SEMPO Panel Discussion on Mobile Search this Thursday, 6/28 at noon EST for more from me, Adam Boalt and fellow columnist Sherwood Stranieri on what Google’s recent announcement means for mobile SEO.

I’ll close with five mobile SEO best practices that I closed with in my iSEO presentation, which remain effective following Google’s announcement.

  1. Understand the differences between what your mobile user expects and what your desktop user expects and build your mobile site accordingly.
  2. Build a mobile home page at that addresses the mobile user’s goals with link to full site and responsive duplicate pages or build a mobile first responsive design driven site if goals are same.
  3. Do not block your mobile URLs with robots.txt. Use canonical tags for duplicate URLs and redirect smartphone URLs to smartphone Googlebot but make mobile homepage unique to appear for mobile navigational searches (i.e. [brand + "mobile site"])
  4.  Market your mobile site externally in print and broadcast advertising and online. Links, authority and social shares still matter in mobile.
  5. Don’t believe everything you read. Many consultants are applying traditional SEO best practices to mobile, which doesn’t always translate. Trust but verify.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Google: Mobile | Mobile Search | Search Engines: Mobile Search Engines | Search Marketing: Mobile | SEO: Mobile Search


About The Author: is the SEO Director at Vivid Seats, is an SEO veteran with more than 14 years experience both agency and in-house, and is a thought leader in permission marketing as a columnist and a frequent speaker on SEO and mobile marketing.

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  • Runner2009

    I was told by Google’s John Mueller on Google+ that Google doesn’t care what type of URLs it crawls – mobile or responsive. As for the duplicate content issue he stated canonical the main site not the mobile version

  • Bryson Meunier

    Thanks, Runner2009. If John Mueller told you to add canonical tags to the desktop site rather than the mobile site that would be against Google’s official guidelines for smartphone content. Was it before their official announcement on June 6, 2012? As some of what Google employees had said previously should be replaced by this new directive.

    If you follow the link to the guidelines that I included you can see that Google officially recommends adding canonical tags to the mobile site: 
    “To help our algorithms understand this configuration on your site, we recommend using the following annotations:On the desktop page, add a special link rel=”alternate” tag pointing to the corresponding mobile URL. This helps Googlebot discover the location of your site’s mobile pages.
    On the mobile page, add a link rel=”canonical” tag pointing to the corresponding desktop URL.”

    Totally agree with John about Google being able to crawl both responsive and mobile URLs. They said at SMX Advanced that they prefer responsive web design if it makes sense for the user, but that they can handle three types of mobile configurations, including mobile URLs and responsive pages. My point was that too many people seemed to focus on the responsive preference while ignoring the announcement about mobile URLs.Full details are here if you haven’t read them yet:

  • Meg Geddes

    I am heavy into mobile; my seasonal sites are fully 50% or more mobile traffic now. We ended up with a hybrid of responsive design and a stripped down smartphone version, partly because of different user intent (these are event sites) and partly because we’re serving ads, and advertising (particularly Google advertising) hasn’t caught up to responsive design yet.  The ad thing does throw another monkey wrench into the whole responsive design question, and nobody seems to be talking about that.  

  • Gareth Jenkins

    Hi Bryson, great article!  Have you yet had any confirmation as to whether tying to “roughly equivalent” pages using the rel=canonical and rel=alternate approaches is actually a wise move?  Our client sites feature separate mobile and desktop pages that while they have some similar use and aim, will vary quite a lot in actual content.  I too am wary of tying these closely together if there’s a chance of affecting the ranking of the main desktop pages as a result.

  • Bryson Meunier

    Thanks, Gareth! I haven’t tested this yet, no. However, I do have confirmation from Pierre Far of Google on several occasions that canonical tags are acceptable for equivalent pages, and not just exact duplicates when it comes to mobile. We’ll be trying it out in the next couple weeks and I will keep everyone posted on the results in a future column. Thanks for the comment!


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