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For Mobile SEO Ask “What Do Mobile Searchers Need?”
I have to say, given that this is a competitive industry, and that while we’re sharing best practices on optimization we’re also competing with each other in search results, it doesn’t make me feel that bad to see the rest of the industry seems to embrace a one URL strategy, in spite of my argument that a hybrid approach is best.
If my colleagues who are also competing with me in search results want to pick a strategy that ultimately will bring them less qualified traffic in search results, honestly, that’s more traffic for me and my clients.
Because when it comes down to it, SEO is not about efficiency, or what the search engines say is easiest, but about what is going to provide the most value to search engine users, which will ultimately result in quality search engine traffic to a site.
Different Context, Different Goals
If you recall last month’s column, I showed another clear example from Walgreens in which desktop search behavior and mobile search behavior are vastly different.
Instead of giving the mobile searcher a reformatted version of their desktop site, with a lot of extraneous code hidden, ultimately slowing the time-starved mobile searcher down, Walgreens elected to present a simplified mobile home page with mobile architecture, mobile features, and mobile keywords.
Likewise, State Farm and eSurance both recognize that their mobile searchers have vastly different goals than their desktop searchers, and elect to provide them different content to improve their user experience.
Sure, they could put all of the content on one URL, but as the founder of responsive Web design, Ethan Marcotte, explained in his book, this approach is “irresponsible”:
We realized it would have been irresponsible of us to ask our visitors to download all that extraneous HTML, marking up content that they’d never see, much less benefit from. And I don’t say that just out of concern for mobile visitors: regardless of whether our visitors were on a phone-or a desktop-based browser, we would have been penalizing them with extra markup.
As I describe in more detail in a recent column on Marketing Land called Responsive Web Design Isn’t Meant to Replace Mobile Web Sites, responsive Web design, while great for duplicate pages, is not a one-size-fits-all solution, and was never meant to be.
Sometimes mobile searchers need dedicated mobile content, including a mobile home page and mobile-specific pages that don’t exist on their desktop site.
Responsive Web Design Or Search-Optimized Information Architecture?
If you’re an insurance company, and your mobile searchers’ primary goal is to get help with towing their car, and you don’t have towing content on your desktop site because your desktop computer users are generally not stuck on the side of the road with an immediate need you can fill, you’re probably not going to get any traffic from search engines when your customers enter the term [towing service] on their smartphones.
This concept is not likely to be included on your desktop site because 73.64% of the searches are coming from mobile devices. For the mobile site, however, it’s probably important enough to be put on the home page, and to have dedicated mobile content addressing it.
If your customers are not putting in different terms and concepts in different frequencies on their mobile devices than they are on their laptops and desktop computers, responsive Web design may be the way to go for you.
The problem is, many of my colleagues in SEO and Web design are recommending responsive Web design in all cases without doing the necessary research to discover whether mobile searchers’ goals are vastly different from desktop searchers’ goals. Because of this, many businesses are losing out on searches from mobile devices that they should be getting. And, people, losing out on qualified search traffic is not SEO.
Mobile Sites ≠ Duplicate Content
Still worried about split link equity making it difficult for your mobile site to rank? Don’t be, as it’s a non-issue in Google. With December’s skip redirect/Old Possum update, mobile URLs that are properly redirected will be ranked in the mobile (feature phone or smartphone) search results regardless of link equity.
I know it’s difficult for people like us who spend so much time consolidating link equity to grasp, but mobile URLs really are different. This is the one thing Google has been consistent on when it comes to mobile SEO. Not sure how many times I have to point this out before SEOs stop revealing to us that mobile URLs split link equity.
Fortunately the entire industry isn’t losing their minds over responsive Web design. There are a number of us who are making the responsible and optimal choice to serve mobile sites on mobile URLs when the users’ goals call for it.
Adam Audette was brave enough to say in Clickz this month, “The best approach to mobile is a hybrid model that caters content delivery to the specific needs of the user. In some cases, having dedicated, mobile-specific sites and content is the right thing to do.”
Meanwhile, Duane Forrester of Bing, though he wrote a strong recommendation for responsive Web design rather than duplicating URLs, stopped short of recommending it in all cases: “Occasionally, it may make sense to keep some URLs targeted at specific clients (e.g. mobile devices)”.
Possible Algorithmic Advantage To Having Dedicated Mobile Site
Apart from all of this, there may even be an algorithmic advantage to having a dedicated mobile site. In an upcoming white paper examining the top three search results for competitive non-brand queries in Google smartphone search, Resolution Media found that 64% of the ranking sample had dedicated mobile sites.
When you consider that just 21% of Google’s top advertisers have mobile sites, there are a disproportionately high number of top ranking smartphone sites that offer mobile content.
Correlation does not equal causation, of course, but Bing’s Rangan Majumder revealed at SMX West this year that mobile sites do rank above desktop sites in Bing mobile search, all else being equal; and Google has a blended mobile ranking algorithm and admits differences in search results for different platforms, though they’ve been reluctant to speak with one voice on whether they favor mobile sites in search results.
Relevance is still the goal, and as long as there are so many unusable sites that have relevant answers, no search engine is going to prevent that content from ranking. But as more webmasters see the opportunity in mobile, and develop mobile content to meet that opportunity, more sites will be both relevant to mobile searchers and usable.
When this day comes, why would the engines continue to serve content that requires additional pinching and zooming, or slows down the page load time because of additional markup, when they have a number of URLs that are both relevant and usable to choose from?
If you want to jump on the bandwagon and favor responsive design in all cases, in spite of all of this, that’s really your decision to make. If you want less qualified traffic, that’s up to you. But as an SEO consultant who is primarily concerned with bringing my clients the most qualified traffic possible, that’s not a recommendation that I can make to them, and that’s not a recommendation that I can in good conscience make to all of you.
If you want the most search traffic from mobile search, don’t think “one URL to rule them all;” think “what do mobile searchers need?” In many cases, your answer will be not responsive Web design, but an approach that includes mobile URLs.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.