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?

Think about how SEO works, and in particular siloing or search-optimized information architecture. At this point, you’re really only eligible for keywords and concepts that you have on your site.

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.

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

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Mobile Search | 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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  • Justin Avery

    An interesting article with some good points, however you don’t seem to have looked into every aspect of the problem.

    First off, I agree that ideally an adaptive approach is best for anyone with an online presence.  By adaptive I mean you have both mobile and responsive sites for the potential customer to access.

    Unfortunately sometimes maintaing multiple sites with multiple content is difficult.  I’ve worked for some very good CMS providers that allow content to be shared between the full and mobile dedicated sites, however it is still a reasonably large overhead for website owners to steer down only one path.

    Of course if you’re in the top 100 forbes companies then sure go for it, but for the smaller businesses it is sometimes just out of their reach.

    Having said that you’re article seems to focus largely on the use of mobile with search, however you don’t cover the context of the mobile search.  Were they on the bus, in the car, sitting on the couch, lying in bed, passing time on the toilet?  Each location offers a different context as to the type of content that the user is looking to get.

    It’s not enough to just direct mobile users to a cut down version of the site.  Doing this is punishing users for using mobile devices.

    As I mentioned above ideally you have two sites running, your full website and a cut down, fast loading, transaction focussed mobile site that contains the option to return to your full website (and remember the selection).  And what happens when they arrive on the full website?  That’s right, it responds to the best possible layout for the canvas that it is being viewed on.

    A question for you:

    At the end of the day is it better to have a site with great onsite SEO, or is it better to have a site that gets tonnes of linkbacks because it provides an awesome experience?

  • Bryson Meunier

    Justin, thanks for your comments. Not sure how to answer your comment, as you ultimately come to the same conclusion that I have: that a hybrid approach with both a simple mobile site with content that’s specific to the searcher’s context and responsive duplicate pages is ideal. No doubt it can be cost prohibitive for smaller businesses, but optimization is not about being good enough, it’s about competing for mindshare. As an SEO consultant, my job is to help my clients compete in search results by delivering the most relevant and engaging content, and that is not simply a responsive desktop site. 

    Your question at the end is moot, really. Why not have both? A good SEO consultant works with you so that you don’t have to choose between the two. The solution that I’m suggesting– a hybrid approach rather than only formatting desktop content– is a solution that allows webmasters to have more engaging and relevant sites than if they were simply reformatting their desktop content. 

    As far as responding to context, a dedicated mobile site based on actual mobile search behavior is more likely to respond to user goals than speculation about where they are when they’re doing the search. For example, if someone searches for [mobile games], does it matter that they’re on the toilet when they do it? Would their context somehow make creating a page that contains mobile games the wrong strategy for a mobile site?

    I have to say, in general I’m perplexed that your comment has gotten three likes and your tone makes it seem as though you’re somehow disagreeing with me when you’re really making the same essential point: that both mobile content and responsive desktop content is best. If I’m missing something, please clarify, but as it is it seems we’re on the same page.

  • Robert Clark

    Fantastic article! I’ve got quite a few seo clients that have been asking about going mobile and while I know it’s something they need, I honestly don’t know a lot about taking a traditional website mobile. Your article laid a nice foundation for me to start doing some more research.

  • Jerry Nordstrom

    Informative article Bryson, and I agree hybrid.
    I think we can simplify the model for those exploring this topic:

    Platform determines the visitors Location | Primary use | Website needed

    PC = Fixed location | Consumer Research | Full site
    Tablet = Fixed & Mobile Location | Research and Immediate needs | Full site optimized display.
    Phone = Mobile Location, Immediate needs | Mobile site with targeted feature set

    For existing customers mobile apps reduce the need for being found through search.
    For new prospects SEO certainly becomes a high priority.

    In general most mobile phone searches are immediate needs based, which suggests they are geographically hypersensative. Locked car = Locksmith, Hungry = Restaurant etc.

    In these cases high visibility in local directories, ratings and reviews sites are where we focus our optimization efforts; paid or organic.

  • Justin Avery

    Thanks for the detailed reply.

    I suppose I just didn’t think the article weighed up the benefits of RWD and the issues faced with Mobile specific sites, rather it concentrated on the reverse.
    Your right though, it’s the same conclusion that having both is ideal.


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