Google Finally Takes A Clear Stance On Mobile SEO Practices

Today at SMX Advanced during the iSEO panel, Pierre Far, Google Webmaster Trends Analyst, announced clear guidelines and recommendations on mobile SEO. In short, Google recommends you go with a responsive design when possible, otherwise you can use device-specific HTML but Google asks you to take certain steps to communicate when you are using device-specific HTML.

Google has been known to offer contradictory advice on mobile SEO thus far and Google wanted to take a watch and listen approach to see how webmasters were implementing their mobile web sites. Now Google has come out with their official recommendations on how to build mobile web sites that work best for users and at the same time work well for Google.

In December 2011, Google introduced a new mobile user agent for Googlebot-Mobile Smartphones, which was responsible for detecting mobile content. Now Google is offering specific recommendations on which way to build your mobile sites.

Three Methods of Smartphone Mobile Site Design

Google says there are three basic configurations when going mobile, however they do seem to strongly recommend going with the responsive design approach.

  1. Sites that use responsive web design, i.e. sites that serve all devices on the same set of URLs, with each URL serving the same HTML to all devices and using just CSS to change how the page is rendered on the device. This is Google’s recommended configuration.
  2. Sites that dynamically serve all devices on the same set of URLs, but each URL serves different HTML (and CSS) depending on whether the user agent is a desktop or a mobile device.
  3. Sites that have a separate mobile and desktop sites.

Responsive Design Approach

Google says if possible, they recommend you go with the responsive design approach. This is where you use CSS3 media queries to alter the way the page renders on mobile devices. In this case, there is one URL, one content, one HTML code but CSS media queries to specify which CSS rules apply for the browser displaying the page. Google says the advantages of this method include having one URL making it easier for your users to interact with the page and enable Google’s “algorithms to assign the indexing properties to your content.” It is also more efficient when Google is crawling your content because Google doesn’t have to crawl multiple pages.

Device-Specific HTML Approach

If you are going with the dynamic serving configuration, which is fine, Google recommends you use the Vary HTTP header to give Google a hint that the content and CSS may change based on the useragent. The header is commonly used for caching purposes but can also be used in this situation to communicate the content has changed based on the useragent. In this case, it would be used as a indexing and crawling signal for Googlebot-Mobile.

Pierre from Google explains:

As for the separate mobile site configuration, since there are many ways to do this, our recommendation introduces annotations that communicate to our algorithms that your desktop and mobile pages are equivalent in purpose; that is, the new annotations describe the relationship between the desktop and mobile content as alternatives of each other and should be treated as a single entity with each alternative targeting a specific class of device.

These annotations will help us discover your smartphone-optimized content and help our algorithms understand the structure of your content, giving it the best chance of performing well in our search results.

Google has a developer site with more on how to implement this solution. Please note that depending on if you go with the new URL versus the same URL, the annotations Google asks you to use are different. So during your implementation, please read the developer site.

(1) When you use the different HTML approach but the same URL, Google wants you to use the HTTP Vary Header as a hint for GoogleBot-Smartphone to crawl the site.

(2) When you use the different HTML approach but a different URL, Google wants you to use a rel=alternate on the desktop version and use a canonical on the mobile version.

Again, when possible, go the responsive approach but when you cannot, Google can and does support the device-specific HTML approach but remember to communicate to Google that the content is changing based on the useragent.

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Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Google: Mobile | Google: SEO | Google: Web Search | SEO: Mobile Search | Top News


About The Author: is Search Engine Land's News Editor and owns RustyBrick, a NY based web consulting firm. He also runs Search Engine Roundtable, a popular search blog on very advanced SEM topics. Barry's personal blog is named Cartoon Barry and he can be followed on Twitter here. For more background information on Barry, see his full bio over here.

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  • Waqid Janjua

    Thats great, i was hoping this would be the way to do mobile.

  • Kevin

    So it looks like we’re doing the “Device Specific approach”. good to have these recommendations.

  • King of Pain

    Had a client today that had this in their header 
    They said it was to prevent the Google Mobile bot from indexing and crawling the site & they did not want to get hit with a penalty by Google for having duplicate content. This is the first I have heard of this? Can anyone clarify?

  • Matthew Kayne

    So is a sub-domain considered at New URL to Google?

  • Roslyn Garavaglia

    How does all this compare with the GO-MO partnership Google has with Dudamobile?

  • Bernadette Asilo

    Interesting stuff! I was looking for some guides and I just found your blog. Thanks! Keep it up! :)

  • Rohit Chandra

    With more than billion people surfing on the web from their mobile devices, its important for the companies to serve their best content optimized for such devices. Good step taken by Google.

  • MobileBot

    Really nice action for the mobile user. Interesting ! Whom are indulge in the web surfing to get the rigorous in information.

  • Haraldsono

    “Google wants you to use a rel=alternate on the desktop version and use a canonical on the mobile version.” Am I misreading this, or is this a ‘desktop first’ mindset leaking through?

  • Danny Bluestone

    This is a useful article and I am curious about annotations how they would work. The argument about ‘responsive’ VS ‘adaptive’ web design is a healthy one and there is no clear cut answer as this depends the specific project – generally speaking if the budgets, internal client resources and timelines are very tight then responsive is a better option. I also feel that responsive is better and easier to implement from Google’s search engines algorithims perspective. Saying that, you could have a responsive website with certain ‘adaptive’ features that make total sense for the user experience (using media queries). On this topic, the UX and end user goals should drive type of build design opt for whilst being sensitive to marketing and technology requirements.

  • jordanwilson

    There’s also a 4th category not listed here which is a combination of both Responsive and Device-Specific. Sometimes referred to as RESS. I wonder if Google would consider that 4th combination as better or worse than responsive on its own.

  • Brad


  • Toronto SEO Guy

    Good to see Google finally taking a soldi stance on this.

  • BooneOfelia99

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  • Joe Russo

    Incorrect. It is considered the same URL. That is the practice that all mobile companies use. Website design companies specifically are just trying to optimize the same page (less work) A good mobile site will have mobile related features and content. Click to call, about us, etc. 

    If a sub-domain was considered two URL’s it’s partnership with Duda would make no sense because they are setting up a redirect to show the mobile device. (which is typically set up on another domain) 

    I personally use MoFuse and I’m happy working with them to offer mobile to my clients.

  • Brad

    incorrect.  Sub domains are certainly different url.  You can easily have different content on different sub domains. !=

    You can tell google that 2 different urls are actually one but that is not the default like you can say =

  • Jason

    Are you saying that they are recommending a regular website to format into a mobile device or a mobile website, format according to the type of phone?

    We have been building custom mobile websites using the format with different content than the regular website.

  • Sean Mitchell

    Love the info and progression in this space.  Time to advance mobile/platform strategies to this ‘responsive’ platform.  Google wants what it wants…time to feed the mothership. :)  Thankfully it looks like more WP theme designers are jumping on board recently from some digging I did last night.

  • Maurine W. Sigmund

    This is the first I have heard of this? Can anyone clarify?

  • ashishmohta

    If your website has a heavy sidebar, A responsive theme will give an endless scroll to a mobile users. This is one aspect many dont understand and this is one reason I would go for mobile theme instead of responsive design.
    Also if you think just hiding some elements, like sidebar, will solve the problem then it brings back the complexity of detecting a Mobile Device and render accordingly. Idea is to make site usable on mobile device not just adjust size etc. 

    My second major concerns are on advertisements, Not all adverts used on Desktop Design will render according to mobile device which will make your website go out of shape

    In this case I will prefer second approach & get a mobile app done for the website.

  • GilesJuliana

    my friend’s mother-in-law makes $85 every hour on the computer. She has been out of a job for 6 months but last month her paycheck was $19177 just working on the computer for a few hours. Read more her

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  • Peter Sundstrom

     Going for the responsive approach is sensible for certain types of websites/content, but it can lead to a somewhat bloated mobile version as there’s only so much you can do with CSS.

  • Ken

    While it’s nice to see Google giving some guidance on how they would like us to build websites I disagree with the statement that this is a “clear stance on Mobile SEO”. 

  • Bryson Meunier

    This is a common mistake, but it’s not necessary. If they implement the proper redirects and/or rel=canonical and rel=alternate tags that Google recommends, there will be no issues with duplicate content. Pierre Far of Google said as much on the panel. You can safely advise your client to remove those tags, as they could be hurting more than helping themselves. More info on how it backfired for Home Depot in an old column I wrote:

  • Bryson Meunier

    No, I think you’re right Haraldsono. I’m wondering what will happen in two years when most people are searching from mobile devices and Google has desktop pages in their index. Asked Google to address this in a future Search Engine Land column, so hopefully they will. But it does give fuel to those analysts’ fire who claim that Google, Facebook and others are too focused on desktop when mobile is where everything’s going.

  • Bryson Meunier

    I think that’s short sighted. Google doesn’t want you to make a responsive site if it doesn’t make sense for your users. And sometimes responsive web design is not the best answer for users, as Google acknowledged in their guidelines.

  • Bryson Meunier

    I disagree as well. Of course they would prefer if we were able to make our sites responsive, but they still support three configurations and leave it up to the site owner as to which is best for their users. My latest column in Search Engine Land asks the question  ”Does Google’s Mobile SEO Preference Change Mobile SEO Best Practices?”: and the answer is basically no.

  • spasticdonkey

    Well done article, and also interesting that Google promotes the responsive design approach when they themselves use a device-specific approach for Google search. I agree in theory with the responsive design approach for many sites, but there are times where you are either handcuffing your “desktop” site and/or not delivering an efficient optimized mobile experience as a result.

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