How To Best Optimize Your Mobile Site For SEO

Last week my colleague, Michael Martin presented Mongoose Metrics data that demonstrates that less than 10% of you are mobile ready in 2012.  He also presented some pretty compelling reasons for going mobile in 2012, including the Compuware study that 57% of customers would not recommend a business with a bad mobile site, and 40% would actually even go to a competitor with a better mobile experience.

If you’re a regular reader of this column and you don’t have a mobile experience, you are in the majority of site owners; but you’re also way behind and may not be able to catch up if you wait much longer.

So are you ready? Let’s talk about the ideal set up for your mobile site for SEO purposes.

There are cheaper, easier solutions, but this is the one that I would recommend to webmasters looking not just for a mobile friendly solution, but something that’s truly optimized to bring in traffic from mobile searchers.

If you want to build a mobile site in a way that will increase your organic search engine traffic, this is how to do it.

1. Make It Truly Mobile

Before you even think about subdomain options, you better know your mobile user: the person who you’re building this for who will ultimately make it a success or failure.

What are they looking for and why? Use the AdWords keyword tool to get mobile volumes and desktop volumes for keywords related to your brand, and to your products and services, and then find the mobile percent of total volume, or the mobile ratio, as Sherwood Stranieri put it. This gives you a sense of what concepts and keywords overindex with smartphone and mobile searchers, and it will help you build more than a desktop experience.

For example, for Walgreens, it’s clear from their brand keywords that index high among mobile searchers that the majority of searchers are looking for a Walgreens near them. It’s clear from the volume of queries where more than 30% of the total volume is mobile (smartphone and feature phone):

And it’s clear from a long tail analysis of the same list:

These are highly qualified searchers, as they’re very likely to convert offline, so why not make it as easy for them as possible?

Now that we know what our mobile users want, we can design the mobile site so that it provides those things with ease. And this will differ for all businesses, but it’s likely to be different from how your desktop website is structured.

Walgreens seems to know this, as they designed their mobile website differently than their desktop website, specifically taking advantage of the unique capabilities of a mobile device.

Instead of having their mobile searcher find a site with a lot of irrelevant content crammed on to one page that’s intended for desktop users, they’ve highlighted those areas that are most relevant to the mobile user experience.

For example, instead of doing nothing with their site and hoping that a mobile searcher finds the sections they’re looking for (which I’ve highlighted in red in the second image):

Walgreens has presented a simplified version of the home page that highlights those areas of the site that are most relevant to the mobile user experience:

When you hit the “find near me” button, it uses the phone’s GPS to find the locations closest to you, taking advantage of the specific functionality of mobile browsers rather than completely transcoding the desktop site with desktop functionality to look good on mobile browsers (i.e. responsive design).

Walgreens.com isn’t the paragon of mobile SEO, unfortunately, as they’ve done a lot of things wrong when it comes to the findability of their mobile site. With the design they really should have included a small keyword-rich text box that conveys the relevance of the page to users and search engines, as there’s not a lot of text or keywords on the page to help search engines understand that it’s relevant for what search engine users are looking for.

For some brands, there may also be concepts and keywords that aren’t included in the desktop site that need to be linked to from the homepage.

I’m guessing this is because the page was designed with users rather than SEO in mind, as someone hired the non-search-friendly mobile platform Usablenet to design the site and disallowed it in the robots.txt file so that it only appears in search engines when you put in the navigational keyword [m walgreens com].

They also promote the app over the mobile site by sending the searcher to a splash page first, which isn’t good for users or search engines.

Nonetheless, like State Farm and too few other companies, they did build a separate mobile user experience rather than used stylesheets to serve a formatted desktop experience, which is the first big step to getting a search-optimized mobile site.

2. Create A Hybrid Of Mobile-Optimized & Mobile-Friendly Content

Once you’ve settled on the design and site architecture, you need to determine the best way to host your mobile site. Though there are many opinions on the matter, the best solution is to host your mobile homepage and mobile-only pages at m.domain.com subdomain or /m subfolder.

For all other pages with content that won’t change from desktop to mobile, it’s perfectly acceptable to keep them at the same URL as your desktop and simply reformat them for mobile user agents. Redirects work fine too, but the best practice for transcoded desktop URLs is currently to add canonical tags to pass the link equity back to desktop pages.

For mobile only pages that are not strict duplicates, canonical tags are unnecessary, and could make your most valuable pages invisible to searchers.

3. Redirect Appropriately

For mobile-only content, you’ll need to set up the proper redirects. My colleague Cindy Krum has a handy tool for PHP and .NET redirects that makes it easy for novices to set up mobile redirects.

When Googlebot comes by, serve it your desktop content; but when her sisters Googlebot mobile and smartphone Googlebot arrive, give them your feature phone site (if you have one) and your smartphone site, respectively.

If you have a tablet site, by all means serve it to tablet searchers instead of your desktop or smartphone site, but there currently is no tablet Googlebot to receive your tablet site.

If you don’t have a tablet site, serve your tablet searchers desktop content, as research shows that’s what they respond to best. Just make sure you’ve removed all traces of Flash before serving it up to the iPad or other tablets that don’t support Flash.

4. Don’t Forget the Images!

It has been a long time since mobile SEO was about optimizing WAP sites, and in the near future we may be optimizing for a literal pair of Google Goggles, with a Terminator-like overlay that searches for more information on the things around us, just by analyzing images and comparing them to Google’s image and Google Goggles image database.

SEOs can prepare for this brave new world today by ensuring images are optimized for mobile searchers.

5. Analyze & Optimize

Sure, there are mobile SEO best practices beyond this, but best practices only go so far. If you want to retain the edge that optimizing your site in this way gives you, you can’t just set it and forget it.

Given how rapidly this practice is changing, and how much it has changed in the last five or six years, mobile SEO requires regularly looking to your web analytics and to columns like those in the Mobile Search section in Search Engine Land in order to stay optimized.

There are many ways to go mobile, and many of them will actually hurt your visibility among mobile searchers. If you create mobile content when appropriate, redirect appropriately, optimize your images for mobile searchers, and analyze your site for new opportunities, there won’t be many mobile webmasters who will be able to compete with you in natural search.

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

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | How To | How To: Mobile Marketing | Intermediate | Mobile Search | Search Engines: Mobile Search Engines | SEO: Mobile Search

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About The Author: is the Director of SEO Strategy at Resolution Media, and a primary architect of Resolution Media’s SEO product and Clear Target Digital Behavior Analysis. You can follow him on Twitter @BrysonMeunier

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  • jhuman

    Great post! I would add using a responsive website structure is idea.

  • http://www.mobilemartin.com/ Michael Martin

    Interesting to note that last week Senior Google Webmaster Trend Analyst, John Mueller, affirmed the one URL mobile strategy as a better overall strategy than using a separate mobile subdomain or section – http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/Webmasters/thread?tid=553b26f6fe1f2c39&hl=en

    “An easier solution, if you can do it, is to just serve smartphone and desktop users from the same URLs, using something like special stylesheets or CSS3 media-queries to optimize the content shown on smartphones. The advantage of that is that you don’t need special URLs, think about the crawling and indexing of them, nor would you need to consider how you’d redirect smartphone users.”

  • http://www.brysonmeunier.com Bryson Meunier

    Hi Michael,

    I posted a link to that when I said there were “cheaper, easier solutions,” so I’m not sure why you’re quoting it like it’s news to all of us. And John Mueller’s way is only better in terms of being easier, not in terms of bringing a website more traffic from mobile search. Since this isn’t search engine efficiency, as SEOs we should be considering what drives more qualified traffic from mobile search, not only what is easy to do. The fact remains that a site built as I described will have better user engagement and bring more search engine traffic from additional queries not available to the transcoded desktop site than a site built once and formatted differently for different devices. John Mueller’s affinity for responsive design doesn’t change that. It’s also not necessarily Google’s opinion on the matter, as they’ve given various opinions on this subject, but never in one voice: http://searchengineland.com/do-you-know-google%E2%80%99s-official-stance-on-mobile-search-seo-100350

    John Mueller also seems to believe that smartphone and desktop searchers are treated the same by Google, which is no longer true post-smartphone Googlebot and skip redirect update. I explained to him as much here: https://plus.google.com/u/0/109513208688588414415/posts/6xBx77z957u

    Not sure if he’s the best person within Google to comment on matters like these, as he doesn’t appear to have the latest info.

    As I say in the article, I agree that responsive design is fine when audience analysis doesn’t indicate that mobile searchers have different needs than desktop searchers, but in many cases (as in the Walgreens and State Farm examples I cite), there’s a big opportunity in making a site truly mobile, rather than assuming that all smartphone searchers want is a mobile-friendly version of your desktop site.

    JHurman, thanks for your enthusiasm, but just to clarify, I’m arguing that responsive design is a bad idea in many cases. Fine with URLs that have duplicate content, but there’s a big opportunity beyond that responsive design won’t help you take advantage of. In those cases, build a mobile-optimized (as opposed to mobile-friendly) site to be more competitive in mobile search.

    Best,
    Bryson

  • http://www.mobilemartin.com/ Michael Martin

    Bryson,

    Didn’t mean it to be redundant to your link out or “muddy the waters” ;) as I know Cutts did a video for the m. and then John advises the single URL

    I agree if you use the single URL & just change rendering then that alone is not advantageous for the different mobile searches, but if your mobile agent detection also triggers different META & DocType, etc optimized to that mobile type (feature or smartphone)…then I would prefer that over an m. or /mobile since it consolidates the link equity of the URL in tandem with the specific mobile type optimization for the different mobile bots/users…understood easier said than done, but am building case studies :)

    I feel this becomes even more logical going forward for tablet, TV, automobile, etc device type searches than creating a subdomain/directory for each device type when you have a 1 to 1 relationship to your desktop pages.

    I would argue its actually EASIER to simply create an m. (does make more sense when you have a limited mobile site) but then if you aren’t creating a separate section for the feature phone & smartphone pages, you would be using the single URL strategy above but on the weaker m. vs the stronger www.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/natewhite Nate White

    “When Googlebot comes by, serve it your desktop content; but when her sisters Googlebot mobile and smartphone Googlebot arrive, give them your feature phone site (if you have one) and your smartphone site, respectively.”

    This is done in the robots.txt file, correct? Can you share an example of a site that executes this properly?

  • http://www.brysonmeunier.com Bryson Meunier

    Hi Michael,

    Do you have an example of a site that is being hurt in the search engine rankings because their mobile site at m. is splitting link equity? I know that it’s a common concern with you and others who give advice about mobile SEO, but as I’ve mentioned many times in this column before, splitting URLs in order to address users of a different platform with different needs is not considered duplicate content (http://searchengineland.com/dont-penalize-yourself-mobile-sites-are-not-duplicate-content-40380). This is one thing that Google has been consistent on when they’ve addressed the issue. And honestly I’ve never seen evidence of a site that builds out content on a separate subdomain and properly redirects mobile user agents not ranking for queries that their desktop site ranks on. With December’s Old Possum/Skip Redirect update, mobile sites will now appear for relevant queries regardless of their link equity. So I understand your concern, but without any evidence to the contrary I have to conclude that it’s unfounded.

    I’d also be interested in seeing a site that actually serves different content to smartphone and tablet users at the same URL instead of just reformatting if you have it. Seems like a lot of work to avoid a non-issue to me, but if you’d care to share I’m sure it would be impressive.

    Best,
    Bryson

  • http://www.brysonmeunier.com Bryson Meunier

    Hi Nate,

    No, it’s actually done at the server level or in the page itself. There are a number of sites that do this properly, including Walgreens. Since you’re new to it, I would highly recommend the mobile redirection script generator at Mobile Moxie that I mentioned in the article: http://www.mobilemoxie.com/site-analysis/redirection-script-generator/

    Thanks for the question!

    Best,
    Bryson

  • http://www.mobilemartin.com/ Michael Martin

    Bryson,

    I can clarify with you at SMX this week, its not done for duplication concerns as that is an agreed moot point, but to allow the site to rank in the current & upcoming search environments for mobile – Its the having your cake & eating it too scenario ;)

  • http://www.drostdesigns.com/ Herman Drost

    Bryson..is their any advantage in registering a .mobi domain instead of creating the mobile site on a subdomain?

  • http://www.brysonmeunier.com Bryson Meunier

    Hi Herman, Thanks for the question. No, there’s not. Dotmobi deserves credit for their commitment to the mobile Web, but there’s no evidence that dotMobis are favored in search results. There is, however, evidence against: http://searchengineland.com/seven-mobile-seo-myths-exposed-103470

    Best,
    Bryson

  • http://twitter.com/shashankscg Shashank Gupta

    Hi Bryson, great post I must say. I have been planning to go in for mobile version of my business site, and I was researching for the same online. My team had already put a plan in place, and we were in the process of implementing it. Right when I stumbled upon your post, and after reading it I realized, we totally forgot the Image optimization for mobile. Thanks for this post that brought our attention to this crucial detail of Mobile SEO. Looking forward to more from you on mobile SEO

  • Bryson Meunier

    Thanks, Shashank! Happy to help!

 

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