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Sorting Out The Mobile Search & SEO Mess
One of the biggest challenges of being a mobile SEO is comparing keyword results across the many different search engines. While the goal of all the mobile engines is the same, their approaches vary considerably. Many traditional SEOs will simply target Google and hope for the best in the other engines, but there is a lot to be learned by comparing the impact of your SEO efforts in all of the major engines. This is especially true in the mobile search engines because of cross-promotion deals that mobile carriers, search engines and other interested parties have in place.
To be an effective mobile SEO you must first understand in general how mobile search results pages differ from traditional search results pages. Then it is important to understand the specifics of how mobile search engine results pages differ amongst themselves.
Mobile search results vs. Traditional search results
Results page layout: Mobile search results, including those for the iPhone, render in one long column as opposed to the multiple column layout that is presented in traditional search results. This makes sponsored results harder to spot, even when they are labeled, because they appear inline with the organic results. In an attempt to improve the usability and appeal of their product, many mobile search engines and search results pages are designed more like portals, with links to specific information and customization options to decrease the amount of typing necessary for the user to find what he or she is looking for.
Local & vertical results: The major mobile search engines are competing to create the best user experience possible. In many instances doing so involves the search engines surmising the user’s search goal and presenting the user with those specific search results first. For that reason, mobile search engines put a higher focus on local and vertical results, frequently featuring them much more prominently than traditional web results. These can include: maps, local results, links to official sites, images, weather and even sports scores. These results are even more important to consider in the mobile web, because of their premium placement on limited mobile results pages.
Character limits: As you might expect, mobile search results are frequently truncated versions of what would normally appear in the traditional results page. If you are optimizing a mobile-specific site, there are a whole new set of character limits to work with when optimizing meta data. If you are optimizing an existing site to be found in both mobile and traditional search, you should abide by the character limits for tradition search while at the same time remaining conscious of what will be omitted in the mobile search results.
URL display: In traditional search results, complete URLs are always provided for each search result, but this is not always the case in mobile search engines. Some mobile search engines will eliminate the ‘http://’ from the URL, or display only the domain in the search results, even though the result links to a deeper page on the site. Optimized sub-domains can be very useful in traditional SEO, but might be even more useful in mobile search engines, when everything after the domain extension (.com/.net/.co.uk etc.) is eliminated. Since savvy users sometimes evaluate display URLs to determine which result they will click on, the architecture of the URL can be used to influence that decision.
To make this more concrete, consider a person looking for the results of a football game on a mobile phone. Which URL seems like it is the most likely to get you the information in the fewest number of clicks:
- a. ESPN.com
- b. NFL.ESPN.com
- c. Football-Scores.ESPN.com
- d. FootballScores.com
I believe that the correct answer is likely a tie between options ‘c’ and ‘d.’ While ESPN is clearly an authority site, FootballScores.com and ESPN.com may lure some viewers away because of their simplicity. Optimized sub-domains are a good idea in some cases, but even in mobile SEO they are not always the best option. In some instances, users are more likely to click on simpler URLs, and other times they are not.
Mobile search engines are not all alike
Number of results on results page: One of the more frustrating differences between the mobile search engines is the number of results they present on the main results page, and the number of results that they will present on the secondary ‘web results’ page. Because mobile search engines are designed more like portals than traditional search engines, they have all come up with a variety of ways to present the information that is yielded from a search result. This can be handy for users but makes tracking and comparison a bit trickier.
In general, the major mobile search engines will provide a variable number of vertical results, based on relevance and a set number of mobile web results on the main results page. Windows Live provides two mobile web results on the main results landing page, Google Mobile and AOL Mobile provide six, Google iPhone provides eight and Yahoo provides 10. The exception is Google iPhone, which does not present verticals on the main results page at all, but instead presents eight web results and provides tabs along the top if the user needs to access local or vertical results.
Search box location: The AOL mobile landing page provides a search box at the top and bottom of the page, but only on the bottom of the results page. Conversely, Yahoo OneSearch provides a search box at the top of the landing page, and a search box at the bottom and the top of the results page. Windows Live provides one search box at the top of the search landing page, and one at the bottom of the results page. Google iPhone provides only one search box at the top of the landing page and the top of the results page.
Local & vertical results: Some mobile search engines, like AOL and Google iPhone will break local and vertical results into different tabs along the top of the page. Others will present a mixed landing page with vertical results such as maps, weather forecasts, images and sports scores provided inline with web results. Google Mobile and Yahoo OneSearch both maintain results pages where the main focus is web results, but they do integrate some vertical results inline with web results. Conversely, AOL Mobile and Windows Live both provide mixed results that do not focus on any particular type of result.
Location setting: It won’t be long before GPS enabled mobile devices set and update a user’s location automatically, but for now setting your location is still a manual process. While Google Mobile, AOL Mobile and Windows Live all allow you to set your location, Google iPhone and Yahoo OneSearch do not. Google and AOL Mobile both have options on the main search page to change your location. Google Mobile will allow you to set your location by city or zip code, but AOL takes it a step further and lets you specify your location down to the street address.
Windows Live does not have links on the main search page to change your default location; instead, they update the user’s default location whenever the user searches for a specific geographic location, so if your default location is set to Denver, but you want information about a restaurant in Houston you can search for ‘PapaMia Houston’ and your default location will be updated to Houston for subsequent searches. Unfortunately, there are no options or instructions for changing the default location on the main search page, so users are left to figure this out on their own.
Location settings can impact the local and vertical results that you are presented, and in the future may also affect the mobile web rankings as well. Currently, Google, AOL Mobile and Windows Live are tailoring the local and vertical results by the user’s default location, but are not tailoring web results by location.
Keyword bolding: Traditional search engines will sometimes put the keyword(s) that you have searched for in bold to help your eye key into the most relevant results. Most of the mobile search engines, (all but Windows Live) have adopted this practice to varying degrees as well. Yahoo OneSearch will bold keywords in the title line, description and URL, while all of the Google driven engines, including Google Mobile, Google iPhone and AOL Mobile will only bold terms when they are located in the description part of the results. Windows live is the only engine evaluated that is not bolding any keywords in search results pages.
User agent detection: Currently, Google Mobile, AOL Mobile and Microsoft OneSearch incorporate user agent detection to determine exactly what type of mobile device you are using to access their search engine. They will then use that information to optimize the results pages for viewing on your specific mobile device. This is done primarily to ensure images, maps and other graphics to are sized to fit the screen without right-to-left scrolling. In the future, this information could be integrated into the search algorithm to improve the ranking for pages that display well on your specific mobile device.
While transcoding improves the usability of the site in the short term, it may hinder SEO and can make interacting with the site more difficult. The transcoded page is hosted temporarily on the search engine server and domain, rather than on the original website. It is unclear weather transcoding impacts Google’s evaluation of the activity on your site, but it definitely makes it harder to get accurate links to the site because the URLs are re-formulated in the transcoding. Many of the mobile search engines have indicated that they recognize the ‘handheld’ style sheet, and will use it to render the site when it is available, but in our testing this was not the case. In all cases, you can choose to view the html version of the site by clicking on a link at the bottom of the page, or simply performing your search in the traditional version of the search engine, rather than the mobile version.
How will this Impact mobile SEO?
All of the differences that we can see amongst the mobile search engine players are simply an indication that the industry is still in its infancy, and has yet to develop standards. Mobile search engines are still determining how they can provide users with the best experience, and SEOs are still figuring out how to compare such variable results. The main conclusions that can be drawn is that mobile SEO is different from traditional SEO, but not so different that everything must be re-learned. mobile SEOs must be patient for the mobile web and the mobile search experience to catch up with the traditional web that we have become so used to. It is an exciting time in mobile SEO, when things are constantly changing, standards are slowly being formed and nothing is taken for granted.
Cindy Krum is the Senior SEO Analyst for Blue Moon Works, Inc., a provider of marketing and strategy services.