The Definitive Guide To Technical Mobile SEO

Google mobile app logoAt SMX Advanced, I moderated a panel about technical SEO. Google’s Maile Ohye spoke about SEO best practices for technical implementation of mobile sites based on how Google crawls, indexed, and ranks mobile content and presents it to searchers on mobile devices.

She also talked about Google’s recent announcement that the mobile user experience is a factor in how Google ranks results for smartphone searchers.

Below are more details on that, as well as resources on how best to architect your site’s mobile experience for optimal search acquisition (and happy mobile users).

Responsive Design, Dynamic Content, or Mobile URLs?

If you’re designing the mobile experience from scratch, this question is the first place to start. If you already have a mobile experience set up, then you can just jump to the section that applies to your site. All three options work well for users and for Google, so use the best implementation based on your infrastructure, content, and audience.

Implementation URLs Content
Responsive design One URL for both desktop and mobile The page serves basically the same content to all users but detects the device and screen size and builds the layout accordingly. As the screen size gets smaller, the page may show fewer images, less text, or a simplified navigation.
Dynamic Serving One URL for both desktop and mobile The page serves different content to users of different devices.
Mobile URLs Different URLs for desktop and mobile The mobile and desktop experience might be completely different.

 

Responsive Design

Using responsive design that detects the device and adjusts the layout accordingly can be a great one-size fits all implementation. You just have one URL for any type of device and the layout adjusts. This works great for smartphones, tablets, laptops, huge monitors, and the dashboard of your flying car. The crawl is efficient, users don’t experience the slowdowns that redirects bring, and search engines have just one page to index and rank.

Users love it; Google loves it; everyone’s happy.

Google recommends that you don’t block crawling of resources such as CSS and JavaScript as they need to be able to construct the responsive page elements (not blocking these resources is also something they recommend more broadly.)

One potential pitfall is page load time. Make sure that the page is speedy to download on mobile devices and that you aren’t loading a bunch of weighty content (like videos and ads that you end up not displaying to mobile users anyway) that hinders the mobile experience. If you find that’s a problem with the content on your site, that you might want to consider dynamic content.

Another facet to consider is content focus. If what you end up showing vs. hiding for the desktop version compared to the mobile version is entirely different, separate mobile URLs may be the way to go.

Dynamic Serving

With this set up, the server detects the device before returning content and serves the response on a single URL (as above with responsive design). The difference is that the content that’s loaded onto that URL may be totally different depending on the device type.

This is a good option if loading the full content from the desktop version would slow the mobile page down, but it can be more complicated to implement.

For this implementation, ensure you are using the Vary: User-Agent HTTP response header since you are serving different content in different instances. (Note that some CDNs, such as Akamai, may not cache pages that use this header. Google recommends you still use it and you can configure Akamai to ignore the header.)

Mobile URLs

Back in the olden days, when we all rode in horse-drawn carriages, churned our own butter, and had flip phones, sites couldn’t possibly have used responsive design for mobile users. That poor flip phone would have requested the page, seen the massive code headed for it, and just curled up in a corner and cried.

So, mobile best practices for the Web initially called for separate mobile pages (typically at an m. subdomain), often coded particularly for mobile devices (XHTML mobile profile/WAP 2.0,WML/WAP 1.2, or cHTML (iMode).

Google’s mobile Web index stores these pages and feature phone users can search through them (yes, still). Mobile XML Sitemaps are for listing these types of pages.

But if your site has separate mobile URLs in these futuristic days (of flying cars and free espresso everywhere), it’s unlikely those pages are using one of these markups. It’s probably just a page you’ve constructed differently to better be used on a smaller screen.

Since Google sees different URLs as different pages, you can do several things to ensure that Google understands the relationship between your desktop and mobile pages so that your site is as visible to mobile searchers as it is to desktop searchers.

Google searches both desktop and smartphone users from a single index, and in cases where both a desktop and a mobile page exist, clusters them together and serves the appropriate version. (See more about this in the ranking section below.)

This implementation is still a great choice, despite the newer options available. It can be a lot easier to keep track of technically and as long as you follow the tips below, it works well for both users and search engines as well.

In particular, if the content you’re serving mobile users is fairly different from what you’re serving desktop users, this options makes a lot of sense.

Mobile URLs & Redirect Mapping

The first and best thing you can do for both search engines and users is to ensure that both your mobile and desktop pages redirect appropriately. Mobile user-agents that access the desktop pages should be redirected to the mobile versions and desktop user-agents that access the mobile pages should be redirected to the desktop versions. Sounds so simple. So many sites don’t do it.

I recommend this all the time, and I’m always asked why it’s so important to redirect the mobile pages to the desktop equivalent for non-mobile users. Beyond the SEO implications, we live in a world of mobile consumption and sharing. I might be standing in line to board a flight, reading an article while I’m waiting. I share the (mobile) link (it was a fascinating article! like this one!) via Twitter and you click on it while sitting at your desk at work.

If the site doesn’t redirect to the desktop version, you see the mobile page, which in addition to not being a great experience, doesn’t make the site any money since it doesn’t serve any ads.

See an ABC news mobile page has it looks like when I load it on my laptop:

Mobile URL

Mobile URL

And here’s that same article on the desktop URL. So much more user-friendly! Ads!

Non-Mobile URL

You don’t need to do anything special for Googlebot-Mobile, as it crawls as a mobile browser, so both it and the regular Googlebot will be redirected correctly if these redirects are in place.

It’s bad enough to not redirect based on device type, but you know what’s even worse? Redirecting mobile users to the home page. If you don’t have a mobile equivalent and a mobile user accesses the desktop page, let them see the desktop page! Accessing a page on a mobile device that’s not designed for that screen isn’t great, but it’s better than being redirected away to a completely irrelevant page and  not being able to access the information at all.

What if you have a mobile page and no desktop equivalent? As with the desktop page with no mobile version, let everyone access the mobile version.

Google recommends redirecting tablet users to the desktop, rather than the mobile, version as their data show that’s what uses prefer.

Don’t block the mobile pages from being crawled via robots.txt as this prevents Google from mapping the desktop and mobile page into a cluster.

Mobile URLs & Adding Meta Data

As I mentioned earlier, Google uses a single index for serving content to desktop and mobile users, but clusters the desktop and mobile pages together and serves the appropriate version. In addition to redirects between them, you can add meta data to send signals to Google to make this mapping clear.

Rel=canonical

Use the desktop value for both the mobile and desktop version. This consolidates indexing and ranking signals (such as external links) and prevents confusion about potential duplicate content.

<link rel=”canonical” href=”http://www.example.com/desktop-version/my-new-favorite-show-is-scandal/”/>

Rel=alternate media

This attribute enables you to map the desktop and mobile URLs.  Use this attribute on the desktop page to specify the mobile version. (You don’t include this attribute on the mobile version to specify the desktop version.)

One the desktop page, include following (where max-width is whatever you’ve set the page to support):

<link rel=”alternate” media=”only screen and (max-width: 640px)” href=”http://m.example.com/my-new-favorite-show-is-scandal/”/>”

You can also specify the alternate in the XML Sitemap.

Make sure you specify the canonical version of the mobile URL (and don’t dynamically just include the URL in the browser address bar, which might include optional parameters).

SMX Advanced Mobile SEO

Rel=next/prev

If the site includes paginated content, you would also include the Rel=next and Rel=prev attributes. However, keep in mind that if the number of items listed per page is different on the mobile vs. desktop version, you can’t use Rel=alternate media to cluster the corresponding pages together since the content doesn’t match.

SMX Mobile SEO Pagination

Vary: User-Agent HTTP Header

Whether the site redirects based on device type or simply shows different content (dynamic serving), configure the server to return the Vary: User-Agent” HTTP response header (see more on this above in the dynamic serving section).

Rankings & Mobile Devices

When someone searches Google from a smartphone, they are searching through the same index as they would from a desktop. Because Google clusters the desktop and mobile pages, the following happens in results:

  • Searchers see the desktop version of the URL listed
  • When the searcher clicks, Google loads the mobile version, not the desktop version (this improves the user experience because the page loads faster).

Different ranking signals for all kinds of things (type of query, location of searcher, type of device searcher is using). In the case of mobile searchers, signals include the mobile user experience of the page. (People try to pin down ranking signals, but they vary widely from query to query and searcher to searcher, so coming up with a fixed list of ranking signals is a trip to crazy town where you might end up crying in the corner with that flip phone!)

Mobile issues that prevent an ideal user experience may hinder the site’s ability to rank well to mobile searchers, but won’t impact the site’s ability to rank well to desktop searchers.

The following ranking signals are specific to Smartphone searches:

Mobile-only pages

Since Google consolidates indexing and ranking signals for pages with both a desktop and mobile version, then pages that are mobile-only will have fewer signals and may not rank as well.

Page load times

Maile showed a case study that looked at the impact of an additional 1 second latency for pages loaded on Smartphones. The study found a 9.4% decrease in page views, a 9.3% increase in bounce rate, and a 3.5% drop in conversions.

The point is that Google wants to send searchers to pages that provide the best experience, and slow loading pages hinder that. So slower pages may not rank as well.

Maile said Google recommends trying to display above the fold content in less than a second (the average load time on mobile devices today is 7 seconds).

Redirects

It takes .6  seconds for a mobile device to get a connection for a page request. This means that each redirect adds a minimum of .6 seconds to the load time.

Mobile Latency Due to Redirects

Sometimes redirects are unavoidable, but make sure that you are redirecting directly to the target, and eliminate redirect chains and loops.

Also, as noted earlier, make sure that you don’t redirect mobile users from desktop URLs to the mobile home page. As you might imagine, this could definitely impact ranking of those URLs, since from a mobile user standpoint, they don’t exist. Similarly, don’t show an error page to smartphone users, telling them that the page doesn’t exist.

Overlays and Popups

I know, you really want users to install your app. It’s a great app. Way better than the mobile site. And maybe it even makes you money, unlike your mobile pages since no one can figure out a mobile revenue model. I get it.

But Google is trying to get the searcher to an answer, and roadblocks like overlays prompting for app installs keep the searcher from that quick answer. Maile’s presentation recommended “reconsidering forcing users to make an extra click with ‘download our app’ interstitials”.

Mobile Overlays

I know. This causes the number of app downloads to plummet. But if the page stops ranking, you won’t get as many visitors, which will also cause the number of app downloads to plummet. Look at adjusting the mobile page layout to better showcase your app instead.

In the example below, The Car Connection includes both content the searcher wants above the fold and a prompt to install the app (that’s closable).

 Mobile App Prompt

Supported Content

Make sure that the mobile page serves only content supported on mobile devices. If you serve up a page that contains only content that the user can’t see (or video the user can’t play), Google isn’t getting the searcher to the answer quickly in that case, and might not rank that page as highly.

To Recap

  • You can serve mobile and desktop users with either the same URL (responsive design or dynamic serving) or different URLs (mobile-specific pages)
  • Use the Vary: User Agent HTTP header for pages that serve dynamic content based on device or that redirect to device-specific URLs
  • Use the canonical attribute (to the desktop version)
  • When using separate URLs:
    • redirect both desktop and mobile users to the appropriate page
    • don’t redirect users if you don’t have an equivalent page
    • redirect tablet users to the desktop version
    • use a canonical value of the desktop URL
    • use the rel alternate media on the desktop version to specify the mobile version
    • make sure the page loads quickly
    • reduce unneeded redirects
    • don’t keep the searcher from the content with an interstitial advertising your app

Happy mobile!

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

Related Topics: Channel: Mobile | Features: Analysis | Google: Mobile | Google: SEO | SEO: Mobile Search | Top News

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About The Author: is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. She built Google Webmaster Central and went on to found software and consulting company Nine By Blue and create Blueprint Search Analytics< which she later sold. Her book, Marketing in the Age of Google, (updated edition, May 2012) provides a foundation for incorporating search strategy into organizations of all levels. Follow her on Twitter at @vanessafox.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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  • Pat Grady

    Been a few years since I bookmarked a webpage, Bravo Zulu!

  • Remi Turcotte

    Is the vary header working on ALL browsers ? I don’t think it’s a good idea to recommend the vary header…

  • BobGladstein

    When we created an m. for a site I worked on, we did the standard user-agent sniffing to redirect users to the right version, but we also added a link on mobile pages back to the desktop version, just in case they preferred it that way. However, that meant that when a mobile user-agent requested a desktop URL, we had to check to see if they were coming from our mobile page in order to avoid redirecting them back to the page they had just come from. Would that be considered a bad idea these days?

  • http://www.techmagnate.com/ Eva Rajput

    Google is taking a stronger position on mobile SEO, it will begin demoting sites in mobile search results if they are not mobile friendly or are misconfigured. Many marketers may find themselves challenged to implement these
    guidelines as they are wide-ranging and will come with associated costs,
    time and upkeep.

    As a result, mobile users could be impacted if they are not seeing relevant content because it does not meet the guidelines.
    It becomes necessary to be updated about the technicalities of mobile SEO.
    Thanks for sharing this informative post!

  • http://www.ninebyblue.com Vanessa Fox

    I don’t think there’s a great answer for that yet and it’s a similar problem as you might have with desktop pages with pagination and faceted navigation (which I describe here: http://searchengineland.com/implementing-pagination-attributes-correctly-for-google-114970).

    The solution in both cases right now is to leave them as separate pages without canonical/alternate media), although as noted in the article, they may not rank as well as they otherwise would.

    I suppose you could also noindex them as you note, as the desktop version would then rank and mobile searchers would get redirected to the right page. There’s the potential downside of lowered ranking in mobile results if a lot of other mobile pages are in play (as I imagine pages optimized for mobile would be seen as more relevant for mobile searches).

    I’m hoping that over time, Google’s algorithms get better at issues like this.

    Not sure on Bing — I can look into that for the next article! The blog post you mention is a bit confusing, since it suggests a one URL strategy, but then says it’s fine if you use mobile-only URLs (with corresponding desktop URLs), but doesn’t give recommendations for how to handle that implementation.

    And for mobile only URLs (with no corresponding desktop page), it says you can block them “or not”. But if you block the pages, they’d never rank for mobile searchers.

  • hamletbatista

    Great job, but this paragraph is incorrect.

    “One the mobile page, include following (where max-width is whatever you’ve set the page to support):

    ””

    This goes in the desktop page, not in the mobile page.

    https://developers.google.com/webmasters/smartphone-sites/details

    “On the desktop page, add:

    and on the mobile page, the required annotation should be:

  • http://www.ninebyblue.com Vanessa Fox

    Thanks — good catch. Fixed “mobile page” to be “desktop page”. :)

  • hamletbatista

    “One potential pitfall is page load time. Make sure that the page is speedy to download on mobile devices and that you aren’t loading a bunch of weighty content (like videos and ads that you end up not displaying to mobile users anyway) that hinders the mobile experience”

    An alternative approach is to use clever CSS/Javascript tricks to selectively load heavy resources depending on the viewport. One such trick is unused CSS rules containing background images http://stackoverflow.com/questions/12750872/would-a-background-image-still-load-if-its-hidden

    Another is to avoid hard coding media resources(or ads) in the HTML, and load them dynamically via Jquery/Javascript. This would have to be tested to make sure the resources load as fast as expected using this approach.

  • http://www.agriya.com/ Siva MA

    Dear Vanessa,

    Thanks for sharing this post. If i develop a website in bootsrap, Will i follow the methods what did u share in the post.

  • Eduardo Sobral Guilherme

    Thank you for this great post Vanessa! I was unsure if I should opt for Responsive Design or Dynamic Serving. You made my day!

  • lisa741

    what Stanley answered I am
    inspired that some people able to get paid $5905 in one month on the
    computer. did you see this website w­w­w.K­E­P­2.c­o­m

  • http://makethemclick.com.au/library Mark @ Make Them Click

    Great write up Vanessa.

    One of the things about responsive design that concerns me is that it adds about 1mb of extra code and a dozen extra style sheets and javascript files. While you could combine them into one each, you still end up with an awful lot of extra code.

    This page for instance is nearly 10meg containing over 300 files, two dozen style sheets and nearly a hundred javascript files.

    Doesn’t size matter anymore as a performance hindrance?

  • Peter Garety

    Great source for Mobile SEO. Thank you!

    One thing that is very interesting thing is responsive design – if that is the way to go, why YouTube, Google’s property, is using m sub-domain? Why big sites like Pinterest and Facebook does the same?

    This is one of those things – ‘don’t listen what they say, but learn from what they do’.

  • Federico Riva

    Hi Vanessa, I run 2 sites with different content (but identical subject). I’m about to develop a mobile version for each. But I’d like to have the same content for both sites. To avoid index similarity between the 2 mobile versions (which would have the same content) what can I do?

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