What’s The Difference Between Mobile & Desktop SEO?

One of the questions I get most often about mobile SEO is this: I’m already doing SEO– do I really need to do mobile SEO separately? What’s the difference between the two?

There are some who would say that there is no difference between desktop SEO and mobile SEO. It’s a topic that often garners friendly debate – Andrew French,  a fellow Mobile Mondays columnist, has even gone so far as to say there is no mobile SEO, just SEO for mobile search.

To me, this is like saying “there is no oncology, just a branch of medicine for cancer.”

On the one hand, yes, oncology is a branch of medicine for cancer, just as mobile SEO is a niche within SEO that deals with SEO for mobile search. On the other hand, if my general practitioner thinks I might have cancer, my next step is not to have him or her diagnose and treat the cancer. My next step is to a specialist, an oncologist, who will help me diagnose, treat, and hopefully remove that cancer.

Likewise, SEO for mobile sites can be done by SEOs, or even webmasters without an SEO background, who apply general SEO principles about accessibility, relevance and marketing to mobile search. But there are nuances and differences in optimizing mobile sites that don’t apply to desktop sites, and some that apply more to mobile sites than they do to desktop sites.

Sherwood Stranieri covered one of these differences in The Mobile Content Dilemma: Brevity Vs. Optimization. When it comes to text on a website, SEOs in general are going to push for more keyword-rich text to convey the relevance of the page to search engines, and Web designers are going to push for less. This applies even more to mobile sites, and it becomes harder to justify the SEO best practice of putting at least 250 words of relevant text on a mobile webpage.

There are different standards for mobile sites because of the different user experience, and SEOs who try to apply general best practices to optimize these sites are generally going to fail at implementation. Someone who has done mobile SEO regularly, however, will understand the nuances and attack the problem with enough precision to make a difference.

Mr. Stranieri’s is one example of a difference between mobile and desktop SEO, but it’s not the only one. In an upcoming seminar, I’ll be presenting 18 differences between mobile and traditional SEO, and there are probably even more than that. Let’s focus on a few of the more crucial differences here.

Google slide from Searchology 2009 on searching the mobile Web

Mobile Web Versus Apps

Mobile SEO is not just about optimizing mobile sites. In my career, I’ve actually optimized more apps than sites, as many companies decide to build an app instead of a mobile site. If you are an SEO, when is the last time you began an SEO project knowing that you wouldn’t be optimizing a site, but a piece of software?

It doesn’t happen very often in 2011, because most marketers are now convinced of the value of putting branded digital content up on the Internet, and allowing potential customers to find it through Google or other search engines, but this isn’t yet the case in mobile marketing.

Some analysts are coming around to the mobile Web, but too many companies greenlight mobile apps without understanding that even the most visible iPhone app only reaches 7% of the mobile population.

If you’re a generalist SEO without knowledge of the apps versus mobile Web debate, you may not know the arguments to make to do SEO in the first place, and you might not realize that apps can be optimized as well.

Mobile Often Uses Different Search Behavior

First, understand that not all mobile users are searching with keywords.

With Google Goggles, Gesture Search, Voice Search, and other mobile-first modes of search, a mobile user doesn’t have to go to the Google home screen and type in a query anymore and that can change how their intent is conveyed. And, sometimes the mobile context is going to change the frequency or type of their needs.

Sometimes searchers use the same keywords, but there’s a different meaning (e.g. coupon that is printed out vs coupon that is scanned from a phone), and sometimes they use different keywords altogether. Google research also indicates that they search at different times and in different contexts than desktop searchers.

To find these differences, you really need to include mobile keyword research as a part of your regular keyword research routine, as looking at desktop keywords exclusively is no longer enough.

Mobile Search Has Different Quality Signals

If you read Mobile Mondays or Search Engine Land regularly, you’ve probably heard of QR codes, which have been called paper-based hyperlinks that have the potential to disrupt your URL strategy. Indeed, QR codes are a separate type of link that the search engines could use to understand how searchers interact with the physical world in order to bring them more relevant content when they search for it.

But it’s not the only type of signal that the engines can use to make a better mobile search experience. Mobile links versus desktop links is another that was mentioned in a Google patent for blended mobile search algorithms, but any of the following could be used to that effect: access through SMS, mobile bookmarks on Android, mobile usage data in Google Reader and Google+, and mobile versus desktop search volume.

Given the similarity of smartphone results to traditional results it’s unlikely that any of these are playing a big part in Google’s mobile search quality at the moment, but given that Google will need to focus on speed, relevance and simplicity in order to remain competitive in mobile search, it’s fair to expect the search results will be improved by any or all of them in near future.

Mobile Search Uses Different Ranking Algorithms

At Searchology 2009, Google Director of Engineering Scott Huffman revealed that separate mobile algorithms exist to provide a better mobile user experience. This was confirmed in a NY Times feature in late April 2011, in which location was one factor that changed the search results for mobile versus desktop searchers.

Indeed, when I looked at smartphone versus desktop rankings for Resolution Media clients in Google Webmaster Tools, I found that there were variations in ranking for 86% of the smartphone rankings studied. I’ve since detailed 14 of these differences in the search results..

Mobile Has Different Levels Of Engagement

Finally, one of the biggest takeaways from Google’s Zero Moment of Truth ebook for me was its discussion of mobile, which Google says is “not ‘the wave of the future’ any more — it’s right now”.

According to the book, “First position matters even more in mobile. That’s true whether you’re talking about search results or ad positions. The digital shelf gets really small on the mobile screen! A drop from first to fourth position on mobile phone can mean a CTR drop off of more than 90%.”

In other words, if you’re forecasting traffic for your SEO campaigns and you’re not taking into account mobile click through rates and mobile search volume, you could be seriously underestimating the number of mobile visits from natural search.

A mobile searcher (compared to a desktop searcher) is highly engaged, but is less interested in scrolling than a desktop searcher. So if you don’t already have that number one spot and you’re not optimizing for it, it could be argued that you’re not really doing mobile SEO, and not really optimized for mobile search.

There are other differences between what’s commonly called mobile SEO versus desktop, traditional or regular SEO. I’ve touched on five here, but I consider eighteen when optimizing for mobile search.

If you’re not also considering differences when doing mobile SEO, you may not actually be doing mobile SEO. What’s more, you may not be doing SEO for mobile search particularly well either.

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

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Mobile Search | Search Marketing: Mobile | 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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  • http://www.mobilemartin.com/ Michael Martin


    You should clarify one of the key delineations within Mobile SEO which is there are essentially 2 different mobile search types (omitting tablet result rendering):

    Feature phone (Search engines base this on having a mobile non-WebKit browser) – comes with some DocType/Rendering filtration

    Smartphone (Search engines base this on having a mobile WebKit browser) – location intent & “click” to call prominence

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

    Thanks for the suggestion, Michael. This is true, of course, but when I refer to mobile SEO in this article it refers to both feature phone and smartphone traffic. The contrast is with desktop search (laptops and desktop computers), so I didn’t want to unnecessarily confuse readers who are new to the space.

  • Stupidscript

    While I appreciate your observations, it is not clear what the differences in SEO are between mobile and desktop.

    This article seems to be more about mobile user behavior than optimizing page content for search engine discovery, which is what “search engine optimization” has traditionally meant.

    You note in the comment section of your “14 Differences…” article that it is within Google’s guidelines to redirect mobile users from the page in Google’s index to a page that favors display on the smaller screens employed by mobile clients, and you even note that Google recommends that approach.

    Therefore, there is NO difference in SEO between the two … and there really isn’t even “two” … just SEO the main page, and when a mobile client arrives, punt them over to the smaller form-factor layout. Google recommends that.

    I have read each of your articles without illumination. Could you provide an example of a page that has been optimized for desktop and the same page content optimized for mobile?

    I apologize, but it seems like you are on a slippery slope of re-defining SEO as some level of user experience, rather than the technical “search engine discovery” practice that we all know and love.

    Thanks for your clarification.

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

    Stupidscript, thanks for your comments.

    Regarding user agent detection and redirection, Google does recommend that webmasters redirect mobile users to mobile content and add the canonical tag if the page is reformatted desktop content or reformat desktop content for mobile users without changing the URL if possible. Your assertion that SEO is the same for mobile and desktop platforms because of this phenomenon is incorrect, however, as 1) there’s more to mobile SEO than reformatting desktop content for mobile devices, and 2) redirection could happen even if the mobile page is not reformatted desktop content. Since you said you’ve read my columns, you should already understand this.

    As for an example, most of the examples that I’ve given in this column are of sites that haven’t done mobile SEO correctly, but in a future column I will give more examples of sites that are more or less optimized for mobile search. It’s difficult to give an example of a perfectly optimized mobile site, as even sites that do certain things well fail miserably at other things (e.g. NY Times mobile site includes mobile services on mobile.nytimes.com, but renders it moot by disallowing the site in robots.txt). Nonetheless, I think Facebook and Google both do a good job of including services in their core offering that are appealing to mobile users, and making that content accessible to search engines when appropriate. If you or others want to provide examples of sites you think are optimized in the comments, I may include them in this future column.

    With regard to your larger point of my definition of SEO as being tied to user experience vs technical search engine discovery, I would ask you to clarify what you mean by technical search engine discovery, as any form of SEO that doesn’t take the user experience into account is not sustainable. This point should be abundantly clear to webmasters after Google decimated a lot of thin content that doesn’t provide a positive user experience with their Panda update this year. I’ve said before that I agree with Matt Cutts’s assessment that SEOs should be trying to provide a good user experience, because search engines are trying to do the same thing and will eventually find ways to reward good content. That said, this isn’t a usability column, and I focus even in this column on concepts like keyword research, ranking algorithms, quality signals and forecasting that have been a part of search and SEO for even longer than I’ve been writing about it. If you clarify what you mean by technical search engine discovery we all know and love, then maybe we can have a productive discussion about how our definitions of SEO differ, but any SEO strategy that doesn’t provide a good user experience is going to provide short term results if it provides any at all, and my clients aren’t the kind that would consider that success.

    Thanks again for your comments. I hope in the future I can help you optimize your content for mobile searchers.

  • http://jamesbutler.net Stupidscript

    Thank you for your reply, Bryson.

    My primary point is that search engine spiders index page content, and I am not seeing how a desktop page that is “search engine optimized” (SEOd), gets ranked, and generates clicks is any different from a mobile page that is SEOd.

    In both cases one wants to (a) optimize for terms that are being used by the target demographic and (b) manipulate the content so that the page ranks well in the index.

    You do have a point in that mobile searchers will sometimes use words that they might not use if they were sitting at a desktop client, basically because typing long strings is a pain, and that there are at least one or two triggers that SEs use to help them figure out whether to feature particular resources to particular clients, however the mobile searcher is the same person as the desktop searcher … they’re just using a different device. They still have the same brain.

    What I see you saying is that because mobile searchers type less, and have slightly less patience for clicking past content that doesn’t exactly fit their need, then there is somehow a “Difference Between Mobile & Desktop SEO”, as indicated in this article’s title.

    Unfortunately, the answer to the title’s question has not been answered. I see a couple of examples of some things that Google et al. use as triggers that modify their display characteristics (i.e. QR Codes) and statements about how mobile user behavior is different from desktop users, however the “Difference” in SEO promised by the headline is not apparent.

    This is why I ask for an example of a page optimized for desktop and the same content optimized for mobile. If they require different content, then it is not a valid comparison.

    Pretend you are selling a widget. How could the SEO be different, just because of the client? It’s still the same product, the same specs, the same hype … the only difference for the desktop and mobile clients is the layout of the page they view. The only difference in what they might search for is … well, I can’t really see them searching for anything different, depending on the device.

    The user experience is like this:

    1) Can they find what they need during a search? (no difference between desktop & mobile)

    2) When they click the link to what they found, does it play well within their device? (different layouts for desktop and mobile, but the same content, quantity aside.)

    That’s it. Whether the mobile user found your link to the desktop page and was redirected to the more useable mobile page or went directly to a mobile page doesn’t matter to them … their experience remains excellent.

    A well-optimized desktop page that ranks well will draw mobile users as well as desktop users. And if the mobile users see a tighter layout that fits their screen, great! But not “different” in the context of SEO.

    I’m just not seeing how the SEO process is different. One still needs to get discovered by the SEs, and that process is identical, because it is device agnostic … it’s all about the quality of the content.

    I understand how searchers’ expectations and practices impact their user experience, but I still do not understand “What’s The Difference Between Mobile & Desktop SEO”, because I have not seen any examples of that “difference”.

    The viewing experience is different, because of the devices. But the SEO remains the same, in my experience. Quality content is king, and that does not change with the device. I see nothing here to suggest that a well-optimized desktop page that detects and redirects mobile users to a device-specific layout (Blackberry, iPad, etc. = different mobile experiences) would not be all one needs. I see nothing here that says one needs two different pages, optimized differently … hence my confusion.

    Thank you, again, for the reply, and for your help in understanding further your statement.

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

    Hi again, Stupidscript. I don’t have a lot of time for this right now, honestly, but since there are probably a few people out there who have the same misguided opinions in spite of everything that I’ve written and presented to the contrary in the past 4 years, I do want to point out a few things:

    1) I didn’t argue that mobile SEO is completely different from desktop SEO. They’re both SEO, and share a lot of the same principles when it comes to properly crawling, indexing and ranking relevant content. That said, I did point out five differences of the 18 that I’ll be talking about in the MarketingProfs seminar, along with clear implications for the SEO process, all of which you seem to have conveniently ignored in your reply.

    2) For example, you say the indexing process is “identical” in desktop and mobile, and “device agnostic”? Nonsense. In the article I gave you a very clear way in which the indexing process differs, in that many companies elect to build apps instead of mobile sites, and don’t make the web index at all. If someone’s searching for quality content on Google.com or even Android Market and that quality content is only in the App Store, it doesn’t matter how good the content is, the Google.com user is not going to be able to find it without very specific navigational queries along with app-specific keywords on an iPhone. Furthermore, if you’ve read my columns, as you say, or even just the first two comments on this post, you would know that there’s actually a separate index for feature phones that has different bots and different target devices (i.e. it’s not device agnostic) that SEOs can optimize for if they’re looking for greater reach. This is part of what I’m talking about when it comes to mobile versus desktop SEO. If someone hired you to promote their mobile content, you would tell them to build great content, and no one would find it because they would put it in an app and ignore feature phone users. Whereas, if I was optimizing, I would ensure they found the largest, most relevant audience for their product or service.

    3) Yes, mobile searchers are often desktop searchers, and are searching with the same brain. However, their search behavior, context, and information needs are different, as we know from years of research that has been conducted (http://www.slideshare.net/brysonmeunier/smx-west-multiplatform-search-behavior-meunier), including the great research that Google has been doing recently (http://www.google.com/think/insights/studies?cn=ad_type&cv=mobile). You say you can’t think of something different that a mobile user would search on, but different keywords is only part of why mobile keyword research is necessary. As I explain in the piece, the same word could have two different meanings in a different context (the example I used was coupon, which can be printed or scanned, depending on the device searched from). Some words also have a lot more volume in mobile than desktop (ringtones, nearby, weather, etc), and this could change the information architecture of your site if you’re building a search-optimized information architecture. I’ve mentioned all of these in the articles you claim to have read, yet you didn’t address any of them, and don’t acknowledge them as differences between desktop and mobile SEO.

    4) Your comments about mobile vs desktop user experience not affecting SEO ignore both the Panda reference that I made in my last reply, and the reference to Amit Singhal’s comments from their Inside Search event, in which he specifically addressed the mobile user experience as requiring speed, relevance and simplicity more than the desktop experience, and Google’s attempts to optimize for that in their own UI. It also ignores the evidence I presented of mobile-specific ranking from Google and the NY Times. So the answers are there for you, you just need to read them.

    5) If you do want to see how the process would change, I presented 25 examples a few weeks ago (http://www.brysonmeunier.com/mobile-seo-best-practices-and-smartphone-seo-tips-for-2011/), and will be discussing more in the MarketingProfs University Search Marketing School program I mentioned (http://www.brysonmeunier.com/marketingprofs-university-promo-code-for-search-marketing-school-seo-training-course/). If you’re really interested in learning more about this, and clearing up your confusion, I would suggest that you read this article again for detail, and then look at those sources for more info.

    I apologize if this sounds harsh, and you really are interested in learning and not just being contrary, but I don’t have much patience for people who criticize articles they don’t seem to have read. If you read it again and still have questions, please let me know.


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