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 […]

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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.

Contributing authors are invited to create content for Search Engine Land and are chosen for their expertise and contribution to the search community. Our contributors work under the oversight of the editorial staff and contributions are checked for quality and relevance to our readers. The opinions they express are their own.

About the author

Bryson Meunier
Bryson Meunier 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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