UPDATE: Will A Mobile Website Help Your Mobile Search Ranking?

If you caught last post on embracing change in mobile commerce, you’ll recall I touched briefly on mobile SEO. One question that’s commonly asked (and we addressed back in 2008 on Get Elastic) is [paraphrased] “will a mobile-specific site help you rank better in search engines”?

I thought it was time we revisited this topic. Has mobile search changed since 2008? What are your options for delivering mobile experiences and how to they impact SEO? How has the tablet computer changed the game?

How mobile search ranking works

In ’08, we reported that Google Mobile Search has its own algorithm, which likely skews toward local searches and current content (news). But today, there are far more smartphones accessing the mobile web, and most of these searches are performed on Google.com, not the Mobile Search vertical. So, rankings are *likely* to be the same as the desktop – but this depends on the device.

Users have reported seeing identical rankings between desktop and mobile for iPhone and some Android phones. Other device owners may see different results. This is likely due to Google Mobile robots that can mimic various devices while crawling and caching. If it finds pages that don’t work well for certain makes, models and operating systems, it can omit them from search results. iPhone does a decent job of showing any web page (sans Flash content), so there’s not much risk in ranking a garbled page for its users.

We also mentioned time on site / bounce rates may be a ranking factor. While it makes sense that bounces could indicate poor relevance or user experience, a one-page visit or short time on site is not necessarily a bad thing (for informational searches, rather than commercial). There is still no proof that Google uses this as a relevance signal for mobile queries.

Improving user experience across devices

So we’ve established that search engines don’t favor sites that are on a mobile-specific domain (m.site.com or mobilesite.com), but they do consider the mobile user experience of web pages, and will make the call which pages should be returned to various device users. Just last week, Google extended Instant Preview to mobile, which lets you hover over a link to preview the landing page before clicking. This makes mobile-friendly pages even more important for click through.

To recap from the 2008 post, these were and still are your 4 options for optimizing your content for mobile:

1. Do nothing and let the search engine ‘transcode’ your site when appropriate

If the search engine deems your page “yucky” for the mobile device but still wants to rank it, it can ‘transcode’ the content so it renders better on mobile devices, storing it temporarily in cache on a subdomain of the search engine’s domain (creating a gnarly URL string in the process). While cheap and easy, this makes it impossible to track mobile search referral data in your analytics – the URL is not your domain.

Keep in mind transcoding does not occur when a user accesses your site through a direct type-in, through email or via link on another website. If you’re serious about mobile, you’ll consider another option.

2. Design mobile-only version of your site

Whether a subdomain, subfolder or unique URL like sears2go.com, the mobile version is designed with mobi in mind, with stripped-down content and functionality to suit smaller screens and slower connections. While it’s easy to simply update code that already exists, every change to your website will require a change to the mobi version, which you might not be able to automate. It’s also difficult to design one-site-for-all, as a site styled for a feature phone is going to look ancient on a smartphone.

Another concern with a separate domain is duplicate content. When you double-up on URLs and they get crawled and indexed, you could confuse search engines and the mobile page may outrank or appear in place of your actual page in desktop search (and your regular pages outrank in mobile search). In essence, they compete against each other in both indices. (You could exclude your mobile site from being crawled and indexed, and use device detection and redirection when accessed by a mobile device).

3. Use CSS style sheets

Optimize for multiple devices by creating CSS style sheets that can be pulled by mobile browsers automatically (though it’s not fool-proof). There’s some legwork in styling different sheets for the many many devices out there (especially if you’re not currently using CSS), but you have a better chance of a good user experience than transcoding and you don’t need to fear duplicate content issues. (Smashing Magazine has a very comprehensive article on the dos and don’ts of building a mobile web site).

4. Use dynamic mobile pages

With user agent detection, deliver the appropriate CSS stylesheet on-the-fly for various makes, models and operating systems. This provides the best user experience and has no negative SEO “side effects” – but can be costly and can become outdated as new devices/generations emerge. There are many fully managed and licensed solutions available that can get you to market faster and with less cost than an in-house solution.

“Do nothing” is NOT an option, as you must cater to visitors from email, other blogs, bookmarks and direct type-ins – it’s not all about search. I lean towards dynamic pages because you don’t need to rely on the browser to “get it right.”

Has the iPad / tablet computer changed anything?

While the tablet hasn’t changed the way mobile search works, it has changed mobile search behavior. Activities like online shopping are far easier than on the small screen, so expect more commercial searches and visits to your site through these devices.

It also changes the priority of what you should optimize for first. Start with tablets, then work your way “down” through the most mobile-web-friendly and popular devices.

The takeaway

Get your hands on several popular devices to test how your site renders. Which devices need improvement? Do you need to change your “method” of delivering your mobile content (e.g. from mobile site to dynamic transcoding)?

Also test your mobile search rankings manually (especially for branded searches) and compare them to desktop results. Make sure you’re logged out of your Google account so you don’t skew results by history. Are you “missing” from search results on certain devices?

If anything, the introduction of tablet computers only makes mobile more important for ecommerce. With 52 million new tablets landing in consumers hands this year, mobile experiences deserve your time and investment more than ever.

Can’t get enough mobile? Our own Executive VP of Elastic Path, Mark Williams, will be representin’ at the Mobile Shopping Spring conference along with panelists from eBay, Fandango, Amazon and the Children’s Place. You can catch the session Impending ‘Disruptive’ Moments: Developing A Mobile Channel Strategy That Embrace’s Change Friday, April 29th in San Francisco.


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