Many brands love Usablenet because it allows them to get a mobile site up quickly and with limited resources by formatting their desktop content for mobile users. However, there can be many pitfalls in doing that. Staples’ mobile site provides us with an example of some of these problems. If you are thinking about using a transcoder like Usablenet to make your desktop content mobile-friendly, follow the below three tips. They will help you avoid the pitfalls, and make your content search-friendly as well.
1, Don’t Index Other Sites Under Your Domain
One major problem with Usablenet (from an SEO perspective) is that it adds transcoded pages to Google’s index, and not always transcoded pages from the same domain. I described this phenomenon in detail in my Search Engine Land column, but it applies to Staples’ mobile site as well.
For example, Staples’ mobile site had 372 pages indexed when I looked at it in early June. Of those 372 pages, only 57, or 15% of them were actual Staples.com pages. The rest of them appear to be from Bluefly.com, or Shoplocal.com, but indexed under the Staples.com domain.
From an SEO standpoint, this becomes a problem if it prevents unique mobile pages from being indexed in Google, because that would prevent mobile searchers from ever finding that content. But Staples’ mobile site has another problem: no unique mobile content.
If you are using a transcoder like Usablenet, be sure to use no-index tags on the junk content from other domains that ends up in the index, especially if you have unique content for mobile users that you want to appear high in the search results.
2. Use Canonical Tags on Your Desktop Pages that Have Been Transcoded
Recently John Mueller of the Google Webmaster team recommended using CSS when duplicating content for mobile users, rather than a separate URL.
For those readers unfamiliar with SEO, Google recommends against creating multiple pages, subdomains, or domains with substantially duplicate content, as multiple pages can split the number of links to your site in total, which makes it difficult for webmasters’ preferred content to rank in search engines.
Usablenet follows a standard in mobile web site creation, duplicating content under an m.domain.com subdomain. For example, the Staples paper and pads category lives on the desktop Web at http://www.staples.com/Paper-Pads/cat_CG10?un_jtt_v_section=Paper, and on the mobile Web at the same URL hosted on the m.staples.com domain: http://m.staples.com/mt/www.staples.com/Paper-Pads/cat_CG10?un_jtt_v_section=Paper.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with hosting your content at m.domain.com, provided you take steps to understand what content is unique to mobile users, and what is transcoded desktop content and indicate duplicate content with canonical tags to the preferred page. Usablenet doesn’t do this, as they would have nothing to index if they did.
3. Design Your Mobile Site for Mobile Users
The way to get search traffic to a mobile site is to think about what mobile searchers want beyond what’s included on your desktop site, and then give it to them on your mobile site. This often requires more time to do keyword research for mobile searchers, think about mobile searchers’ information needs, and redesign the information architecture of the site to meet those searchers’ needs. You may also need to spend some time creating content that smartphone users would find useful, share, and recommend. Smartphone users may do this with your transcoded desktop content as well, but someone who is concerned with optimizing a site wouldn’t stop with formatting desktop content.
For example, with Staples’ mobile site, it’s clear from the branded mobile queries found in the Google Keyword Tool that when it comes to Staples, searchers overwhelmingly care about finding information about their local Staples store.
Figure 1. Mobile queries of searchers looking for Staples brand filtered by mobile intent and sorted by volume.
Smart marketers would use this information to their advantage, and give the searcher not just a stripped down version of their desktop site, but also a mobile experience that highlights the locations they’re looking for, and uses the unique properties of mobile to make a connection to the stores as soon as possible.
Overall, mobile copies of product pages and other desktop content are important to include on a mobile site, but they’re not the kind of thing that will get people to talk about the unique features of your mobile site and recommend it to friends. They are also not the kind of thing that will help with SEO. For these reasons – and others — I don’t generally recommend Usablenet or other simple solutions to brands that are looking to optimize their mobile site for search. If you do decide to use this technology, be sure to follow these three tips to ensure that your site doesn’t suffer in the search results.