The Essentials of Mobile Search Optimization

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Three years ago, when I first started learning how to optimize for mobile devices, very little information existed on the subject. A Google search on related terms usually brought up Andy Hagans’ mobile search marketing site, complete with a mobile SEO guide with three cardinal rules – 100% valid xHTML code, accessibility best practices addressed, and traditional SEO best practices in place. Conferences typically echoed these vague instructions, adding “it’s very new,” but little else to the list of essential tips for optimizing a site for mobile devices.

Three years later the field – to be honest – is still emerging, but mobile webmasters have a much better understanding of what is necessary for indexing and ranking their content to make it visible to mobile devices. While it’s impossible to cover all the details of what we’ve learned in those years, this article will give an overview of the mobile search optimization best practices a webmaster needs to succeed in today’s mobile space.

Creating a Search-Friendly Mobile Site

Kim has already discussed the various ways of creating a mobile site, including using a mobilizer or building the site from scratch (pages 34-35). Neither method is ideal for SEO, so it is important to consider the advantages and disadvantages of both.

If a webmaster elects to use a mobilizer to build their site, the biggest advantage is its simplicity. There are other advantages as well. Some allow webmasters to create sites automatically validated according to dotMobi’s ready.mobi standards. The mobile web community of Winksite is an example of this. Furthermore, many mobile site creators automatically solve the transcoding problem so many mobile webmasters face by whitelisting your content, and some of them allow SEO customization.

However, the vast majority of mobilizers can cause SEO headaches – the most common of which is hosting all of your content under their domain. This puts you in a position similar to hosting all of your web content on a Geocities or Blogspot page – you cannot take advantage of your site’s link popularity, which can be a significant asset in mobile ranking. As well, mobilizers may code pages with frames or use improper redirects that can hurt a mobile site as much as they would a desktop site. For these and other reasons, if a webmaster elects to create mobile content with a mobilizer, it’s vital to choose wisely. I haven’t found a mobile site creator that is 100% search engine friendly, but Winksite, GetMobile, and MoFuse are some of the best I’ve seen.

If you have the resources to build and host a mobile site, mobile web development is the way to go for SEO. Since the developer can control every stage of the process, they can craft and influence every signal a mobile search engine sees. But what signals are most important for mobile sites? Let’s talk about each one separately.

The Domain Question

If you have the choice, which Top Level Domain (TLD) should you use for your mobile site? In their guide to mobile SEO, TLD dotMobi suggests that their domain (e.g., mysite.mobi) will be the best for mobile SEO, for a number of very good reasons, including accessibility standards and usability considerations. While a standards-based TLD could make a difference in indexing and ranking in the future, there’s very little evidence to indicate that dotMobi sites are indexed or ranked faster by the market-leading mobile search engines Google and Yahoo! Furthermore, because both engines appear to use desktop link popularity when ranking mobile sites, hosting a mobile site at the desktop domain (.com, .org, .net, etc.) is preferred for SEO. Acquire the dotMobi TLD for usability and direct navigation, and permanently redirect it to your mobile site at the desktop domain.

Validation – Is It the Answer?

In the early days of mobile optimization, validation was a necessity for indexing and ranking mobile websites. In their help section for mobile webmasters, Google even states that valid pages are likely to render correctly on more devices. Validation, as the desktop web experience illustrates, will make mobile pages more crawlable, and can help get more content indexed as a result. Ranking, however, is another matter.

The vast majority of competitive Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) in mobile search market leader Google are presently transcoded or otherwise unusable. Usability may be one factor in ranking these pages, but link popularity and other off-site factors are enough to put popular desktop sites ahead of mobile sites in the SERPs.

That said, validation is one of many factors that may have an impact in mobile search indexing. Mobile webmasters who want to control every aspect of their mobile SEO campaign should build and validate a mobile site for both W3C compliance and ready.mobi standards. For those with fewer resources who want to ensure a usable, findable site, coding in xHTML, validating the homepage, and using an emulator for the Nokia 6820 user agent (Googlebot Mobile) is all that’s necessary for indexing.

If you have the time and resources to build a mobile site, make sure users can experience it. Google and Yahoo! will frequently transcode results from mobile search engines to ensure the best user experience, but if you’ve created a better one, be sure to let the engines know. Insert a simple tag into the head of your desktop site to be added to the whitelist and ensure the mobile engines display your mobile site:

<link rel=”alternate” media=”handheld” xhref=”http://mobile.website.com/”>

If separate mobile website development is not an option, site owners can make their desktop sites findable by – and usable to – mobile devices by using handheld stylesheets. There are, however, several disadvantages to this method. From an SEO standpoint, sites made readable with handheld stylesheets are less visible in the SERPs than sites with mobile websites, which appear at a different link and will get a separate listing. Furthermore, sites with handheld stylesheets don’t address the mobile context specifically and won’t benefit from mobile-specific keyword research.

Mobile Keyword Research

Google and Yahoo! have both released academic research in the past year that demonstrates mobile search behavior is different in many ways from desktop search behavior (see Kim’s article for details on this, page 34). Due to a number of factors, including the variance in user experience and input type, a mobile user often performs different searches in different categories than a desktop searcher. For this reason, I recommend mobile-specific keyword research when developing and optimizing your mobile site.

There is currently only one mobile-specific keyword tool available that I’m aware of: the JumpTap Mobile Keyword Research tool on AT&T’s DevCentral. The tool gets its data from a specific engine on AT&T and shouldn’t be considered comprehensive. Nonetheless, when used in conjunction with other mobile keyword tools such as Google iPhone Suggest and Yahoo!’s related mobile searches, a user can get a better sense of relative search volume for mobile search queries than when using desktop tools such as WordTracker or KeywordDiscovery. The JumpTap tool can be difficult to locate on the AT&T site – I’ve put together a six-step guide at www.brysonmeunier.com/how-to-find-the-jumptap-mobile-keyword-tool.

Mobile Link Building

One aspect of mobile SEO that is rarely, if ever, discussed is the discoverability of a site to mobile devices and mobile search engine spiders. In desktop SEO, we take for granted that spiders travel from link to link, finding and indexing pages to later return as relevant. With mobile, there is a relative lack of cross-linking due to a relative lack of space, and some people come to the odd conclusion that a lack of links means that links are less important to mobile SEO. On the contrary, links in mobile SEO are not less important, just more complicated. A link from a mobile site may eventually be considered more important than a link from a desktop site, as it would more accurately signify a positive mobile user experience. It would also be given in spite of the lack of space to link out on mobile. In economics, shortages increase value; this is no different for links on the mobile web.

Since link popularity is at a premium on the mobile web, some mobile SEOs (Pelle Boese comes to mind) speculate that paying closer attention to internal linking will be necessary. PageRank sculpting may be less effective on desktop search, but it could pay dividends in the mobile space.

For now, it’s clear that desktop link popularity is a factor in mobile ranking and should be considered as part of your mobile search optimization campaign. In spite of the need for a usable mobile web, and the speculation that usable mobile sites will fare better in search results, the current reality is that the larger search engines frequently return popular desktop sites in their mobile search results, regardless of whether they are usable to most mobile devices.

Beyond that, mobile sites – including directories and portals, as well as feeds and sitemaps of your mobile content – can help mobile spiders discover and index your content, regardless of whether you have submitted your content to that particular site. Mobile apps will also increase the discoverability of your mobile content and could earn you a link from authority sites like Apple and Google, as both regularly promote mobile content such as apps.

Desktop SEOs know that the age of a link matters, and it is something that’s difficult to fake. Mobile link builders may not see great rewards in the near term, but their efforts should pay off in the future when the space is more competitive, and SEOs are scrambling for something to give them an edge.

Want a headstart? Try this list of over 100 mobile directories and portals I’ve tagged: http://del.icio.us/brysonmeunier/mobile_directory

Track, Optimize, Repeat

Many marketers are uncomfortable with emerging technologies, as the rules are still being written and no detailed playbook exists. Those who remember the early days of SEO learned the importance of web analytics back in the days when not much was known about how search engines worked. It was necessary to learn from optimization of one’s own campaigns – repeat the successes and don’t repeat the mistakes. The same is true in these early days of mobile SEO. The only problem is, since desktop web analytics techniques can’t always accurately track mobile devices and don’t include mobile-specific metrics, desktop web analytics aren’t a reliable means of tracking mobile traffic.

Fortunately, a number of mobile tools exist for marketers to use to track and optimize campaigns. For analytics, several specific mobile analytics packages are available. When installed at the beginning of a campaign, these can help marketers understand what’s happening in their mobile campaigns. Some desktop ranking checkers are not reliable for mobile SERPs, but rankings can be tracked through Google Webmaster Central, Advanced Web Rankings Software, Mobilytics, and others. Used together, these tools should be all that’s necessary to successfully navigate the less-charted waters of the mobile web.

It’s Time to Go Mobile

Had you been reading this article in 2005, it would have taken much less time to explain what is known about indexing and ranking content in the mobile search engines. And yet, since this is merely an overview of best practices, there is still much to understand about mobile for the mobile SEO novice. Nonetheless, no matter where you’re starting from, you now have the basic information you need to properly optimize your mobile site. Go mobile and prosper, but remember – the mobile game changes often. To stay on top, keep an eye out for advances in mobile site development and ongoing expansion of SEO advice and best practices for mobile.

About the Author

Bryson Meunier is the Director of Content Solutions at Resolution Media and a primary architect of Resolution Media’s natural search product and ClearTarget Digital Behavior Analysis. He works with the content team to help drive SEO strategy and execution for clients, and to help them adopt emerging technologies.

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