Mobile SEO: 3 Experts, 3 Questions, 3 Answers

mobile SEO

While having a mobile website is a critical tool for marketers, it is just as critical to maximize your investment by driving relevant search traffic to that site.  Mobile SEO is a tactic that everyone is rushing to master, hoping to capture potential customers while they are searching from the palm of their hand.

We lined up three Mobile SEO Experts and asked them each the same three questions in order to gain insight on where the art & science of mobile SEO is heading.

Meet Our Experts

Cindy Krum

Web: MobileMoxie.com
Twitter: @mobilemoxie

Bryson Meunier

Web: BrysonMeunier.com
Twitter: @brysonmeunier

Sherwood Stranieri

Web: BarsOfSignal.com
Twitter: @sherwoodseo

Each expert was hand selected from our Mobile Marketing Map.

Question #1

Is mobile SEO an imperative right now in terms of capturing significant traffic, or are we in a stage where we are currently laying the groundwork for something coming soon in the world of mobile search?

Cindy Krum

This is a great question!

For most companies, mobile SEO is not an imperative yet, but it may be soon. The imperative, or at least the first step, is to build with SEO in mind. That means crawlable and indexable content, keyword rich file structure, editable meta data, fast load time and appropriate user-agent detection and redirection. Things are changing with the addition of GoogleBot Mobile for Smart Phones, which automatically looks for mobile redirects from your desktop site to alternative mobile pages, but those things, coupled with strong SEO on the desktop site will go a long way for most companies.

Bryson Meunier

Instead of “or”, I would say “and”.

The traffic is nowhere near as significant as it will be in the near and distant future, but it’s not 2004 anymore, when most people had feature phones and searched from their desktops. Mobile search is here, and it’s not going away. In fact, by next year more people will use their mobile phones than their PCs to get online. You can imagine what this will do to mobile search.

But mobile search is already pretty big. In May of last year Google reported that mobile accounted for 14% of their total search volume, on average, and for some verticals it was as much as 30%. Given that Google mobile searches have grown 4x since 2010, those figures, while impressive, are almost certainly outdated, and much smaller than mobile search traffic today. So not having a mobile site to monetize this traffic is like being closed on a Thursday, according to Google.

It’s similar to the early days of the web in some sense, when companies put print brochures online to get online quickly with minimal cost, not thinking about whether that print brochure would be an effective vehicle for the new medium. In hindsight we know now that it wasn’t, and the disciplines of web design, usability, SEO, conversion optimization, etc. have since emerged to help us understand what content should be targeted to what users, and how that content should be designed to make it appealing and accessible to search engine users so that they find it and perform the desired action. With mobile web design, some companies are back to putting print brochures online, making inaccessible, unappealing content and presenting it to mobile users. SEOs like me who have seen this fail before know better at this point, and do what’s necessary to help the business succeed.

The strangest thing is that this is just the beginning of this sea change. As Google Search inevitably follows Google Maps in having more mobile users than desktop users (as Google Maps did in June of 2011), more marketers are going to realize that mobile search affects their bottom line and that ignoring it would be cause for extinction. And as more marketers realize this, it will be harder and harder to rank without thinking of mobile searchers and the kind of content that appeals to them.

Sherwood Stranieri

I think the answer varies widely, depending on the business you’re in and the customers you’re chasing.

But this questions comes-up a lot, so I’ve started using a metric I call the Mobile Ratio.

Basically, it’s a keyword research exercise, where you take your existing desktop search keywords, find the equivalent search volumes for mobile, and then compare them side-by-side. The Mobile Ratio is your desktop search volume divided mobile volume.

So if you have a Mobile Ratio of 5, you know that you have one potential mobile user for every 5 desktop users. When you knock the question down to a simple metric like this, it takes the guesswork out of it, and it’s a lot easier to make an informed decision.

Question #2

If a company had time and resources to do only three things right now, what would be the three mobile SEO tactics you would recommend doing that would have the most benefit?

Cindy Krum

First: Setting up the appropriate user agent detection and redirection scheme. (FYI, I have a tool that is super easy to use, and will write the detection and redirection scripts for you: http://www.mobilemoxie.com/marketing-tools/redirection-script-generator.  It rocks).

Second: Optimizing the meta data, including title tags, heading tags, description tags, and alt tags. This is the same as you would for your desktop site, but if you have different keywords for mobile, use those here instead.

Third: Get your local-seo-mojo on. If you are a brick and mortar location, one of the best things you can do to reach people on their phone is to show up in the map results. Map results are super useful, even if people don’t always make it to your website, because people can click ‘call’ or ‘map’ to begin an offline conversion. This is harder to track, but totally worth it, because driving foot traffic and making your brand easy to reach and easy to find is a great goal.

Beyond your normal local SEO tactics, consider using the hCard microformat, and even consider including your specific GPS coordinates to the hCard, as that might help some of the mapping programs get people to your store more effectively.

Bryson Meunier

First, understand your mobile audience. At Resolution Media we have a product called ClearTarget where we use multiple data sources to get a more complete picture of your audience, and this can be used to identify a brand’s most valuable consumer and target them more effectively using their own interests and keywords. Our clients sometimes use this to understand who their mobile audience is, and how that differs from their traditional or desktop audience.

There are also some simple things that a brand can do to begin to research their mobile audience. For starters, they can incorporate mobile keywords into their keyword research process with the AdWords keyword tool. Also, Quantcast and Google AdPlanner make it possible to look at the demographics of your desktop web site and mobile web site (assuming you use a mobile subdomain, rather than handheld CSS) to get a sense of how your mobile audience differs  from your desktop audience. Many of our clients find that they made assumptions about who their mobile audience was and what they wanted that weren’t true. Understanding those truths helps make the messages more relevant, and often results in higher engagement rates and conversions.

Next, once you know who your audience is and what they’re looking for, create mobile pages. These are pages that don’t necessarily exist on your desktop site, but you know your mobile users are looking for. For example, State Farm’s mobile site foregrounds roadside assistance and phone numbers on the mobile home page (and not the desktop page) because they know that a mobile user is more likely to be looking for information on roadside assistance and towing than a desktop user. They should have taken this a step further and used the word towing, which mobile users overindex for, but changing the information architecture of their mobile site is a good start.

Finally, I would take advantage of Google’s recent old possum update and set up the proper redirects from your desktop site to your feature phone, smartphone and/or tablet pages. Google still shows a lot of desktop content in mobile and smartphone search results, even though that content almost always requires additional work for the user to process. But late last year they released a Googlebot for smartphones and a way for webmasters to place mobile URLs in smartphone search results in place of a desktop URL, even if that URL has less total link equity than the ranked version.

Sherwood Stranieri

First, assuming you have a mobile site up and running, I think some basic hygiene goes a long way. On the content side, make sure you at least have optimized title tags. Mobile pages have so little room for content, so titles matter even more than on a desktop site.

Second thing would be to get an XML sitemap in place, and registered with the Webmaster Tools at Google and Bing. As the engines get more mobile-savvy, you can bet that they’ll depend more and more on Webmaster accounts to instruct them on how to digest your content.

Third would be to borrow cellphones from all your friends and try using your website. If you can’t load it, or find the link to your desktop site, or if you have redirects to desktop and they don’t work, then none of this is working for your customers. Test, test, test, with the widest variety of phones possible.

Question #3

What will be different in mobile SEO/mobile search a year from now? What should mobile marketers be prepared for in this area?

Cindy Krum

“SSEO” stands for Siri search engine optimization in my mind.

Siri is interesting, because she makes it simple to search while on the go, and does not always pull results from the same place. Also, voice search encourages different types of queries, that are more conversational or question-oriented in their keywords, and this is not just limited to Siri on the iPhone, but is inclusive of all digital voice assistants that will rival her. 

We are going to see more and more people wondering how to address tablet traffic, and where to send people (PS: My advice is, if you are creating tablet-specific content, it should be on a ‘t.yoursite.com’ just like your mobile site should be on ‘m.yoursite.com.’ Yaaaa for the t-dot!) Also, I think we are going to see a lot more web-enabled GPS devices in cars, which will make it search results more actionable in real life (GPS’s will probably prefer the ‘t-dot’ version of your site rather than the desktop, because of the need for touch-friendly buttons). 

Last, because of the massive growth in total search volume, some of which has been caused by the growth in mobile and tablet traffic, the search engines will get stricter on load-time standards. Load time and clean, fast ‘crawling’ are tightly linked; Since crawling and indexing are critical for good results, and people are always expecting the absolute freshest results possible on their phones,  it will be necessary for the engines to show a stronger algorithmic preference to faster sites.

Bryson Meunier

Great question. Here are a few thoughts:

  • Almost certainly the mobile search results will be more competitive. You can achieve things now in mobile SEO that will become more difficult as more companies build mobile sites and optimize them.
  • I think Google may finally remember their commitment to the user and prioritize mobile content in mobile search results. They’re starting to do that now with smartphone Googlebot and their comments at their Inside Search event in June of 2011.
  • I hope that we get more tools to target tablet users. I requested a tablet breakout to the Google Webmaster Tools product manager and Google Keyword Tool product manager, so hopefully these things will see enough popular support and make their way to the product roadmaps eventually. I know that Google makes use of searcher data to optimize their own products for specific platforms, so I’m not sure why companies who are trying to build the best user experience should be denied that data. We need more marketers to ask for it, though, and I don’t think Google is hearing that demand because of louder voices in SEO last year screaming Panda.
  •  I think that marketers will start to understand the value in creating content that’s tailored to users based on the device that they’re using. It’s something that is inherent to why SEO succeeds, so I’m not sure why so many SEOs (sorry Cindy) recommend transcoding desktop content over building engaging keyword-rich mobile experiences. It may be more efficient and consistent, but it’s rarely the best approach, and one that often has to be redone. As I’ve said before, this isn’t called mobile search engine consistency or efficiency. Optimization is sometimes hard, and marketers should be prepared to do things the right way.
  • I hope that people stop listening to bad advice when it comes to mobile SEO (of which there is a lot), and start demanding honesty from those who talk about mobile SEO. I get Google alerts for “mobile SEO” and every day 95% of the content is of the “we now sell mobile SEO services” snake oil variety. There is a big opportunity out there, for both companies and agencies to prosper in mobile search, no doubt. But many of these services are doing things like excluding content with robots.txt or hosting the mobile site on an entirely different domain, which can hurt you more than help you when it comes to visibility in natural search. I’ve known Cindy has been speaking wisely on this topic for longer than I have, and Sherwood, Brian and Michael all give great advice in our Search Engine Land mobile search column, so there’s really no excuse to fail miserably in mobile SEO.
  • I also wrote a column in Search Engine Land on mobile search trends recently, and I would expect all of those to be more prominent in 2012.

Sherwood Stranieri
I think mobile search will change substantially in the next few months, mostly as a result of refinements that Google introduced in December. Google is now spending much more effort to cater to smartphone users, which they hadn’t before – ironic considering that they produce Android! As a result, you’ll see mobile sites start to eclipse their desktop counterparts, and we’ll all be able to get through life with a lot less pinch and zooming.

Summary

Here is my summary of what our experts had to say (you may have other takeaways, and feel free to leave comments):

1) Is Mobile SEO critical now, or coming soon?

  • Mobile search is moderate now (about 10% to 15% of most websites’ traffic, according to a recent study), but will be bigger within the next year.  Web access via mobile is expected to outstrip web access via desktop within the next two years.
  • This is the time to be getting everything ready for the mobile search rush that’s coming at us like a firehose

2) In terms of starting with some quick mobile SEO “wins”:

  • Have a mobile website on a clearly identified “mobile domain”
  • Make sure your mobile website is crawlable and indexable
  • Tell Googlebot Mobile where to go
  • Cover the same basics that you would on your desktop site – static URLs, editable and unique page titles & meta descriptions, keyword-relevant text (but in shorter bits than on a desktop site), etc.
  • Take the time to understand your mobile audience.  They may be looking for different things than people coming to your desktop site.  Conduct keyword research with the mobile user in mind.
  • Because mobile search is often highly location-based, it’s not just about your mobile website – make sure that you have covered your bases with local SEO (think Google Places!).

3) Here’s what you need to look out for in the next year…

  • Siri Search Engine Optimization (SSEO)
  • Mobile website speed will drive search engines’ decisions on what mobile content to index and present
  • Increased mobile SEO competition
  • Google will finally get “real” and deliver mobile search results that are truly differentiated from traditional search results