Has The iPhone Made Mobile SEO Obsolete?

By Bryson Meunier, Natural Search Associate Director, Content Solutions
Appeared on Search Engine Land

Recently there’s been a lot of ‘mobile web is dead’ talk due to several ‘full HTML web’ announcements at Mobile World Congress (MWC), and response to a pragmatic Sitepoint article aimed at casual webmasters with limited budgets, so I thought it would be a good time to address this question that people have been asking at least as long as I’ve been doing mobile SEO. My answering the question in the negative will not stop it from being asked by those who don’t understand what makes the mobile user experience or mobile search different, but hopefully it will help people understand the issue before they voice their opinion.

The issue usually comes down to one of the following related arguments:

iPhone killed the mobile web. With this argument, “mobile web” usually means WAP pages made for simple users. iPhone and other smartphone users have the ability to access full HTML web pages, and search engines on mobile devices will often show these to mobile users, so there’s no mobile specific content to index and rank. Hence, optimizing for mobile users specifically (which historically involves WAP pages and a dotMobi domain) is a waste of time.

SEO is SEO. Best practices for mobile SEO are best practices in general web SEO, and vice versa. Title tags, keywords, links and accessibility is going to be the same for search engines serving mobile users as it will be for desktop users. There’s nothing inherently different about SEO for mobile users.

However, I would argue just the opposite.

iPhone birthed the mobile web

First, the iPhone did not kill the mobile web. Quite the opposite, it made mobile searching and browsing nearly mainstream. In July of last year Nielsen Mobile declared that the mobile web had reached critical mass, in part because of the growth of smartphone usage, including iPhone. Kelsey group and others have said the same: smartphone adoption drives mobile web usage. Though there are fewer smartphone users in general, those users are the most active searchers, with Google reporting 50 times the search requests from iPhones than from any other device.

Proponents of the first argument seem to understand that smartphones drive usage, but argue that users are not looking for mobile-specific content, but for content in general. Making a desktop site accessible to simple users then, or desktop SEO best practices, will make a site indexed and ranked by search engines that serve content to mobile users, including market leader Google. This gets into the second argument-the argument put forth in the Sitepoint article and countless others—that SEO best practices done once will make a site findable by desktop and mobile users.

This is not a myth, but the truth. SEO best practices will generally make a site accessible to smartphone searchers. And if accessibility is optimization, then I suppose that for you mobile SEO will be obsolete. However, just because something is accessible does not mean that it’s optimized. In search, pages are indexed before they are ranked, so accessibility is an important first step; but it’s not an end game. If good enough is acceptable to you, then make your desktop content accessible to simple users and you should be ok for mobile search. But you won’t be optimized, and you may not be prepared for the future of search.

Mobile SEO is not desktop SEO

In order for a page to appear for relevant searches, the content must be optimized for those searches. This becomes problematic in mobile search, as multiple studies by search engines have shown that mobile search behavior differs from desktop search behavior in frequency, category and intent. In other words, mobile searchers have a different context than mobile users, and thus search differently. In order to account for these mobile searches, a marketer will have to use mobile specific tools like Google’s mobile keyword tool instead of desktop keyword tools like Keyword Discovery and Wordtracker. Doing keyword research for mobile users is mobile SEO, and it’s relevant today for both mobile sites and desktop sites that want to be more relevant to mobile users. As long as searchers continue to enter different queries on mobile devices, mobile keyword research and content optimization-one aspect of mobile SEO that is not covered by desktop SEO—will not become obsolete.

With the understanding that mobile searches are searching differently, the easiest, most effective way for a webmaster to make her site relevant to mobile searchers is to create mobile-specific content that is tightly-themed for relevant mobile searches. It’s not absolutely necessary at this point, but it could make a site more competitive for mobile searches than a site that doesn’t consider the mobile user experience.

Competitiveness of mobile search results is one point that I think the question of mobile SEO’s obsolescence hinges on. Right now desktop results and mobile search results are not wildly different, especially if you access the mobile web search results through an iPhone or iPod Touch (app results are another matter entirely). However, Google representatives have often been quoted in the press as being on focused on improving mobile search results (including Vint Cerf at his recent SMX keynote), and a Google patent from last year reveals one way in which they could improve mobile search results that would change the mobile SEO game entirely: blended mobile search results.

Nadir Garouche reviewed it in detail on his SEO principle blog, so I won’t detail it here. However, the gist of it is that Google would improve a page’s quality score (and ranking) based on whether signals indicated that the content was mobile in nature. In other words, they described a desktop ranking algorithm, and a mobile specific algorithm, and described how the two would interact based on the perceived nature of the query. Mobile specific signals and desktop specific signals to me indicates that Google recognizes that mobile search users have different goals, and need different content based on those goals.

The goal of mobile SEO in the long term, and why I think it will become, not obsolete, but more relevant, is to concentrate on these mobile-specific signals and their relative importance in the mobile user experience. There are signals that seem more important for mobile users than desktop users, but there are also signals that affect only mobile search results. I found 22 mobile-specific signals of the 50+ mobile indexing and ranking factors that I’m aware of that are not only mobile-specific, but have no equivalent in desktop SEO. In the future there may be even more.

Mobile specific queries and signals are the major reasons that mobile SEO will be around in some form for a while. As the search engines are figuring out how to best serve mobile users, white hat SEOs are going to have to evolve with them in order to understand how to best connect mobile queries to mobile content. I think the real question many people are asking when they’re asking if mobile SEO is going to be obsolete is “Should I include mobile SEO in my budget, and if so why?” This is a related, but as I see it, fundamentally different question. More on this in a future column, but the answer to the question at hand is an emphatic no. As mobile users grow, and search engines figure out how to return better, more relevant results based on their context, the conversation will not be about WAP pages and low-end browsers, just as desktop SEO is no longer about low-quality directory links; but it will still be about mobile SEO.


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