Why Mobile Searchers Need Mobile-Optimized Sites

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

In mobile SEO I straddle two industries: mobile marketing and search marketing, both of which contain smart people with good questions about mobile search. I think there’s a widespread desire in both camps these days to handle mobile SEO in a way that is not only going to be beneficial to brands today, but will have positive ramifications for years to come.

A common practice in mobile web site design today is to redirect a mobile user to another domain through user agent detection, rather than to optimize the site for mobile searchers. I often get asked, “Why would someone who is on the first page with a working desktop result that redirects to appropriate mobile content in mobile search need to optimize a mobile site for mobile search?” These people typically don’t understand why anyone would need to optimize for mobile search when they do traditional SEO and mobile search engine users are redirected to their desktop site.

It’s a good question, in a sense, because if you have an optimized desktop site that appears in mobile search results, and you’re redirecting mobile users to mobile content, you’re getting some traffic to your mobile site from mobile searchers, even if the site’s not in the search engine’s index. Why would one need to specifically optimize for mobile searchers, when the mobile searchers are finding their content via redirects? I know that a few of the major mobile content publishers simply use redirects rather than optimize for mobile search specifically, and I have to say I think that’s a bit short-sighted. I sat down to think of a good objection to the practice, and came up with sixteen:

  1. Mobility is a ranking factor for mobile search, and not optimizing a mobile site could make it more difficult to appear in competitive nonbranded searches where mobility is a factor. Likewise, having an optimized mobile site could make it easier to appear for competitive nonbranded keywords where mobility is a factor.
  2. Some users prefer to access desktop sites on their smartphones, and some prefer to access mobile sites. By forcing the mobile site for desktop users, you’re only pleasing the one audience of searchers. Having a link to the mobile site from the desktop site and vice versa, as the W3C recommends, pleases the most users.
  3. If online reputation management is a factor for a brand, having a mobile optimized site could give an additional listing (or sometimes two or three) in branded search results, pushing negative content down.
  4. Not optimizing a mobile site usually means that a brand is presenting a slimmed down version of their desktop site, which doesn’t take advantage of features that make for an inherently mobile user experience (e.g. GPS or location awareness), which will likely garner fewer natural links than a site that provides a truly mobile user experience, making it more difficult for the site to rank in mobile search.
  5. As mobile search evolves and mobile ranking factors become more prevalent, brands that don’t optimize a mobile site today will be busy playing catch up tomorrow, building mobile links and paying attention to mobile ranking factors to their site. Search engines look at age of links and age of site when it comes to ranking because such factors are hard to manipulate. Success in mobile SEO will be difficult if postponed until absolutely necessary.
  6. Assuming that mobile SEO is not necessary because a desktop site redirects to a mobile site for mobile browsers assumes that mobile searchers are searching for web sites. Mobile application optimization is a large part of mobile search visibility, and it has very little to do with mobile web search at this point.
  7. Voice search, search suggest, location and mobility changes keyword targeting, and a brand with a local presence might be able to target more competitive keywords to an audience that is nearby. This can’t be controlled if a mobile site is not optimized for mobile searchers.
  8. Mobile visual search is another emerging mobile search trend that has nothing to do with desktop or mobile web sites. If someone takes a picture of a store, logo or product, will they be able to find the information that they’re looking for? This can be optimized, if not controlled, and brands thinking about mobile SEO will be ready for it before brands who aren’t.
  9. For Blackberry users, who represent the majority of smartphone users, as well as feature phone users (who represent the majority of mobile users) Google places a green mobile icon next to mobile search results (e.g. http://www.google.com/m/search?q=espn+mobile), which can increase CTR from users who prefer mobile sites and understand what it represents. For these users, desktop sites might not render at all on their phones, and they may need a mobile optimized site in order to interact with it.
  10. Keywords like “coupons” could have a different meaning to people on mobile devices than they do on the desktop, as you can’t redeem printable coupons on your phone. You want to provide a different landing page to these consumers in the search engines so that they’re able to convert.
  11. Providing a mobile landing page to a mobile user makes it more likely that they will perform the desired action. By redirecting every mobile searcher to the mobile homepage, you’re performing a similar action to sending all paid searchers to a homepage, which isn’t as relevant to their query and forces them to do extra work before they can convert. Optimizing mobile pages for mobile queries increases the chance of conversion.
  12. Because of efforts by Google and other search engines to make mobile search easy and convenient for users, it is growing so quickly that many analysts expect it to outpace desktop search by 2011. In general, brands who make an effort to understand and optimize for the mobile search experience will be better prepared for that day when there are more mobile searchers than desktop searchers.
  13. Mobile searchers sometimes never get to search listings because they find the content they’re looking for in the search suggest box. Optimizing for mobile search suggest makes it possible for the user to find what the brand wants them to find without ever accessing a mobile site.
  14. New phones come out all the time and adding a new user agent for all of them is additional maintenance. Easier to optimize both a desktop and mobile site and let the engines send the right traffic.
  15. If a site contains mobile-specific content that’s not on the desktop site, that content will never be found for mobile-specific searches if mobile site is not indexed.
  16. It’s an argument from authority, but I’m going to make it because it’s what many people in this industry listen to. That is, it’s not 2005 anymore where it seems like there are only five of us recommending optimizing for mobile search, while most are advising to wait until next year. At this point many agencies and consultants and even engines are recommending optimizing for mobile searchers. Here’s a partial list:

Have you tried to recommend mobile search optimization only to get asked why bother optimizing a mobile site for mobile search? If you did and you didn’t have a compelling argument in favor of optimizing mobile sites for mobile searchers, now you have 16.

So if not for this question, why aren’t you optimizing for mobile searchers? I’m sure there are other questions that people have and I’d like to answer them all. Ask yours in the comments and if I see it enough I’ll address it in a future post.


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