Why Mobile Friendly Is Not Mobile SEO

By Bryson Meunier, Associate Director, Content Solutions
Originally appeared on Search Engine Land

My Google Reader feed went haywire with “mobile SEO” alerts when Google posted their “Making Websites Mobile Friendly” advice on the Google Webmaster Central Blog. The odd thing is, they didn’t say anything about SEO or search quality in the post, which has to do with how Google crawls and indexes mobile websites today.

SEOs and Search Engine Land readers know that search engine optimization at a very basic level is the practice of making content more visible in search engines by ensuring that a site is properly crawled and indexed, that it contains the content users want using the queries they use to search for that content, and that the content is properly marketed to those users through link building or some other method of content distribution.

What Google posted (in the above link) related entirely to crawling and indexing, and contained nothing at all about returning the proper content for the proper queries, or making that content visible to mobile users when they’re looking for it.

The distinction should be painfully clear to anyone who has searched for a mobile site on their Android or iPhone recently. The current smartphone version of Google search returns a lot of results related to Mobile, Alabama when you do a navigational search for a mobile site and the mobile site you’re looking for either: doesn’t exist, has been excluded for fear of duplicating content, or uses handheld stylesheets to render content.

I tried to find an example of a popular site that has a lot of search volume from smartphones that fits this mold, but of the 30 sites I looked at that showed up in the Google keyword tool as having high demand for their brand plus the word “mobile” (excluding software and mobile carrier queries), all sites delivered mobile sites to smartphone user agents.

No sites in this sample of 685k monthly smartphone searches for mobile sites use handheld stylesheets to render mobile content or are apparently run by webmasters who are concerned about diluting their link equity with mobile content.

If you do want to see an example of a site that has a mobile version, but is excluded from the index with robots.txt, try searching [home depot mobile site] on a smartphone.

Figure 1 [home depot mobile site] on an iPhone 4 shows criticism, a mobile site for an arena and a desktop site for mobile homes, but no home depot mobile site in the organic listings. Home Depot used to send their mobile traffic to a Digby site that was nofollowed in robots.txt. They’ve since redirected smartphones to an iPad compatible site, but the Digby site is still in Google’s index.

The Great Mobile SEO Divide
If this debate is new to you there are essentially two camps among SEOs when it comes to creating mobile content: the one URL SEO camp and the mobile URL SEO camp (which is a microcosm of the One Web vs Mobile Web debate that has been going on for years in the mobile marketing and development community).

The one URL SEO camp, represented ably in the past by Barry Schwartz, Michael Martin, Cindy Krum, Rand Fishkin et al is in favor of displaying one URL to mobile and desktop users alike, and rendering the content with handheld stylesheets for mobile users. It’s clearly easier than developing two sites, and it doesn’t create two URLs, potentially splitting the site’s link popularity and making it more difficult to rank for competitive terms.

The mobile URL SEO camp, represented ably in the past by dotMobi, Shari Thurow, Yours Truly, Matt Cutts and others maintain that there is no evidence of reduced ranking of mobile sites as a result of split link popularity; and that treating mobile sites as duplicate content in the same way that printable URLs are duplicate content is a false analogy, as no one is actively looking for printable copies of pages in search engines and search engines don’t treat mobile sites as duplicate content.

Mobile users require a mobile user experience, and without it they might get content that is confusing or irrelevant, and will convert at a lower rate.

When Google came out with their “official” stance on this through the Webmaster Central Blog (official is in quotes, as they’ve said something slightly different with regard to mobile URLs on theWebmaster Central YouTube channel last month and at Searchology 2009), this is essentially what they said:

  •  Mobile user detection is not cloaking (Which they have said before here, here (PDF) and here).
  • Google currently has no way of delivering mobile content created for smartphones, but this may change in the future.
  • If you haven’t created mobile content, you don’t have to do anything but your content may be transcoded for certain users.
  • Mobile as Google defines it today primarily refers to feature phones (or “traditional” phones) that don’t have full internet browsers.
  • Mobile URLs are fine. The best practice when serving mobile content at mobile URLs (like m.*.com) is to use mobile browser detection and permanently redirect mobile user agents. If this is done, Google will be able to serve the right content to the right users (as they have said before in the Google SEO Starter Guide).
  • Mobile sitemaps are intended for feature phone content.
When Google put out this announcement my Google Reader filled up with a few sources I respect and many I’ve never heard of proclaiming that Google has officially said you don’t need mobile URLs for mobile SEO.

Of course, the post never says this, or anything about mobile SEO. What it says is that webmasters don’t need to do anything for mobile users right now, as Google will make their desktop sites mobile friendly when they think it’s appropriate.

If being crawled and returned for certain mobile users is enough for you, continue to do nothing and you will probably be “mobile friendly” in spite of yourself. But don’t call it SEO.

SEOs know that transcoders can make a site unusable, and sometimes make it impossible for search engine traffic to convert. SEOs also know that mobile users prefer mobile content, and convert at a higher level when given mobile content on a mobile device. SEOs also know that people search differently on their mobile phones than they do on their desktop computers, and transcoded or mobile formatted content may not include the queries they’re searching for or calls to action that make sense in their context.

SEOs now also know that Google uses toolbar data in its ranking algorithms, and a high bounce rate or other metrics that can be measured by the toolbar can theoretically adversely affect a web site’s ranking in search engines, including the kind that is created by serving desktop content to smartphone users. In other words, SEOs know that what Google calls “mobile friendly” in this article is not often what is best for site owners and users.

Google recognizes this, more or less, in the post, and says “However, for many websites it may still make sense for the content to be formatted differently for smartphones, and the decision to do so should be based on how you can best serve your users.” It’s noncommittal on Google’s part on mobile SEO, and leaves it up to the site owner to serve mobile content in a way that best serves the users.

For me, that way is still redirecting mobile user agents to mobile URLs with mobile-specific user experiences, as that’s what the data says they respond to best. You can make a site “mobile friendly” without following this advice, but optimization is something else entirely.

For now, webmasters can get by with either strategy, provided they don’t mind not appearing for navigational searches or any of the other search quality issues mentioned above. But given that Google is ostensibly about providing the best result for the user’s query in context, and their top priorities for 2011 are all mobile, just doing the bare minimum to satisfy the growing base of mobile users is not likely to work forever.


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