Differences in Mobile Smartphone Ranking and Desktop Web Ranking in Google Search

posted December 31st, 2010

In the past six years I have listened to a number of SEOs who I otherwise respect claim that the smartphone listings in Google and desktop Web listings are the same. Rand Fishkin is really just the latest in a long line with his 2011 predictions. Most of the people who claim this, however, usually just eyeball the results and assume they’re the same, which isn’t the most scientific way to arrive at the truth.

To try to get at a better understanding of whether or not the desktop web results are the same for the smartphone results, I’ve analyzed Google webmaster tools data, which includes both smartphone and Web rankings. If the results are actually the same, average ranking for mobile smartphone results and Web results should theoretically be the same as well. To test this hypothesis, I analyzed Google Webmaster Tools data for a month across several clients.

Details on the data analyzed
Source: Google Webmaster Tools
Mobile (smartphone) and Web Queries in the United States between 11/21/10 and 12/21/10
Random sampling of clients from various industries and with varied traffic levels: b2c non retail, b2b, local retailer, online retailer, local non-retail
No clients with mobile sites or mobile specific content
List of 25,582 total queries, contain 24,061 unique keywords across 5 domains
1,118 of these unique keywords contain position data for both mobile and desktop, and were analyzed for the study.

What I discovered is that while 13.42% of the queries have the same ranking in desktop results that they do in smartphone results, the great majority of the queries do vary slightly. Nearly a quarter of the listings vary by two positions or more, which in the limited real estate of smartphone screens might as well be page ten. And for a small percentage of the listings, the difference in ranking can be as much as ten positions or more.

smartphone search result comparison

The next time you hear someone claiming that smartphone results and desktop results are the same, please correct them, as appearances can be deceiving. In fact, there are variations in ranking for the majority (86.58%) of smartphone queries.

There are a few factors that are responsible for the variations in ranking, and without getting into the predicted “negligible” effect of mobile on SEO, I will say that SEOs who want to do well in mobile search results need to understand how these factors might affect their listings in Google smartphone search results:

  • Local results more likely in mobile, so Google Places listings sometimes appear higher in results than they do in desktop, and domains with local intent more likely to appear
  • Positions of vertical results likely different in smartphone results
  • Blended mobile ranking algorithm for mobile queries
  • Android Market or iTunes results for queries that include “download” or “app”
  • Brand and store filters don’t currently occur in mobile smartphone search
  • If CTR and bounce rate data is used to determine ranking in smartphone results, CTR and bounce rate more likely to vary in mobile smartphone listings, as listings in search suggest, abbreviated title line breaks and descriptions, unusable desktop sites in mobile results, increased engagement of mobile users and the variations in ranking mentioned above are all likely to change click through rates and bounce rates for smartphone searches

More to come in the New Year! See you in 2011 for more mobile SEO.

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9 Responses to “Differences in Mobile Smartphone Ranking and Desktop Web Ranking in Google Search”

  1. You are correct, they are NOT the same. Rand seems to be off on a few things in that article.

  2. Thanks, Steve. Appreciate the comment. Do you also have data that supports this, or are you just agreeing with my conclusions? Glad we’re on the same page, but if you have evidence (anecdotal or otherwise) to illustrate what this data shows, it might help us demonstrate this point to a larger audience. Appreciate the support, regardless.

  3. Tim Mitchell says:

    So Bryson

    What do we do with this data or what is your conclusion on how to handle it.

    Do we just accept it and tell our clients that trends seem to put more value on the local on mobiles or is there a way that we can actually take some action on these numbers?

  4. Hi Tim. Good question. My conclusion is the opposite of people who would tell you that mobile SEO is the same as desktop SEO, and you don’t need to do anything different in order to optimize for mobile users. I think that there are a number of things that optimizers can do in order to make their content more relevant to mobile users, with or without a mobile site. I’ve spoken about quite a few of them here and at Search Engine Land in the past few years if you want to browse the archives looking for action items. I’m also writing a book on the subject if you prefer to get your information that way, and I was also a technical editor for the mobile SEO and development chapters of Cindy Krum’s Mobile Marketing book if you want to check that out while you’re waiting. Cindy and I don’t agree on everything, but it’s a good general resource, regardless. And finally, I actually have a follow up piece that should be published in Search Engine Land soon in which I give two very concrete things I think every SEO should be doing in 2011 to optimize for mobile searchers, smartphone or otherwise. Look for it, probably this month, or subscribe to the feed or my Twitter handle if you want an announcement. Thanks again for the question!

  5. Tim Mitchell says:


    Thanks for the great info back I will for sure check out some archived content you have here.

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