Influence of Mobile Sites on Google Smartphone Search Ranking

With the publication of my six trends in mobile search optimization for 2012 at Search Engine Land yesterday, many people were interested in our findings that having a mobile site seems to be correlated with top three ranking in smartphone results. This comes from a Resolution Media whitepaper we’ll be releasing in the upcoming months that dissects the smartphone search results for 11 popular sample queries from different industries and with different intents and breaks them down by the following factors:

 

The purpose here is to do some basic reverse engineering of the smartphone search results to try to get a better sense of what ranking factors are driving placement in the top three listings of Google smartphone search.

As with any Google reverse engineering exercise, you’re chasing a moving target, so these results could become outdated with any significant algorithm change. Also, Google search results vary by query, so larger, more diverse sample sets could yield slightly different results. That said, the exercise is meant to present a more objective picture of Google mobile search results in order to reduce guesswork for businesses looking to improve their standing in mobile search results.

Of course, as a white hat SEO I believe the only way to build long-term rankings in Google is to follow their webmaster guidelines and compete fairly with your fellow webmasters. My hope is that Google will create such detailed guidelines for mobile, smartphone and tablet users, as indexing, ranking and user experience can differ for these users from the standard desktop Google user experience, and the Google advice on how to approach it has been inconsistent at best. However, in the short term this study should give webmasters a better sense of what they need to focus on in order to do well in Google smartphone search.

Subscribe to this blog or follow it on Facebook or Google+ to get updates on when the complete whitepaper is available. For now, here is the section on mobile sites and their impact on Google smartphone search:

With Google releasing their Go Mo tool recently for mobile web site creation, many webmasters have wondered if having a mobile web site would help them appear in search results for mobile searchers. Since Google has long told webmasters to think of the user first, providing mobile content to a mobile user would theoretically be thinking of the user first. Google also has a blended ranking algorithm to present mobile content to mobile users, but it doesn’t seem to be very powerful in US smartphone search, as only one of the sites listed was a mobile site.

Update: since this study was done in December 2010 and May 2011, Google has launched an update to smartphone search that uses the destination URL in search results for websites that redirect smartphone users to mobile content, so the results would likely be very different today—resembling more closely the percentage of sites that redirect to mobile content.

Being a mobile site isn’t the only way to cater to mobile users, however, and mobile formatting or mobile redirects could indicate to the engines that a mobile site exists, should a user want to access it, which could be enough to bump the site up slightly in the rankings. However, the great majority of the sites in the sample neither redirects to mobile content nor reformat it for mobile users.

Oddly, the great majority of the sites in the sample do offer mobile content: either mobile sites or desktop content reformatted for mobile users. This might indicate that having a mobile site is a ranking factor for smartphone search.

However, when we looked at whether these mobile sites were actually indexed by Google, it appears most of them aren’t actually indexed, and even fewer of the sites that Google knows about are labeled as mobile-friendly with a green phone in feature phone search results.

 

Clearly being a mobile site is not necessary for smartphone ranking, as most of the results presented are desktop results. Furthermore, having a mobile friendly icon in Google feature phone results is not a strong indicator of ranking in smartphone search results. However, given that most of the sites returned do have mobile versions of the sites, having mobile content could somehow produce a lift in smartphone search results.

For businesses looking to define their mobile strategy and wondering whether building and optimizing a mobile site could help them become more competitive in smartphone search results, it’s clear that the great majority of the sites in our study do offer mobile content. In our view, the percentage is likely to grow, as providing a mobile user experience is in line with Google’s user-first philosophy.  As with the early Web, businesses and webmasters who think of the user experience and design content that will delight rather than frustrate mobile users are likely to be the long term winners in the rankings when it comes to Google mobile search.

 

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