Mobile SEO Best Practices and Smartphone SEO Tips for 2011

posted August 14th, 2011

Although I am passionate about mobile SEO and can talk about the details for hours (in fact, I do every month on this blog and in my Search Engine Land column), I would imagine most people who are searching for it are not specialists, but building a mobile site or thinking about building a mobile site and want some direction on how to optimize their content so that it remains visible in search engines. The problem is, when you look for mobile SEO best practices online, you get very basic tips, many of which no longer apply to the smartphone-ridden mobile SEO world of 2011 (e.g. this site that hasn’t been updated since two years before the iPhone was released), and many of which are contradictory. If you’re looking for mobile SEO best practices, follow these to make sure your content is as visible as possible to mobile searchers.

Though I believe these are the best of the best practices available, take them for what they’re worth. Best practices are fine for DIY projects and those with smaller sites just trying to compete, but if you represent an enterprise-level organization and you actually want to be optimized for mobile search, the best practice is to consult a professional. I’ve been at this since 2005, am writing a book on mobile SEO, am teaching a course in mobile SEO for MarketingProfs University’s Search Marketing School and am available for hire by contacting Resolution Media today.

These are my top 25 mobile SEO best practices:

1. Avoid transcoders (e.g. Usablenet) and hosted mobile solutions that don’t allow you to customize things like under which domain the site is hosted or which pages get indexed. This could add a lot of irrelevant content to the index which will make it difficult for engines to index your entire mobile site.

2. Don’t develop an app until you’ve developed a compelling mobile web site. Apps have limited reach, are only returned in search for app-specific navigational keywords and the link equity for the app benefits app stores rather than your site.

3. Use Google Adwords Keyword Tool, Google Webmaster Tools search query data and keywords in web analytics to better understand your mobile user. Compare mobile search volume, impressions and traffic to desktop search volume, impressions and traffic to determine which keywords and concepts are most relevant to a user accessing the site from a handheld device. Mobile users search differently, and if you don’t do separate keyword research, you could be missing opportunities.

4. Use Quantcast or other demographics measurement tool to understand the demographics of a mobile user in your industry or on your site, which could differ greatly from the desktop user. Case in point: Major League Baseball’s mobile site is older and less affluent than their desktop site. Putting targeted messages in front of their mobile users based on assumptions about desktop demographics is unlikely to be effective.

5. Develop a searcher persona of a mobile or tablet user based on keyword, demographic, technographic and/or psychographic research. Motivations and interests of this user should be the basis of mobile wireframes. This will allow you to build content that will be of value to this mobile user, as that’s the only type of content that is able to be optimized for smartphone search. Wireframe the mobile site, identifying which content is relevant to mobile users and which content is being reformatted for these users from the desktop.

6. Build mobile site at domain.com/mobile. Buy and permanently redirect .mobi domain and permanently redirect all popular variations of mobile URLs to this subfolder. While m.domain.com subdomains are the most popular variations of mobile URLs, and any variation (including dotmobi) can be optimized for search, adding a subfolder instead of a subdirectory is the only option that uses the full trust and authority of the root domain, which could help in ranking. Not building a mobile site and only formatting desktop content could make your brand less visible in search engines for navigational queries from users looking for branded mobile content.

7. Develop mobile site in HTML5 for smartphone and tablet users. Site should be text-based, with enough keyword-rich text to convey the relevance of the page to search engines. Use progressive enhancement mobile design strategy to ensure content is accessible to feature phone users and search engines. Mobile boilerplate is a standards-based HTML5 template for creating mobile web apps that works well for optimized mobile sites.

8. Desktop pages should be made accessible to mobile searchers through handheld CSS. If desktop pages are transcoded on a separate URL, use canonical tags to pass link equity back to desktop pages with equivalent content. I believe there’s value in creating pages specifically for mobile users in addition to presenting desktop content, but if you decide to format your desktop content for mobile access, use canonical tags or handheld CSS or you may split the link equity between two URLs.

9. Create unique and keyword-rich title tags for your mobile content that doesn’t exist on the desktop. This is a best practice in traditional SEO, but agencies who build mobile sites are usually not focused on mobile SEO and often miss the most basic building blocks of SEO.

10.Do not block your mobile site from desktop or mobile crawlers with robots.txt. Identify duplicate content with canonical tags and allow both crawlers total access. Blocking a mobile site from traditional Googlebot with robots.txt could make it invisible to smartphone searchers entering navigational queries.

11. Use canonical tags for all necessary duplicate content, including carrier-themed pages, which are common in mobile design and development. Not doing so could split a site’s link equity and make it more difficult for relevant content to rank.

12. Build links from other mobile sites and desktop sites that discuss mobile content. Link equity is a ranking factor in mobile search, and not building links could make content less authoritative and less visible in search. The following are tactics for building links to mobile sites:

  • Link out to mobile content to increase awareness and incent organic reciprocation.
  • Link to mobile site from desktop site. Many sites say “visit our mobile site from any mobile browser”, which is a missed opportunity to help the search engines understand where the mobile site is located.
  • Advertise mobile content to mobile specific audience on mobile sites and in a mobile context
  • Use mobile domain, URL or QR code when appropriate in offline advertising in mobile context
  • Include footer link to desktop site. Don’t force users to view mobile content

 

13. Use tel link and unique mobile 800 numbers to track conversions separately on your mobile site. This won’t help in ranking, but it will allow for proper monetization of mobile search, which can help secure additional funds and facilitate the mobile SEO process.

14. Avoid black hat tactics and schemes designed to artificially inflate ranking. True in white hat SEO, true in white hat mobile SEO. Black hat or gray hat SEO carries a high degree of risk for people who look to SEO best practices lists for their optimization advice. Doing it incorrectly could result in de-indexing, lost revenue, and public humiliation.

15. Avoid Session IDs. Session ids are a major indexing problem, whether mobile or desktop content, but it’s more prevalent in mobile SEO because of the problems with tracking mobile feature-phone traffic. If you must use session IDs, use parameter handling in Google and Bing Webmaster Tools to exclude the session IDs from the index.

16. Avoid drop down boxes without text equivalent. This is not just a mobile SEO best practice, but it’s more prevalent in mobile sites since designers are more text-averse.

17. Create mobile sitemap(s) for mobile-specific content. It’s not necessary to put transcoded pages in the mobile sitemap. Some research (epub format) indicates that mobile sitemaps could help with faster indexing and ranking of mobile sites.

18. Use robots.txt file or password protection to exclude secure content, and include a link to mobile sitemap in robots.txt file. This could help the mobile site get indexed faster.

19. Verify site in Google and Bing Webmaster Tools, and exclude extraneous parameters that cause crawl problems. This could help the mobile site get indexed faster and reduce crawl problems.

20. Include enough on-page text to convey relevance to search engines. Mobile usability gurus are in favor of eliminating text on mobile sites, but some keyword-rich text is necessary to convey the page’s relevance to search engines. Reduce, rather than eliminate on-page text.

21. Optimize page speed. This is a best practice in traditional SEO as well, but Google sees speed as even more critical in mobile search. Additionally, this could result in a better user experience, which will result in more links, word of mouth and conversions.

22. If possible, validate the site using Ready.mobi or the W3C Mobile OK validator. Validation by itself is not a significant factor in ranking, but can make the site more usable, which (like #21) will inspire repeat visits and links.

23. Create and optimize mobile applications before submitting to Android Market and the App Store. Because apps are discoverable in Google search when users enter download and apps along with popular non-branded keywords, optimize using variations of these keywords. Use Chomp top search queries and Yahoo! app store search suggest to understand app store search behavior and keywords.

24. Optimize social media profiles, images, maps (e.g. Google Places page(s)) and other mobile content for mobile-specific keywords. Optimizing images will help with Google Goggles and other mobile visual search or augmented reality search engines. Social users and local users are often mobile, so optimizing these assets for the words that mobile users are searching on increases relevance of the content and could make it more visible to this growing social local mobile (SoLoMo) segment.

25. Find information sources you trust and test new best practices to validate their efficacy. Because mobile search is a newer and still emerging field in 2011, there are many “experts” who give false information that sometimes does more harm than good. The field is also changing rapidly, and has evolved from meaning “how to optimize a wap site” to “how to market effectively to tablet, smartphone, featurephone and other users of mobile devices who search” in four short years. Subscribe to this blog, read Mobile Mondays and see my updated list of trustworthy mobile SEO resources for the most accurate and timely information on mobile SEO.

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Tags: mobile_seo

Leave a Reply

15 Responses to “Mobile SEO Best Practices and Smartphone SEO Tips for 2011”

  1. Excellent post! Thanks for sharing these valuable tips about mobile SEO.

  2. hi,

    is really the mobile seo differ from online seo?

  3. Yes, it is different. Still SEO but a separate niche, with rules that don’t apply in traditional SEO and vice versa. Outlining 18 differences in my mobile SEO training as part of Search Marketing School, and I’ve devoted my next Search Engine Land column (coming out Monday) to the topic. Thanks for the question!

  4. Are you saying that it’s better practice to use a different domain or URL structure for mobile pages then to use responsive design, for example, to deliver the same pages with the same URLS, just reformatted, to mobile users?

  5. Not exactly, no. #8 is to deliver the same pages on the desktop site with the same URLs, reformatted for mobile users. I don’t think this is ideal, as there are likely to be some words that have different meanings on the desktop than they do on mobile devices (e.g. coupon), but it is what’s currently recommended by Google’s Webmaster Central team.

    However, there is likely to be some content that’s beneficial to mobile users that doesn’t exist on the desktop site. I do recommend that you discover this content by researching the mobile user and wireframing a site with both mobile and desktop content, and host the mobile content in a subfolder at the root domain called /mobile. If you host everything at the same URL and don’t do separate mobile keyword research, you will miss out on traffic opportunities and you risk frustrating searchers who are entering navigational queries to find your mobile site (e.g. kayak mobile, facebook mobile, etc).

    Make sense? I think that you can optimize a site at a different subdomain or even different TLD, but it’s a best practice to use the link equity and authority at your historical domain to your authority. Provided you address the needs of the mobile user through keyword research and information architecture.

  6. pavan says:

    Excellent post! Thanks for sharing these valuable tips about mobile SEO. This is the only post i found useful for mobile SEO.

  7. Trollark says:

    Wow great post and still relevant many months later. So I’m clear are you saying GB will disregard Mobile content entirely from a duplicate content perspective? From the traditional SEO approach two versions are bad. That’s why exclusion in Robots seems the correct way to address that potential problem.

    Thanks!
    T

  8. Yes, that’s it. When it comes to mobile SEO, the one thing that Google seems to agree on is that duplicate pages that are properly redirected are not duplicate content in the traditional sense, and will not prevent your mobile content from ranking for mobile devices. Thanks for your comments!

  9. Joe says:

    Google Webmaster Tools keeps saying I have a robots.txt error with my mobile site. I guess I need to play with it a little.

    It’s an HTML site. I’m kind of confused because I usually build with WordPress. I decided to go HTML for load speed hoping to help search engines. What are your thoughts on that?

  10. Page speed is a ranking factor in general, so it can’t hurt. WordPress is a blogging platform that often creates HTML sites (including this one), so I’m not sure about the distinction. WordPress sites can be made mobile and fast, so in the future there’s no need to hand code if you prefer to use WordPress.

  11. Carrie says:

    You have a previous post from Dec 10 2010 that recommends NOT using canonical tags on mobile sites. In this post you do recommend using canonical tags. Do you mean not rel canonical to the WWW version of the page and use canonical tag on mobile site for reducing duplicate content on the mobile site not between the mobile & desktop site?

  12. Good looking out, Carrie. With Google and Bing advocating canonical tags for duplicate pages the best practice now is to add canonical tags to duplicate pages. However, the point of that December 2010 post– that mobile sites should not be duplicates of desktop sites– still applies, and I only advocate using canonical tags for duplicate pages. Redirects should also be added, for search engines and more importantly for users. You could also design the duplicate pages with responsive design in mind, at which point no redirects or canonical tags are necessary.

    The mobile home page and any content created specifically for the mobile user should not be identical to the desktop content and should not use the canonical tag to transfer link equity. This may not be necessary, as redirects put pages in search results now and may transfer link equity; but I’m going to get clarification on that from Google’s Pierre Far at SMX Advanced in June.

    The larger question for me is what happens when most searchers are searching from mobile devices and expect mobile content? Do we really want to add a canonical tag back to the desktop page to rank, when the searchers of 2013 will likely want to see a mobile-optimized page? The jury’s out on that, but for the time being it’s safe to use rel=canonical for duplicate mobile pages back to the WWW page, as well as user-agent redirects. Just don’t put them on your whole site.

  13. Hi Bryson – I popsted a question on your guest post at http://www.distilled.net/blog/mobile/how-the-winners-do-mobile-seo-guest-post/ but not sure that you’ll necessarily get notified, as it was posted by one of the distilled staff.

    Essentially:

    We are planning a mobile version of our car rental website. My lead tech has recommended against setting up a separate m. subdomain. He’d rather follow the “one URL to rule them all approach” – i.e. serving a different template at the existing URL for each page. I.e. A “lite” version of each page for mobile browsers.

    Just to be clear, he isn’t merely suggesting an alternative stylesheet that renders the content differently on a small browser screen (he thinks page load times would be unnecessarily long if we take this approach.

    He is suggesting a completely different template that excludes any unnecessary content (e.g. bloaty header/footer/sidebar/”bumf”). The main benefit being: page load much faster and will be tailored to render approriately in a smaller broweser window (i.e. follow all UI/UX best practise for mobile).

    My concern is:

    Google might somehow mix up the “full” (desktop) version of an given URL with the “lite” (mobile) version of a URL – which could have some serious negative impact on our current rankings in desktop search – especially if the “lite”/mobile pages have:

    - much less (con)textual content
    - much less internal linking between pages

    Is it safe to go this route? And if so, what is the best way to do this?

  14. Still the best resource on mobile SEO! Thanks Bryson.
    I am wondering how much effect web apps like we make at Readz are going to have as we convert all those PDF files on websites into SEO-friendly content?

  15. Joel Smith says:

    My question is the same as #13. I love the idea of have a mobile theme switcher and have the theme switcher redirect to a http://www.domain.com/mobile….but didn’t know if more pages with less content would hurt, i guess not if traffic still flows from the main url.

    Great article though, first place all night searching to recommend the mobile as a page rather than a sub-domain.






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