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.
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.