Response to Rand Fishkin’s Thoughts on Mobile SEO

posted January 18th, 2011

I was excited to see that Rand Fishkin posted more thoughts on Mobile SEO and search following his bearish 2011 predictions at the end of last year. Although I disagree with Rand about most things in this area, I’m glad he’s talking about mobile search, as it has been all but ignored by many of the popular talking heads in our industry as it has grown from a minute percentage of the overall search volume a few years ago to the 10+% of total searches it is today.  However, given that his post was really an echo of what he had posted previously, without mentioning any of my responses either here or in Search Engine Land, I was disappointed in the substance of the post, because it doesn’t allow me to present a lot of new information to you today. Nonetheless, I still don’t agree with his recommendations regarding mobile search and mobile sites, so I’m posting a response in case any of my clients should happen to come across his misguided POV.

Convergence

The main argument Fishkin makes relies on the principle of device convergence, which is the theory that as smartphones become more like personal computers, searchers will interact with them like personal computers, and use the same search terms to find the same content that they’re looking for when they are searching from their desktop or laptop computer.

It’s not a new conclusion, as Google research has shown that iPhone queries are more like desktop computer queries than feature phone queries in query length and query classification. However, it’s a leap to assume convergence in query length and query classification is also a convergence of intent and engagement. Consider the query [coupon] for example, which means something completely different when searched for from the phone than when searched for on the desktop. Same classification, same query length, but a mobile searcher putting in [coupon] on their mobile device won’t be able to print it from the desktop page you present them, as a desktop searcher would. Contextual relevance changes the meaning of the query, which affects the user experience, and by extent the way marketers need to approach content in order to drive brand loyalty and conversions.

He uses the Performics study that I referenced to illustrate growth of mobile search in Search Engine Land recently, but used it to illustrate that mobile search is similar to desktop search in many ways.

There are several things wrong with this approach. First, because paid search keywords were analyzed for the study, you’re starting with a keyword build, and you’re only showing up in paid search for those queries that you are bidding on. So if mobile searchers were using queries that Performics wasn’t bidding on, they are not accounted for in this study and would not skew the results, making any claims to convergence something like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Better to use the Google research I pointed to earlier, though that is still inadequate to prove convergence beyond query length and classification.

Second, it’s atypical, as clickthrough rates are generally much higher in mobile search results than they are in web search results, as we’ve found here, here, here, here and here.

Finally, speculation is unnecessary at this point, as Google now allows you to see volume from all mobile devices, and not just feature phones in the Google Adwords Keyword Tool, and in Google Webmaster Tools. If you want to see if mobile search behavior differs from desktop search behavior, you can analyze the data for your specific industry, site or target keywords and figure out exactly how your mobile search target differs from your desktop web search target. If you’re anything like me and my clients, you may find that while categories of keywords are similar across devices, volume, engagement and intent can differ dramatically.

“A lot more queries – mobile search is growing faster than traditional search and that bodes well for search marketers.”

This is indisputable, as it’s been confirmed by Google, Bing and others. Something to think about, however, that affects SEOs and people who write about SEO: if mobile search eclipses desktop search, as is often predicted, will one’s mobile site be the canonical site, since it would serve the most visitors? Will your desktop site still be your “regular” site when it serves the minority of users? This is a question that we will all have to ask eventually.

“A single set of SERPs – I searched for a good 20 minutes on my laptop and Android phone without finding a query where the web results are in a different order (both are location-aware to “Seattle, WA”)”

It’s surprising to me that Fishkin, who built the reputation of SEOMoz largely by providing in-depth data and analytics to support or refute what we think we know about SEO would think searching for 20 minutes was sufficient evidence for proving his point. As someone in the comments of his post mentioned, I’ve examined webmaster tools data for many different sites and more than eleven hundred queries and found that 86% of smartphone rankings were different than desktop rankings. This could be location-specific, or it could be a result of any of the six factors I mention in the post.

However, even if the app and smartphone search results were mirror images of desktop search results, mobile searchers would still have slightly different SERPs, as they get different search results depending on the interface they’re using to search. For example, Android Market and App Store search find only applications, but applications can still be optimized to be more visible in the search results. Likewise, Google Goggles for iPhone and Android has similar web results, but above the web results is displayed information relevant to the image, such as related images, contact information, etc. that does not appear in desktop results. Gesture Search, Maps, Listen and Shopper are four more examples of search interfaces on Android that don’t display traditional search results, and yet can be optimized for search.

Finally, even if these interfaces did not exist, and we were simply talking about browser search in Google, what Fishkin doesn’t really explore is the influence of mobile search on this single set of results. In a recent exploration of the top 5 listings for 11 of the top mobile queries in Google smartphone search, I found that 70% of them have mobile sites or mobile formatted content, even if that content is noindexed with robots.txt or rel=canonical. Given that Google recommends user agent redirection for mobile sites in their new SEO starter guide, it wouldn’t surprise me if providing mobile-formatted content to mobile searchers is a ranking factor for web results, or becomes one in the near future. Google did get obsessed with site speed right about the time that mobile search took off. Coincidence? If we do see a single set of search results, it’s likely given Google’s focus on user experience and good customer service that the signals will not just be related to your traditional web site.

“A chance to make your mobile-focus known – Yelp does a great job with their overlay on mobile devices encouraging searchers to download their app (though some have complained it gets annoying having to say “no” every time if you don’t want it).”

I wouldn’t say Yelp does a “great job”, as they made me wait about two minutes on my Android phone on a 3G connection before they displayed that interstitial page, and then shot me through to this winner of a user experience once I said no thanks.
Yelp on an HTC Nexus One

Once I pinched and zoomed to the content I saw a targeted message very similar to the one I just turned down. Since I don’t like pushy sites or sites that make me work to navigate them, I searched for (for an unfortunately long time) and switched to Yelp’s mobile site, which is easier to use on my smartphone.

Agree that showing mobile content to mobile searchers is the right way to go, and promoting mobile content, apps or otherwise, to mobile users is a clear opportunity for marketers; but providing mobile content with a link to their desktop site and Android app would have a lower bounce rate, and higher contextual relevance.

“Little need for a separate mobile site - Mobile copies of websites seem to me to be more likely to cause duplicate content issues, technical challenges, waste engineering resources and draw away attention from real mobile opportunities than to earn slightly higher rankings in mobile searches. Until/unless things change dramatically, I can’t, in good conscience, recommend this practice (unless your regular site is absolutely unusable on a mobile device).”

Here Fishkin is equating separate mobile sites with mobile copies of traditional websites, which I would hardly equate with an optimized mobile presence. Just putting transcoded content in the index will not make you optimized, as I’ve explained before on Search Engine Land.

It’s best to have an optimized mobile home page with a mobile information architecture and mobile-specific keywords to capitalize on what makes mobile search different from desktop search and provide the best possible user experience to users of both platforms. It’s really the difference between being optimized for mobile search and just getting by.

However, you can make your desktop site more optimized by using handheld stylesheets to format the content and including mobile demand in your keyword research, as I explained here. Mobile sites are not treated as duplicate content, as I explained last year, but if you don’t want to create a separate mobile site, you can still become more optimized with this technique.

At the same time, if you don’t have at least a page on your site optimized for mobile users, you will not be visible for high-converting brand-loyal navigational queries (e.g. [toys r us mobile]), and your bounce rate from search results will be high, while your conversion rate remains low. As I said before, if (as Fishkin even believes) metrics like these are used to rank sites, not presenting some sort of mobile content to mobile users will be detrimental in the long run. Unless, of course, Google gives up on the whole positive user experience thing with regard to mobile searchers, which isn’t likely.

“Definite need for a separate mobile ad strategy – Unlike SEO, the paid search results can and do differ dramatically on mobile devices. CPC is generally lower, as are conversion rates, though the latter may be on an upward trend (especially if I’m right about device convergence)”

I agree with the point about a separate mobile ad strategy, but this point about lower conversion rates is telling. Whenever we serve desktop content to mobile users, our conversion rates are typically low as well. However…

BMW and Jelly Belly are among the businesses that discovered that mobile users convert at a much higher rate when given mobile-optimized content, which is what Omniture found when they tested mobile content and mobile users. By this token, if you follow Fishkin’s advice and ignore mobile content, low conversion rates may actually, contrary to his prediction, stay the same or decline.

“Apps are still beloved – I don’t know if the long term future of mobile will continue to focus on apps, but for now, it’s a huge part of what differentiates the device. It’s certainly a great way to “contain” users in your brand and provide a more tailored experience, and for those who can make it work effectively, the effect can be great.”

Data shows consistently that more people use browsers on their mobile devices than apps, that consumers overwhelmingly prefer mobile web sites to mobile apps (Adobe, eMarketer), that most iPhone users never use an app after the first download, and that apps are still largely used by young, affluent men. If your target is Rand Fishkin, follow his advice. Otherwise, think twice about putting all of your content in a walled garden with limited reach like an app marketplace. If you can afford it, build an app and a mobile site and market the app from your mobile site for users who prefer apps. But if you’re looking for reach and you have limited resources, fully-featured mobile sites or search-friendly mobile web apps are the way to go.

“Geography matters – mobile and traditional search are both getting more and more biased by geography. My opinion is that Google currently sucks at this (I have yet to find a search I like better with location-biasing than without, maps/places not withstanding), but they certainly won’t be giving up. As a result, if you can tailor your content and your marketing to effectively serve and be seen as local, you can seriously benefit.”

I agree that search results are showing local results for queries without a clear local intent or local modifiers, and have been for a while. As Fishkin says, this is not exclusive to mobile search, but in my experience it is more pronounced in mobile search results. Google’s Jeremy Sussman included distance as part of his local search ranking discussion on YouTube last month, and it has long been included in David Mihm’s local search ranking factors survey, so this point shouldn’t be a surprise.

Don’t mean to be harsh on this particular analyst. I think it’s wonderful that Rand is talking about mobile search, and I wish more people in our industry were talking about how mobility will affect what we do, both today and in the near future. I just think it’s unfortunate that he’s using his great influence to continue these popular misconceptions about mobile content and search.

Contrary to what he thinks, my hunch is that his is actually the majority viewpoint on mobile, as in my experience most people follow their instincts on mobile and then find data to support it. I’ve also heard this same viewpoint from many different people over the years, both in search marketing and in mobile marketing. However, if you take time to look at the data, as I have, I think you’ll want to think twice about mobile’s impact on SEO. While no analyst can tell the future, in this case only one prediction is supported by present day facts.

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5 Responses to “Response to Rand Fishkin’s Thoughts on Mobile SEO”

  1. randfish says:

    Bryson – thanks so much for the thoughtful perspective and the data points to back it up. I, admittedly, based my opinion more on a gut feel than on the numbers (as you referenced). Despite that, you treated my comments with terrificly civil discourse. I’m thrilled to be in a field where that level of professionalism and camaraderie is the norm.

    Also excited to check back next year and see if either of us are right :-)

  2. Mark Bossert says:

    Hey Bryson,

    Our research so far backs up your data on the growing difference in serps returned on mobile vs. desktop search. With Google’s emphasis on this in 2011, this is an area it would be best to let data rather than anecdote drive our actions. I also have been advising clients to focus on mobile sites rather than apps, but that was a thin logical decision on my part – good to have it backed up!

    Mark

  3. Raffaella Bronzi says:

    Hi Bryson,

    I agree with your post, I can clearly see different CTR and rankings between mobile and desktop.
    While not every business might need a mobile site (e.g. B2B), many companies still fail to recognise the importance of having a mobile optimised version of their site.
    There is also a big push from Google on mobile as Eric Schmidt said: “2011 is all about mobile”. Mobile payments, cheap headsets and faster networks will definatly have a considerable impact. :)
    Raffaella

  4. Thanks, Raffaella, Rand and Mark for your comments. Raffaella you might be surprised at how much money eBay is making in the B2B sector. Almost $700k in a week according to the figures they released on mobile commerce for Cyber Week. eBay built a mobile site and a mobile app, and the B2B buyers are using it.

    At any rate, thanks again, all, for the comments. Definitely an interesting space to watch.

  5. Dillon Miles says:

    Great post on mobile search engine optimization, I think Bryson and Rand both present great cases, but i tend to lean toward Bryson’s side for the simple reason that the phone follows you. (location based) Although most searches will have the same intent, there will be those times where your location DEFINITELY a factor, like when you want a pizza and google shows the closest location first instead of the most SEO’d mobile site.






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