Thoughts on Google’s Mobile SEO Preference

It was an honor to be on the iSEO panel at SMX Advanced this year with Cindy Krum, Pierre Far and Barry Schwartz. If you’ve been reading this blog for half as long as I’ve been writing it you know that I’ve been looking for more clear guidance on mobile SEO from Google for years.

Back in 2009 I tried to mobilize some of you to ask Matt Cutts what he thought about SEO for mobile searchers and the specific challenges that optimizers face.

When he finally answered a similar question in early 2011 I was happy with the answer, but thought it left more questions than answers.

In late 2011 I chronicled some of the many answers that Google has given over the years and still wondered what their “official” position was.

Fortunately Barry Schwartz of Search Engine Land and Search Engine Roundtable wondered the same, and invited Google to SMX Advanced to clarify their position at the iSEO: Doing Mobile Search Engine Optimization Right panel.

And there Google finally gave us official guidelines for mobile SEO for smartphones, which people like me, and you, have been waiting for for a while.

These guidelines certainly are clearer, in that they do say that they strongly prefer responsive web design, but they also say that they support other options if responsive web design is not the best option for your site. What it comes down to is: do what’s best for your user and we will support it.

However, most people who came out of that session were on a warpath to make their sites responsive. This is unfortunate because responsive web design isn’t an answer for every design and SEO problem, and some users are going to get a better user experience from dedicated mobile content. Google acknowledges this by giving a two pronged recommendation, but webmasters unfortunately seem to be paying attention to the strong preference without reading the whole recommendation.

In my latest Search Engine Land column I go into detail on this point. If you haven’t read it, please do, and share, if you like it.

The long and short of it is, I understand how responsive web design might be a good solution for small businesses who don’t want the added cost of maintaining separate web sites, and I understand the search engines’ need to spend their limited resources crawling and indexing unique content; but at the same time the ‘O’ in SEO stands for optimization. It’s not necessarily about what’s realistic, but what’s ideal or optimal.

In other words, many businesses may not have the time or resources to do mobile-specific keyword research and build pages for smartphones and pages for desktops, but in some cases this scenario is going to give the searcher the best possible user experience. To not create this experience because of resources is not optimization. Someone, maybe their competitor, will be able to get those resources to provide an optimal experience, and that competitor will get better results from their web site.

I didn’t necessarily think that Google’s thinking about this with their recommendation. In talking with Pierre Far at SMX it seems there are a lot of webmasters who make basic mistakes when it comes to making sites mobile friendly, and this recommendation is mostly about helping those webmasters fix basic problems and become accessible to mobile devices. It’s not really about being competitive, as most ordinary webmasters aren’t anywhere near ready to have that conversation.

That’s fair. And to be fair to Google, their job is not really to help us be competitive, but just to do it in a way that is fair to other webmasters and in accordance with their stated guidelines.

However, for those of us who are optimizers, and are more concerned with being competitive than being accessible, we have to understand that Google’s preference for responsive web design may not be our user’s preference, and we have to design our sites accordingly.

Google understands this. This is why they announced that they support three mobile configurations and left it up to the webmaster to decide which is best for their user. I just hope the rest of the industry got that far in reading their recommendation, as it seems most people I’m seeing stopped reading at “responsive web design”.

But overall, I don’t think the announcement changed much with mobile SEO. I delivered mobile SEO best practices right before Google’s Pierre Far gave his presentation, and looking at those best practices afterward it’s odd how what Google said didn’t really make any of them invalid.

It’s also kind of a moot point when you consider that their feature phone recommendations haven’t changed, and the best practice for feature phones is still to build out separate content on separate URLs.

So while it’s wonderful to have their guidelines and their preference, it hasn’t fundamentally changed what people like me do.

More color and details at Search Engine Land. These are just a few thoughts. Thanks, as always, for listening.

 

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