Mobile Search · Spotlight

Mobile SEO is a Myth

Mobile SEO Myth Mobile SEO is a MythI hate the term “Mobile SEO.” What exactly is it? Besides being a buzzword thrown around at every conference, seminar, and new business pitch it’s a topic that nobody seems able to accurately explain. Google it; the results are all over the place. In a perfect world, there would be no need for mobile SEO at all.

It’s an emerging topic that, thanks to smart phones, is dying off quicker than it emerges.

 

Like most buzz words though, I don’t think the concept of mobile SEO is going to go away anytime soon.

So if we’re stuck with it, we might as well attempt to do it right – by not really doing anything mobile specific at all.

For starters, we need to stop confusing the terms mobile and local. While related, they are very different things – especially when it comes to SEO. It is true that local search is mostly done on mobile phones, but it does not mean mobile and local SEO are the same thing. They are not and that is where the industry confusion comes in.

When people say mobile SEO they usually mean local SEO. Sometimes they actually mean search results on a mobile phone. Most of the time though, they have no idea what they mean and are simply trying to shift their paradigm and leverage as many buzzwords as they can to help synergize their sales pitch. (see how successful that is?)

So let’s clarify:

Mobile Search refers to search done on a mobile device. That’s it.

Local Search deals with results specific to a location. This usually also includes place pages, maps, and other things that help augment local search.

Part of what helps sustain the mobile search myth is this whole multi-screen concept that is somehow gaining popularity. If you look hard enough you’ll find studies that show mobile phone users use their devices differently than tablet users who use their devices differently than ordinary computer users. I’m recalling a presentation I once sat through where somebody in a cheap suit defined 1st screen, 2nd screen, 3rd screen, 4th screen, and 5th screen and how we should have a strategy for all of them. That type of thinking achieves billable hours but not results.

The whole “multiple screens need multiple sites” theory just doesn’t make sense. We have never designed separate TV commercials for 13″ CRT screens and 70″ plasmas – even though people watching them are usually in very different places/situations. When it comes to viewing a website, my 10″ tablet isn’t much different than my 13″ laptop. Sure it does not support flash, but that is not a reason to design a different site – it is just a reason to learn HTML5.

Mobile screens are nothing more than smaller computer screens. There are some minor differences now, but look at how fast phones are evolving; within a year or so there won’t be any difference at all. With browsers (like IE6) there came a time when we collectively decided to stop supporting old technology. That time for mobile sites is now. In the 90’s we designed websites for various resolutions. Today we use fluid layouts. It is time we apply the same approach to mobile.

The best Mobile SEO strategy is to not have a mobile SEO strategy.

Apple does not have a mobile strategy and they practically invented the modern mobile device. Apple.com is a great example of how to handle mobile site design. Apple shows the exact same site to mobile and “wired” visitors. It is even on the same URL. Sure, there’s probably a different style sheet involved, but that’s it. The experience is the SAME.

Even better, since it is the exact same URL they only have one site to optimize. All of the SEO work they have done to their wired site also applies to their mobile site – because they’re the same thing! They do not need a mobile search strategy because they do not technically have a mobile site.

It is not just Apple either. Google does the same thing, only the little promos below the search box change.

This is a best case scenario though, and various technical decisions made in the past might not make it applicable to everybody.

If you really MUST have a different site, use device detection and canonical tags.

Creating a separate site can open you up to all kinds of SEO problems. Having two different domains with similar content is something most SEOs strive to avoid. The last thing you want to do is create a mobile version of a site that competes with your existing site in search. Luckily, there are several ways to avoid this.

If you can’t go with using the same domain then the next best choice is m.yourdomain.com It does not really provide any SEO benefit, but “m” has sort of become the industry standard. In a best case scenario you would be able to keep all of the URLs exactly the same except for the “m.” subdomain. That way, at least it will keep things simple for users.

Remember when I said the best mobile strategy is no mobile strategy? The trick is to leverage device detection and canonicals so that your “wired” site is always shown in search results regardless of what device the searcher uses. As John Mu from Google describes the best thing to do is to slap a canonical tag on that mobile site and point it back to your wired site.

Using this strategy, search engines will always show the wired version of the site in results, but users will be taken to the proper “canonical version” that best fits their device. It is also a good idea to include a link to the full version just in case.

If you truly want a different experience, build an app.

I can hear your argument now: “a mobile device is a different experience. It has got a touch screen!” So what? We are talking about a web browser here. Touch screen, trackpad, mouse, joystick – they are all just methods of pointing and clicking. My art director on the 2nd floor uses a pad and stylus and he has not once asked for his own version of a website. If you really want to use the device’s capabilities you don’t need a mobile website – you need an app.

If you want something that is really native to a device, an app is definitely the way to go. Apps can access multi-touch features, rich media, in app purchases, gps, camera, and other aspects to provide a truly unique experience that a website cannot. But don’t just stop there. Use that same device detection to show an interstitial on your mobile site advertising the app. How is that for leveraging pre-existing SEO? Let your site’s pre-established authority work for your mobile version and help you sell apps!

TL;DR

  • The best mobile strategy is to create a site that works on all devices.
  • Otherwise use m.yourdomain.com, device detection to redirect (both ways) and canonical tags.
  • Always provide a link for me to switch to the full version.
  • If you want a true “device experience” then create an app.
  • Stop saying “mobile SEO” when you mean “Local SEO”

By day Ryan Jones works at Team Detroit doing SEO for Ford. By night he’s either playing hockey or attempting to take over the world – which he would have already succeeded in doing had it not been for those meddling kids and their dog. Follow Ryan on Twitter at: @RyanJones or visit his personal website: www.RyanMJones.com

2bf27e1a5632db8aba77510c78aaa9a2 64 Mobile SEO is a Myth
By day Ryan Jones works at SapientNitro where he's a manager of search strategy & analytics and works mostly on fortune 500 clients. By night he’s either playing hockey or attempting to take over the world – which he would have already succeeded in doing had it not been for those meddling kids and their dog. Follow Ryan on Twitter at: @RyanJones or visit his personal website:
2bf27e1a5632db8aba77510c78aaa9a2 64 Mobile SEO is a Myth

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30 thoughts on “Mobile SEO is a Myth

  1. Good one Ryan, you make it very clear as I hate this buzz work too! In the beginning when I listen to this word I though now I should have an iPhone or Android with me in order to move further in the SEO world and most beginner are confused the similar way…

    IMO, it’s good to have a mobile friendly website that helps users to understand better (especially when it comes to eCommerce), but this never means that there is something like Mobile SEO going on… trust be it isn’t important…

    Ryan you make it extremely difficult for sales people who innovate different terms to impress their clients :).
    Great read!

  2. I do not agree with some points in this article – Sure, in some cases “are mobile screens nothing more than smaller computer screens” and you can make it fit with media queries, but often the user scenario is completely different.

    Think about the user and what task he/she is looking to accomplish in the mobile environment contra the desktop one – in many cases, the use of the mobile website is a completely different one than the desktop ditto. Therefore, a mobile strategy is a really good thing to have!

    Even if you have a blog or a news site, a different, shorter and more to-the-point version of the content will work much better on the mobile device.

    “If you want a true “device experience” then create an app” Why, when you could just make a mobile website that can do the same? When desktop development is getting more and more cloud and web based, why should it be any different on the mobile platforms?

    1. I think what you’re getting at here is the 2nd part of my strategy that says “if you really must have a different site.” There are some situations where use of your site is completely different from a phone versus a computer – and I’d be tempted to say that if that’s the case there might be a bigger IA/usability issue at hand.

      If not, it’s ok to display the content differently – but I’d still advocate for making the differences as slight as possible. I think google does a great job of that with their mobile site. It’s essentially the same site, but the other search options change to things a mobile user would be more interested in. It’s basically the same site with a different promo area.

      to your last sentence “desktop is getting more cloud based why should it be different on mobile” – that’s kind of my point in the article. Mobile and desktop SHOULD be the same.

      1. I don’t mean “if you really must have a different site” – I mean, that you most certainly need a different site (in most cases). Not only the design should be different (mobile friendly), but texts, goals, actions, hierarchy etc.

        Analyse your audience, and decide on your strategy – to ignore it is just not wise. It might be that your site and its content can work fine just be adjusting its graphics and rearranging navigation; but as I wrote, the situation where users use a mobile device is often much different than when they use desktop – meaning different keywords, different behavior and different goals to accomplish.

        And, I still don’t get why you want people to build apps, when they could make a mobile website instead – Web applications are widely used on desktop, so why not use all the advantages of the flexibility of having it be web based instead of native compiled?

  3. Thanks Moosa. Appreciate the good feedback. I struggle with the whole salesperson thing on a daily basis. It’s a delicate line to walk knowing you have to balance sales and work, but in the end doing the right work even if it doesn’t bring in as much money usually works out for the best.

  4. I didn’t know that people confused local with mobile to this extent. If it is possible then creating an app is a great way to supplement your brand. Also, there has been a countless number of times when I was browsing on my mobile device and was redirected to a mobile version of a site and didn’t have the option to leave the mobile version. If anything, please have the mobile versions navigation almost as similar to the non mobile navigation so that your visitors still get the sense of familiarity of your site.

  5. Mobile SEO is a myth. However having a mobile site is still a must for any serious business due to the user finding it alot easier to use the website. The click to call function aswell as good branding of the website is extremely important but if you get these two things right your clients will see an increase in revenue and customer happiness.

  6. @Magnus I dont think there is any objection to the concept that mobile users should have a unique mobile experience and that a full web experience should be scaled to mobile needs based on access point. But if scaling back from a www site to a device site, I struggle to think of mobile only functionalities that would not be incorporated into a core site.

    What is an important part of the discussion is whether a mobile site can replace an app and its functionality, which it cant. A mobile site can not access hardware features that are key for many mobile activities, such as camera, compass, accelerometer, real time GPS, push notifications, touch gestures and over the air rich media.

    1. Hello kmadd,

      No, content on a mobile site would probably always exist on the desktop site also – but not necessarily in the same form, which is my point: It is not always the right solution to just scale the graphics and boundaries of the site to fit the mobile screen, without “scaling the content”. The user is in another situation, and often there is too much information on a desktop site (not only in the amount of pages on the site, but in information in the text).

      Regarding the apps, of course a website cannot replace an app when it comes to advanced features – but most “corporate apps” I’ve seen doesn’t use these functions, and could easily have been made as a mobile site. And, I’m not against apps, but I don’t think that they should ever replace a mobile website.

      1. I agree. A mobile website that has the same content as the desktop site is maybe just poor design. The problem is how should you handle the content that is the same i.e. an article for a newspaper webbapp. In this case it is not always as simple as css.

        I want my article to turn up in search, I don’t want to handle every article with canonical since I don’t know how the content have been scaled to the mobile site. But at the same time I understand the frustration for desktop users if they would end up on my webbapp-version of the article (especially if the content is scaled).

        If there is no mobile SEO, shouldn’t we leave it up to google to handle the issue or provide us with the tools. Canonical is a bad tool for this. I would prefer to not care about the risk of beeing penalized since my intent obviously is not to trick Google. .

  7. @Magnus – I agree with your viewpoint.
    And @Ajay. I don’t think people confuse Mobile and Local search at all. I don’t think that people even consider it.

    There are two problems that I can see most people doing
    1. Not being aware of traffic from Mobile devices
    2. Not caring or rationalizing away the reasons that you should do something about it.

    The mobile site for Google (<) is a vastly different experience than the classic site – and if Mobile traffic is important to your website, then factoring in the experience is something that you should have in your strategy. This doesn’t change your core content or the reason-for-being.

  8. I am troubled by this blog and the view taken for the following reasons :
    - mobile sites should be designed clearly with a strategy of having the host relevant information and call to actions.
    even if you are the largest brand in-town it would not make sense to have a 50 page mobile website
    - mobile website display in a unique format for smart devices and therefore i would argue that the content is specifically driven for fast accurate search results and actions.

    If i am on the right path here then the content should also be specifically keyword driven the resultant effect is that you will optimize the search engine to be found for those specific keywords that you applied to the mobile website you created . I therefore see nothing wrong in then saying that you have a mobile seo strategy or mobile seo driven campaign.

  9. Mobile search optimization might be a myth one day, but I’m not sure how it is one now. Different crawlers, different strategy, different user behavior, and the list goes one. It’s much more than just local intent and different CSS…

  10. While discussing this article with a co-worker he brought up that he thought the mobile versions of search engines gave precedence in their search results to mobile sites (m. and the like). He can’t remember where he heard/read that, but thinking about it it makes sense. Have there been any studies that compare mobile and desktop search results and the types of sites (www. vs. m.) that are favored in each? If what he says is true then wouldn’t canonical tags on an m. site pointing to a www. site NOT be a best practice?

    1. They’re actually not as different as you’d think. I just did a search for “Pad Thai”, “Ford”, and “barber shop” and other than different formatting, I got the same results.

      Do you have an example where they’re drastically different? I’d love to see it.

      (Note: for barbershop the order of the places in the onebox was better on my phone due to having a GPS, but the search results didn’t change)

      1. <

        "What I discovered is that while 13.42% of the queries have the same ranking in desktop results that they do in smartphone results, the great majority of the queries do vary slightly. Nearly a quarter of the listings vary by two positions or more, which in the limited real estate of smartphone screens might as well be page ten."

        I guess this goes to your personal opinion on what is drastic, whether 1 or 2 spots might as well be considered the same or, as Bryson alludes to, banishes you to relative mobile search obscurity.

  11. Ryan, just because you don’t understand something doesn’t mean it’s a myth. And if you criticize something without addressing what’s been written before about it, it makes what you write look ignorant.

    Normally I respond to criticism like this by addressing it in detail in my Search Engine Land column (<), but as I said, I’ve written extensively on what mobile SEO is and how it differs from traditional or desktop SEO (<), including the 14 differences in Google mobile search results and their desktop counterparts (<). If you would have read these things before ranting, you may have understood that mobile SEO is not just about local search (although mobile search has a more pronounced local intent, it’s as much about entertainment), and it’s not just about consolidating link equity at the desktop URL at the expense of satisfying mobile-specific user behavior. In fact, if you do only do that you run the risk of making your content completely invisible for navigational queries from mobile users attempting to find a site they can use (<). And if you put your entire mobile user experience in an app, as you suggest, you run the risk of making it completely invisible in search except for a few long-tail navigational queries. And the last time I checked making something completely invisible in search engines’ organic listings is not SEO, but the opposite.

    I understand your frustration at salesmen with little knowledge of the subject attempting to sell something that they don’t fully understand or have baked out. That doesn’t mean there’s not merit in the concept, only that some of the people who embrace it are disingenuous in their enthusiasm for the sake of profit.

    I also agree that Google does a piss poor job of ranking sites for the term “mobile SEO”, but this is largely because people like you write about it without really understanding it at all, and even more ignorant people link to it because the tone is passionate. If you want them to provide better results, write better content that contains an informed understanding of what’s been written before. Or just link to < with the anchor text “mobile seo “, as I can assure you I have thought and written extensively on the subject and concluded it’s not a myth. What’s more, that link contains 25 best practices that actually can make your content more visible in mobile search, as they have made others’ in the past.

    1. Bryson I think you mis-interpreted my post.

      For starters, I never recommended only creating an app instead of mobile site. That’s bad advice. I recommended that IF you want to take advantage of a mobile device’s capabilities then you should create an app to augment your site.

      I also never said that mobile is just local.

      And ” In fact, if you do only do that you run the risk of making your content completely invisible for navigational queries from mobile users attempting to find a site they can use” doesn’t make any sense – especially considering that I recommend the exact same thing that Google recommends.

      1. I completely agree with Bryson as this article is an overly simplistic rationale to a lot of mobile SEO FUD – such as using 3rd party domains for mobile content or that .mobi gives you a mobile search advantage.

        Also for clarity, a MUCH better augmentation approach for both visibility & cost is to have your site in HTML5 vs creating an app for each mobile OS – at least $10K development costs for EACH OS plus maintenance.

        As a note last week at Covario I put out a whitepaper on Mobile Search with research & data points to qualify what works in Mobile SEO.

        ,Michael Martin

      2. Ryan, thanks for clarifying your position on those two points. I suppose in those two cases I was assuming that you were taking the popular stance that I’ve heard too often and failed to read for detail. My mistake.

        Are you also saying that I misinterpreted that you said mobile SEO is a myth? Because that seemed pretty clear in your post and you didn’t address any of my comments about differences in ranking et al that comprised the majority of my argument.

        Also, when you say “Google recommends” with regard to canonical URLs on mobile sites you’re referring to John Mueller’s recommendation that desktop pages that are duplicated and simply reformatted for mobile devices be consolidated with rel=canonical. However, Matt Cutts also works at Google, and he recommended m. for mobile sites in a Webmaster Central YouTube video. And another Google document, the SEO Starter Guide, addresses mobile SEO but recommends redirecting content and doesn’t mention anything about canonical tags for duplicated desktop content that is simply mobile formatted. Which of these Google stances were you referring to?

        Besides, even John Mueller said in Search Engine Roundtable that mobile sites don’t have to be transcoded desktop experiences, but said rather that it might make sense in some cases to index smartphone sites separately in the traditional results: “If the touch.example.com site is significantly different that it covers a special niche, then maybe that’s ok.”

        Fortunately he did, as Google has a serious search quality problem when it comes to recommending consolidating link equity of desktop sites and mobile sites, as searches for [brand + mobile] or [brand + mobile site] today often bring up sites the searcher isn’t looking for above the fold rather than the brand’s actual mobile site, which would be negated by the canonical tag.

        The only way around this currently is by adding canonical link tags to all of your site’s transcoded desktop content, but creating mobile-specific content at the root (either at m.domain.com or domain.com/m and including that phrase somewhere on the page). This will also allow you to optimize for mobile-specific phrases and intent that simply adding canonical tags to transcoded desktop content won’t allow you to do.

        In other words it allows marketers to optimize their content for greater visibility to mobile searchers. This is what we call mobile SEO, and what you have called (apparently out of ignorance) a myth.

  12. I have a few but it would give away what industry I’m in which i dont care to share

    here’s a great article on SEO for mobile searches
    <

    Matt Cutts giving advice on SEO for Mobile Searches
    <

    Google Webmaster
    <

    IF you consider having a sitemap part of a SEO strategy……then mobile SEO does exist since Google recommends you having a Mobile SEO sitemap

    BTW – here’s a strategy for Ford which has thousands of locations
    Create a sitemap specifically for your locations and come and post to tell us which type of visitor increased the most….
    Mobile or Desktop

  13. I do limited SEO and keyword research from my tablet and from my experience the search results tend to be very similar to those done from my desktop. I look forward to the merging of mobile and desktop sites because while I know it can be a pain to browse through a full website from a smart phone, I think it’s a lesser pain than having to relearn a new layout for each “mobile” version. The argument for separating a mobile site is even less valid for tablets. Just give me access to hulu already :)

  14. If you have decided to go down the route of having a mobile subdomain, m.mysite.com, do you then have to build links for this mobile site as well or will Google recognise that is just a mobile version of the same great site (via the canonical tag perhaps?)?

    Or would you block it from googlebot because the main site redirects to the mobile site if it detects a mobile browser?

  15. In general, you can have an effective marketing strategy without thinking about mobile searchers specifically. Mobile users don’t seem to behave differently enough from others to make it worth while to focus too much effort on them. Personally, when I’m on my smartphone I usually click the link to go back to the full version of the site.