Mobile SEO is a Myth

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Mobile SEO is a Myth

I 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

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Ryan Jones
By day Ryan Jones works at Sapient where he runs a search strategy & analytics team. By night he’s either playing hockey, working on WTFSEO... Read Full Bio
Ryan Jones
Ryan Jones
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