Top 5 Facts to Know About Mobile SEO

Thursday Nov 10th 2011 by James A. Martin
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The mobile Web is booming. Is your website ready for mobile SEO? Does it even need to be? We've got five facts you need to know.

Traditional search engine optimization (SEO) tactics are all about using keywords and backlinks to help people find your content. But as more people surf the Web using smartphones and tablets instead of desktops and laptops, what will it mean for SEO?

Do you need to revise your tactics for mobile SEO? And what impact will Siri, the new Apple iPhone 4S voice-enabled personal assistant that searches the Web for you, have on your SEO efforts?

Here's a guide to the top five things small businesses should know about mobile SEO. But first a clarification: this article describes tactics and strategies for organic search engine optimization, rather than paid-search campaigns.

1. Shocker: Mobile Web use is exploding and will only keep growing.

In a March 2011 study conducted by ROI Research Inc., 49 percent of mobile search engine users made a purchase on their device within the past six months. What's more, 83 percent of respondents said they search for local retailers on their mobile devices, while 63 percent use smartphones and tablets to search for product information before making purchases in a bricks-and-mortar store or from a catalog.

Meanwhile, Google's former CEO Eric Schmidt said earlier this year that 78 percent of smartphone owners shop online using their mobile handset, and that mobile web use is growing at supersonic speed. "We look at the charts internally and it's happening faster than all of our predictions," Schmidt told attendees at the Interactive Advertising Bureau's annual leadership meeting. "This is the future, and everyone will adapt."

To Schmidt's point, a Microsoft infographic predicts that by 2014, mobile Internet use will be more prevalent than desktop/laptop Web surfing.

So what does this mean for your small business website? If your business depends on attracting new customers via search, it's time to take mobile SEO seriously. This is especially true if you cater to local customers, because mobile search results are typically tailored to the user's current location.

For example, if you search for Indian restaurants using Google on your iPhone, Google assumes you're looking for nearby restaurants and serves up results based on where you are (which Google knows from the iPhone's GPS).

2. Good news: You don't need to radically rethink your SEO to optimize for mobile Web searches.

Fundamentally, mobile SEO works the same as desktop SEO; in fact, most SEO experts don't believe there's a need for a mobile SEO strategy. This is because, in most cases, the order in which search results are ranked doesn't differ much between mobile and desktop browser searches.

Fact: the same basic principles of SEO apply regardless of whether you're optimizing for mobile or computer searchers:

  •  You still need to optimize your content with the most relevant keyword phrases.
  •  You still need to attract as many backlinks from other sites, because the search engines view those backlinks as votes of confidence for your content.
  •  And you still need to ensure that your site is search-engine friendly, as opposed to laden with tons of Flash and other content that slows it down and makes it difficult for search engine spiders to crawl. (Flash is particularly bad news if you're trying to appeal to iPhone and iPad users, whose browsers don't support Flash and probably never will. More developers are increasingly using HTML5 to add Flash-like content to their sites because Apple iDevices support HTML5.)

However, it's worth noting that because typing a search query on a smartphone or tablet is more cumbersome, mobile search queries are typically shorter than desktop search strings. If you're hoping to attract more mobile customers, optimize your Web content using a phrase with just two keywords when possible.

Apple's virtual personal assistant Siri and other voice-activated smartphone search technologies might change this over time; see point number five in this article for more information.

To explore mobile-friendly keyword phrases, use the free Google AdWords Keyword Tool's mobile filtering option. Look for 'Advanced Options and Filters' near the top of the page and select 'Devices: Desktops and laptops,' then select a mobile option.

3. But wait: You still might want to make your site mobile-friendly.

Traditional cell phones -- such as a Nokia phone running the Symbian OS -- don't play well with websites designed with desktop browsers in mind. If a large percentage of your visitors are trying to access your site via traditional cell phones, you may need to build a mobile-specific site for them.

Alternatively, you can create a custom Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) file that serves specific instructions to a mobile browser, so that your site will render to your specifications on traditional mobile phones as well as smartphones.

But as more people transition to smartphones and tablets, your job becomes easier. You don't have to redesign your site or build a mobile-specific site in order to have your content render well on a smartphone or tablet.

In most cases, modern smartphones and tablets are capable of serving up desktop-browser-optimized content in a readable, usable fashion, "so there is no real need for mobile-specific effort from webmasters," according to Google's Webmaster Central blog.

That said, it might make sense for your content to be formatted differently for smartphones and tablets -- not so much for SEO purposes, but to improve the customer experience and to increase the likelihood they'll make a purchase or take a desired action.

For example, compare the home page of Amazon.com on a desktop browser versus the same page viewed in Safari on an iPhone. The desktop version recently focused on an open letter to customers about Amazon's Prime Instant Video announcements. The home page also has a sidebar full of links to best-selling products.

At the same time, the mobile version of Amazon's home page is significantly stripped down, with a focus on user recommendations and just a handful of links. Amazon is making, wisely so, an assumption that mobile surfers are more inclined to buy, while desktop users might be more open to receiving information they didn't actively seek.

According to Google, 90 percent of smartphone searches result in the user taking action, such as buying online or visiting a business in person.

Some desktop-browser-optimized websites have been redesigned to be iPad and tablet-friendly. To get a sense of this trend, compare The New York Times home page, which is packed with images, articles, links and ads, to its Op-Ed landing page, which is much more streamlined. As tablets grow in popularity, expect to see more sites optimized for viewing on mobile devices as well as desktops.

Not sure how your current site looks on a small device screen? On Nov. 1, Google released an online tool, GoMoMeter, which shows how your site looks on a mobile browser. You can also find a mobile site developer using Google's tool. For $25 a month, Mobile Moxie offers online tools for keyword research, mobile website emulation, mobile search engine simulation, and more.

Also, if you built your small business website using WordPress.org, there are many free plug-ins that will automatically optimize your site for viewing on mobile devices. To browse them, go to your site's Plugins page, click 'Add New' next to Plugins, and do a search for iPhone or other mobile devices. Learn more about WordPress.org with "How to Build a Small Business Website with WordPress."

4. Take action: Get a local business listing on Google, Bing and Yahoo.

Many mobile browser searches are local in nature. To make sure your business shows up in a mobile device search, you should claim your free local business listing using Google Places, Bing and Yahoo. Read "Web Marketing: 10 Tips to Optimize Your Google Places Page" for more information.

5. Siri: Makes optimized listings and long-tail keywords more important.

Ask the iPhone 4S Siri personal assistant a question, such as 'Are there any good sports bars near me?' and it's likely to deliver a list of relevant businesses culled from Google Places and Yelp. As voice-search technology on iPhones, Androids and other smartphones become popular, it will be even more important to make sure your small business has a keyword-optimized listing on Google, Bing, Yahoo and Yelp.

At the same time, Siri makes long-tail keyword searches much easier on an iPhone 4S. (A long-tail keyword phrase is highly specific and contains more than three words.) With that in mind, you might want to create an FAQ page on your site with the questions written as long-tail keyword phrases.

Adding it All Up

Optimizing for mobile devices isn't any different from optimizing for computer-based searches. But as people increasingly perform searches on smartphones and tablets, make sure your site displays well on mobile devices and emphasizes the action you want users to take.

Finally, make sure that your business is listed with Google, Bing, Yahoo and Yelp (if relevant); and that you stay current with voice-enabled smartphone search and other trends.

James A. Martin is an online marketing and PR consultant specializing in SEO, blogging, and social media. He is the author of the blog A Southerner in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter.

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