mobile search engine optimization

Mobile SEO Recommendations

Last week I attended SMX West in San Jose, California. The conference featured many speakers from companies like Google and Bing, noted search marketing agencies and respected practitioners.

SMX West 2014One session that I found particularly interesting and helpful focused on Mobile SEO. A panel of experts on the subject walked attendees through a number of tactics to improve rankings for mobile sites and pages. The panel featured Cindy Krum from Mobile Moxie, Michael Martin of Covario, Bryson Meunier of Resolution Media, and Maile Ohye from Google.

The session touched on three major themes, which I’ve summarized for you below:

mobile seo

Pros and Cons of Responsive Design for SEO

I’ve written previously about the different kinds of mobile site development, but here is a brief recap:

  • Responsive: The site content does not change for the device, but its structure is modified.
  • Dynamic Serving: Also known as adaptive design, certain elements appear or disappear depending upon the device used.
  • Dedicated Mobile Sites: The user is presented with a completely different website on smaller screens.

The Mobile SEO session at SMX West included much discussion about the right ways to design and develop sites for the mobile visitor. Despite the fact that Google has publicly endorsed the usage of responsive sites, the majority of the panelists found that responsive sites just simply do not perform as well as their dynamic serving counterparts.

The pros for responsive design are fairly well known:

  • It involves creating content for the web, not necessarily for a specific device or screen layout.
  • Responsive design involves no redirects or complicated work-arounds.
  • Many report that responsive design is beneficial for conversions.

However, some negative implications of responsive design on SEO include:

  • slow load times
  • lack of compatibility with older pages
  • need for all content to be modified
  • inability to create separate and unique experiences for mobile users when appropriate
  • difficulty for several hyper-relevant pages.

While many report an increase in SEO performance after moving to responsive design, Meunier noted that most increases seem to be caused by a move from no mobile design whatsoever to responsive. Nearly all panelists (the exception being Ohye, the Google representative), reported a lack of great SEO results from responsive design. Most preferred the dynamic serving approach to provide experiences suitable for mobile and desktop users.

Defining Mobile vs. Desktop Priority

Given the lack of outstanding performance from all responsive layouts, one key takeaway from the Mobile SEO session was to define mobile priority vs. desktop priority for individual content and features. In other words, answer the question: what do mobile users need to see and experience that is different from the needs of average desktop visitors?

Maile Ohye from Google documented a process all site owners should go through in which we:

  1. Identify each type of customer that could potentially visit our site (i.e. personas).
  2. Develop a list of tasks each persona might want to complete.
  3. Determine whether each task is more suited for the desktop experience, mobile or both.
  4. Assign relative priority to each task.

From here we can begin to design the user experience for both mobile and desktop versions of the site to match up with persona tasks. Here’s a simplified example for a comic book store:

Tactic New Customer
New to Comics
New Customer
Comics Fan
Current Customer Parents
View inventory Desktop – High
Mobile – Medium
Desktop – High
Mobile – Medium
Desktop – High
Mobile – Medium
Desktop – Low
Mobile – Low
See new releases Desktop – Medium
Mobile – Medium
Desktop – High
Mobile – High
Desktop – High
Mobile – High
Desktop – Low
Mobile – Low
View upcoming events Desktop – Medium
Mobile – Medium
Desktop – Medium
Mobile – Medium
Desktop – Medium
Mobile – Medium
Desktop – Medium
Mobile – Medium
Find address, get directions Desktop – Medium
Mobile – High
Desktop – Medium
Mobile – High
Desktop – Low
Mobile – Low
Desktop – Medium
Mobile – High
Call phone number Desktop – Medium
Mobile – High
Desktop – Medium
Mobile – High
Desktop – Low
Mobile – Medium
Desktop – Medium
Mobile – High
Subscribe to comic series Desktop – High
Mobile – Medium
Desktop – Medium
Mobile – Medium
Desktop – Medium
Mobile – Medium
Desktop – Low
Mobile – Low
Purchase digital comics Desktop – Medium
Mobile – Medium
Desktop – High
Mobile – Medium
Desktop – High
Mobile – Medium
Desktop – Medium
Mobile – Low
Subscribe to email updates Desktop – Medium
Mobile – Medium
Desktop – Medium
Mobile – Medium
Desktop – Medium
Mobile – Medium
Desktop – Low
Mobile – Low
Subscribe to social channels Desktop – Medium
Mobile – Medium
Desktop – Medium
Mobile – Medium
Desktop – Medium
Mobile – Medium
Desktop – Low
Mobile – Low

 
From this example, we can see that this particular comic book store should alter its design slightly for mobile users, by making phone, directions and new releases a higher priority compared to desktop users.

Technical and Tactical Recommendations to Improve Mobile SEO

Cindy Krum of Mobile Moxie provided some outstanding technical recommendations for those attending the session that were thirsting for some more advanced recommendations. Here are just some of those insights provided to help SEOs and site owners succeed with mobile search engine optimization.

  1. Consolidate DNS Requests to 25 or 30 max – Use W3C mobileOK Checker to few current number of requests. Doing so minimizes the work Googlebot has to do to index your mobile content quickly.
  2. Avoid errors or non-mobile friendly attributes like flash, popups, hover effects, small font sizes, tiny buttons, etc.
  3. Optimize above the fold elements by using inline CSS and JS for any elements that appear above the fold on a mobile browser (FYI, Google crawls your site as an iPhone4).
  4. Avoid side-to-side scrolling if possible as Google views this as a negative signal.
  5. Use the “vary: user-agent” http header for dynamic serving sites – Get more info on this directly from Cindy here, but in non-technical terms, this tag tells Google that the site content will vary depending upon the visitor’s device.
  6. Bi-directional Annotations – Similar to the recommendation above, bi-directional annotations tell Google that there are two separate experiences: one mobile and one desktop. Again, this primarily applies to dynamic servicing sites. This article gives more detail on these annotations with sample code.
  7. Improve Page Speed – Use these page speed tools to diagnose issues related to page speed, and compress images, Java Sript, CSS and HTML

Here is a link to Cindy’s full presentation, which I found very helpful.

Overall, I thought that the SMX West show was very good. Thanks to all the presenters who took the time to share their expertise with attendees like me.

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