SEO for the mobile web

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November 19, 2012
SEO for the mobile web.

ThumbWith the explosive expansion in the use of tablet computers and smartphones for web searches, why are so many SEO experts unable to look beyond desktop development? Is it because developers do not feel the need to duplicate their efforts, or does the answer lie in the clients' and employers' unwillingness to swallow the extra expense?

If more users are searching for businesses while on the go (e.g. local restaurants, car insurance claims, auto towing services, etc.) through their smartphones, don't we need a recommended practice for attracting them? Actually, there already is one…

How search engines work

For most major search engines (Google, Bing and Yahoo!), the process of cataloging pages for their database consists of three parts:

  • the web crawler, which follows links and sends HTTP queries to millions of sites around the world;
  • the indexer, which stores all of the relevant content in its database;
  • the query processor, which evaluates a user query and compares it to the stored content.

Traditional SEO

The traditional approach to search engine optimization has been to concentrate on keywords, tags and content in order to make a page more relevant to a potential visitor's queries.

In both mobile and desktop search queries, the search engine query function works in a similar manner, so developers and SEO consultants have traditionally concentrated on desktop development.

Mobile specific SEO

Google has already taken steps to consider how to rank pages tailored for smartphones. In December last year, Google announced the launch of Googlebot-Mobile, a crawler that employs a smartphone user agent to complement its previous mobile phone user-agents. The mission of Googlebot-Mobile is “to increase … coverage of smartphone content and to provide a better search experience for smartphone users.”

Google's embrace of smartphone technology also extends to changing its search results to reflect URLs specifically designed for smartphones, which saves the time of a URL redirect from the desktop-specific page its smartphone companion page.

Many developers who create separate content for desktop and mobile sites hold the mobile content either under a different domain (e.g. domain.mobi) or under a subdomain (e.g. m.domain.com). While this solution accommodates users and search engines, it may cause problems for the site itself: the duplicate content between the desktop and mobile sites may draw penalties from search engines for spamming; also, separate domains may split the page's link equity and decrease page rankings in search results.

Responsive design and SEO

The solution is to avoid duplicate content by relying on responsive design techniques to deliver identical content, reformatted as necessary, to all devices. For instance, when a page is rendered on an iPhone, there are a specific set of instructions designed to tailor the page to be displayed most effectively on that device.

The key benefit is the fact that responsive design enables you to deliver the same content at the same URL. This means that search engines focus all their crawling on one 'page' and the subsequent ranking achieved is not diluted by mobile versions. Developers who fall back on mobile specific versions of sites, are likely to find their rankings suffer as a result.

If you are planning a mobile specific version of your site, you must ensure that the content delivered is genuinely different from the desktop site; if it's not, give responsive design another look, your clients will thank you.

Do you build mobile versions of sites, or take the responsive route? Do you think this choice affects your search engine ranking? Let us know in the comments.

Gerald Hanks

Gerald Hanks has been involved in web development applications since 1996. He has designed applications with JavaScript, ASP.NET and PHP, as well as building databases in MS SQL Server and MySQL. He lives in Houston, Texas.

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