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Mobile search ranking factors

Mobile search ranking factors



Presentation I gave in Seattle at SMX Advanced Local University Advanced workshop on 6/7/2012 on mobile search ranking factors.

Presentation I gave in Seattle at SMX Advanced Local University Advanced workshop on 6/7/2012 on mobile search ranking factors.



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  • Thank you, David. And thanks to everyone here for coming. How many of you saw my presentation yesterday on mobile SEO? Today I’m going to go into detail on the second study I mentioned yesterday to help you get a better sense of what characteristics of sites Google seems to reward in mobile search.
  • My assumption is that all of you understand the opportunity, but since some of you may be here for the local aspect and don’t quite get why mobile should also be a priority, know that there are many good reasons to pay attention to mobile search. This is a Mary Meeker slide from AllThingsD that shows mobile internet vs desktop internet in India today, and given the growth of the space, it’s likely that this phenomenon will occur in the United States in a few short years. There are also differences with ranking and engagement in mobile search that SEOs need to be aware of, because just paying attention to core search is not enough. Hopefully this local audience understands that better than most, so I’ll move on.
  • If you’ve done any reading about mobile search, you know the issues that arise and how difficult it is to get a consensus, even among experts in the space. Some of the issues you see: one URL or mobile URLs for your mobile site? Do you need a mobile site at all, or one that just works well on multiple devices? If a mobile site, should you have three mobile sites optimized for all types of devices? Or more? And is it enough to just reformat your desktop site with the same content, or is it better to use mobile keywords and concepts on your mobile site? Is there really any difference between the two?
  • And unfortunately Google hasn’t been all that helpful, as they’ve taken different positions at different times and muddied the waters. For example, Matt Cutts said in February 2011 that mobile URLs are better, and the Google Mobile Playbook from May 2012 says “Your #1 priority is to build a mobile web site”. But just last month the Google Webmaster Team wrote about how they prefer responsive design (one URL) for maintanability purposes. So is it better to use one or the other? Honestly sometimes it depends on who you ask.
  • Yesterday Google gave us their official recommendation for mobile SEO, which is use responsive web design if it is the best option to serve your users. If not, they support other configurations. This is good general advice but if, like me, you’re concerned with details, it leaves a lot of open questions.
  • In order to get a more accurate picture of what’s helpful for mobile SEO today, we looked examined three separate data sources. First we looked at mobile search queries and compared them with desktop search queries to see if mobile search behavior is in fact different from desktop search behavior, and how. Then we looked at characteristices of the smartphone search results to gauge which ranking factors were most important, and that’s the study I’ll be looking at most today. Finally we crawled the top 100 SEMRush sites as smartphone Googlebot to see what the leaders are up to when it comes to mobile SEO. What we found is much different generally than what you may have read.
  • For example, the #4 result in Google currently for [mobile SEO] doesn’t say much, but lists validation and code type as important for mobile SEO. However, only one of the sites in our sample was valid code, and it was actually HTML4, not XHTML 1.0. When we looked at the most common code types in Google smartphone search, we found that they closely resemble code types across the web in general.
  • The number one result for [mobile seo] says that you need to give a mobile searcher an elegant user experience, or else you won’t get traffic from mobile search. Similarly, Larry Page said page speed and context are especially important for mobile search. It would seem, then, that mobile usability is critical when doing mobile SEO.However, the fact of the matter is that by mobile usability standards, Google smartphone results are basically unusable. 65% of our sample failed the W3C’s mobile OK test, which includes page speed, and 78% of the listings failed the dotMobi Ready.mobi mobile usability test. It may help in general to have an elegant user experience for mobile searchers, but Google isn’t there yet according to our sample.
  • In the past it’s been mentioned on SEOMoz that links aren’t a ranking factor for mobile search. That may have been the case then, but based on our sample, it’s not the case now. All listings had some links pointing to them, and most of them had more than 100 links and linking root domains. If you want to compete in mobile search today, you have to think about link equity to your mobile and your desktop site.
  • This one has been out there since 2005 when dotMobi introduced their mobile top level domains. If you’re still on the fence about whether you should use a mobile domain or a subdomain option, there’s really no SEO reason to use dotMobi over any other domain or subdomain combination. DotMobi claims that their domain helps with indexing, but our sample showed that no dotMobis were ranking for our sample of competitive terms, and when we looked at indexing a year ago, m.*.com had 11.5 million pages indexed to dotMobi’s 226k, making the zone files indexing explanation pretty weak.
  • Finally, this is something that you might not have heard, as there are plenty of people in our industry who believe that having a mobile web site is a waste of time and resources. Ryan Jones wrote in SearchEngineJournal.com that the best mobile SEO strategy is not to have a mobile SEO strategy. Our sample showed, however, that the number of sites that offered mobile content was much higher at 64% than Google’s largest advertiser sample at 29%. However, some sites are still missing out, as 65% of the sample did not redirect or reformat for mobile users, even though 65% of the sample had mobile content.
  • Diving in deep to other mobile search ranking factors, we examined 30 different ranking factors and based on our data categorized them according to importance. It’s important to note that mobile search ranking factors are usually additive, and that core search ranking still applies to mobile search ranking in Google. The ranking factors that I’m going to talk about today are part of the puzzle that is specific to mobile search, but traditional SEO best practices often apply as well.
  • Starting with high priority items, one of the things that we found from looking at smartphone search queries is that mobile searchers often put different keywords and concepts in Google than desktop searchers. If a webmaster doesn’t have content that matches the query, the site won’t rank for those terms. For example, 97% of searches for [bars] comes from mobile devices, but if you operate a bar and you don’t have a web site with content that’s accessible and relevant to mobile searchers, or a Google+ Local listing, you won’t rank for that term.
  • 2 other very important ranking factors are the proximity of business location to searcher device location, and presence of a Google+ listing. If you’re only optimizing your web site for mobile search, and you’re not in the first three listings, you won’t appear on the first page for Google mobile search for many queries, including Restaurants as shown here. Google has said that local listings are shown more often for mobile search results, and if you’re not optimizing your local presence you have less of a chance of appearing for mobile searches.
  • Redirecting or reformatting is important for mobile search ranking, as it can either rank your mobile site instead of your desktop site in Google smartphone search or could put you in Google’s feature phone index. When we crawled the top 100 sites with the most organic traffic from Google, we found that 83% of them either redirected or reformatted content when smartphone Googlebot came to visit.
  • One negative factor that I’ve seen many SEOs and even search engines recommend is blocking your mobile site with robots.txt so as to properly distribute link equity to the desktop site. This is a bad idea for many reasons, but mostly because if someone is looking for your mobile site and they put in navigational queries like “home depot mobile site”, your mobile site that is blocked by robots.txt will not show up. Not sure why search engines would recommend a tactic that makes for a poor user experience in search, but webmasters should aim for better search quality if they don’t want to frustrate their users who search for them on mobile devices.
  • There’s some debate in the industry about whether having a mobile site is necessary. What we found is that even though 29% of Google’s top advertisers had a mobile site in 2011, 83% of our sample of sites that get the most traffic from Google offer mobile content of some kind. This is in addition to the fact that, as mentioned previously, 64% of our sample sites offered mobile content.
  • Thanks. I hope this was interesting and educational. If you have any questions, you can contact me here, and I look forward to more discussion at the end of the presentations. Thanks!

Mobile search ranking factors Mobile search ranking factors Presentation Transcript