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Simple Web Design And Discoverability Are Keys To Mobile SEO

Now that the mobile Web is mainstream, everyone is launching mobile Web sites. The problem is no one seems to know how to drive traffic to them. As a result, mobile search engine optimization has emerged as a big topic for everyone from marketers to online editors and publishers. The mobile Web, though, is not as developed as the desktop Web and as a result, optimizing mobile sites for search is far from easy.

Now that the mobile Web is mainstream, everyone is launching mobile Web sites. The problem is no one seems to know how to drive traffic to them. As a result, mobile search engine optimization has emerged as a big topic for everyone from marketers to online editors and publishers. The mobile Web, though, is not as developed as the desktop Web and as a result, optimizing mobile sites for search is far from easy.On Monday I attended the monthly gathering of the New York City chapter of Mobile Monday. The topic was, you guessed it, mobile SEO. Panelists included moderator Michael Sharon, Socialight; Sean Owen, Google; Rachel Pasqua, iCrossing; and David Harper, Winksite.

State Of The Mobile Web

A number of themes emerged during the discussion. The first is that the mobile Web simply is not well linked. Unlike the desktop Web, most mobile sites still don't link out to other mobile or desktop Web sites. As a result, it's very difficult for search engines to find many mobile sites, much less index them. It's also very hard for users to find other mobile sites, either through search or from the mobile sites they're exploring.

The next theme was discoverability. Without comprehensive mobile search, it's really hard for users to find new mobile sites. Simply put, if no one can find your mobile Web site, no one will go there.

How To Optimize Your Site For Mobile Search

As for SEO proper, panelist David Harper summed it up best, "Mobile optimization and user experience are the same."

The panelists all agreed on a set of common practices everyone should use with their mobile Web sites:

1. Your site must link out 2. Use 100% valid XHTML code 3. Adhere to mobile Web best practices (Panelists recommended practices from both the WC3 and dotMobi) 4. Design a simple site structure with clear labels 5. Keep the content clean, short and easy to read on a cell phone 6. Don't build the mobile site past two or three layers 7. Use redirects for mobile users -- Try to have one URL for all online properties but when a mobile user comes to your site, try to redirect them to the mobile-centric site with a redirect 8. Submit your mobile site map to Google

Harper also added a few other items that developers should look at when optimizing mobile sites:

1. Optimize for keywords and short phrases 2. Make sure there are keywords in title tag, H1 tags, H2's, and the content itself 3. Think bookmarks 4. Use keyword rich anchor text for internal links

Sean Owen, who works on Google's mobile search site, stressed that site developers need to look at two things in their mobile sites: 1. Discoverability and 2. Interoperability.

"Make sure your site can be discovered and make sure other mobile Web pages link to your site."

Owen recommended best practices from the W3C and dotMobi. Owen denied that developers need to use dotMobi domains, though. "No, you don't have to have a dotMobi site, but if you follow their requirements, you're probably ahead of the curve."

Where Is Mobile SEO Today?

The general consensus from all the panelists was that people are currently too focused on asking questions about mobile SEO and not focused enough on building good mobile Web sites.

"Our number one recommendation is to create mobile friendly content," said Rachel Pasqua. "Do that first and then focus on the other issues."

What about mobile analytics? Frankly, there are few benchmarks or even tools out there designed to handle this.

"There is a real lack of analytics, as far traffic or benchmarks," said Harper. "Many analytics tools don't understand mobile traffic."

There are several culprits here, but the biggest is the way U.S. carriers direct mobile browsers. In the U.S. at least, carriers occupy large swaths of IP addresses, keeping them open for days at a time, but switching in different users to each address. Since the mobile Web doesn't have true dynamic IPs, it's hard to perform analytic tasks like geotargeting. This can also make it hard for analytics tools to determine unique visitors and other types of queries.

Is Google's New Search Bad For The Mobile Web?

Another hot topic was Google's new universal search initiative. Many in the audience felt that Google's new search was bad for the mobile Web. Instead of directing people to mobile-centric sites, universal search now sends users to desktop sites.

The problem here is that most desktop sites don't render well on mobile browsers, so search engines like Google and Yahoo deliver transcoded versions of these sites. Transcoded sites are usually a less than optimal experience on a mobile phone.

"The heart of transcoding is in the right place, but the problem is that there are no clear ways to opt out of transcoding," Harper said. "I think everyone needs to be more aware of this and hopefully posting more ways to opt out of transcoding."

Pasqua, however, defended Google's new search initiative, "We saw Google's move as a positive step, taking the onus off the end-user to choose the correct results." In short, Google's new mobile search presents one Web, not a balkanized Web.

How Do People Search On Mobile Phones?

The panelists all seemed to agree that users have much less patience when it comes to mobile search. "Almost no one is willing to go beyond two pages of results on a mobile search," said Pasqua, referencing her company's recent study of how users search on the mobile Web. "People with QWERTY keyboards, however, are exponentially more likely to use mobile search."

Owen added to her comments, pointing out, "Google only renders five results per mobile page, so 2 pages deep is only 10 results."

Just for reference, the first page of a Google desktop search renders 10 results, so a mobile Google search is already half the size. Take that one step further. That means the pressure to get a keyword on the first page of a mobile page search is that much more intense than on the desktop. What does this mean? That mobile SEO will be an even bigger bloodbath of a fight than desktop SEO. And if you consider the probability that the future of the Web is mobile for most of the world you can see why so many people are interested in this topic. In short, mobile SEO is likely to be the primary form of SEO many global companies focus on in the future.

I want to thank the panelists and organizers of Mobile Monday for a great event. I have a feeling I'll be blogging more about mobile SEO in the days to come.

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