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INTERNATIONAL: Google Announces Official Guidelines for Mobile SEO

EDITOR'S NOTE: In our SEO Tutorial, you can find current guidelines for mobile SEO.

by Chee Chun Foo, June 20, 2012

Audience: SEO

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Takeaways:

  • Google recommends responsive web design for mobile.
  • Optimise your mobile site like you would your desktop site.
  • User experience is key, use mobile friendly technologies.

It is an ongoing topic of discussion — how best to optimise mobile sites for SEO.

There have been many views, including having a sub-domain, using a sub-directory or generating your mobile site from the desktop with CSS for example.

This article will be split into two sections. The first section discusses the recent announcements by Google around recommended configurations for mobile sites.

The second section focuses on how to optimise a mobile site, including linking, keywords and structure, once the recommendation configuration has been decided upon.

Google-Supported Mobile Site Configurations

In December 2011, Google announced the introduction of a smartphone user-agent being Googlebot-Mobile. This update was designed to increase the coverage of the smartphone content and improve search experience on mobile.

There have been various posts relating to making websites mobile-friendly, but little concrete guidance on whether a mobile development team should utilise mobile sub-domains, mobile directories, or just “mobilise” a desktop version of a site, each with pros and cons.

On June 6, 2012 Google announced its official guidelines on smartphone optimised sites, outlining the supported mobile configuration and best practices on how to implement the changes.

According to the support page, there are three mobile site configurations supported by Google:

  1. Sites that use responsive Web design, i.e., sites that serve all devices on the same set of URLs, with each URL serving the same HTML to all devices and using just CSS to change how the page is rendered on the device. This is Google's recommended configuration.
  2. Sites that dynamically serve all devices on the same set of URLs, but each URL serves different HTML (and CSS), depending on whether the user-agent is a desktop or a mobile device. .
  3. Sites that have separate mobile and desktop URLs. 
google mobile.JPG

The reasons outlined by Google for favouring responsive Web design over the other two methods are that:

  • It will make sharing content easier, as both the mobile and the desktop sites will be generated from one URL.
  • No redirection is needed from the desktop site to the mobile site, as they are essentially the same.
  • Responsive Web design means Google will only be crawling your pages once, as opposed to multiple times.
  • There is no need to create/rewrite content. This is especially useful if your desktop page is already well optimised for SEO. This will be explained in detail in the second section.

The reasons outlined above seem quite logical given the fact that Google’s goal is to always improve user experience.

Now that Google has revealed its preferences, does this mean that the other two methods are defunct? Definitely not. In many cases, the technical challenges with implementing responsive Web design is a barrier to adoption.

Google has recognised this, and as such, has provided guidelines for alternative solutions to responsive Web design, such as the device-specific HTML (option 2) and having a separate mobile domain (option 3). More details can be found on the support page.

As Google has mentioned, they do support all three methods, so if you have already implemented option 3, where you have created your separate mobile site on a sub-domain (e.g., http://m.examplesite.com), then a revamp into responsive Web design is not necessarily required. However you will be maintaining two websites essentially going forward.

The next section will discuss how to optimise a mobile site once you have chosen your configuration.

How to Optimise for Mobile Traffic

Once your mobile platform has been chosen, optimising a mobile site is important to ensure high visibility when users are searching from mobile devices.

Mobile SEO is similar to standard SEO practices for desktop websites. For example, simple things like making sure that keywords are on the page are important. You can now also pull mobile search volume from the Google Adwords keyword tool.

Here are some things to look out for when optimising for mobile:

Meta tags: Mobile bots and indexes are different from standard web search but HTML elements such as title tags, heading tags and ALT attributes are still just as important.

The Title tag should:

  • Include the targeted keyword at least once.
  • Be unique.
  • Be short and descriptive, up to 66 characters (same as for the desktop pages).

The Description tag must:

  • Include the targeted keyword twice (maximum).
  • Be unique.
  • Be short and descriptive, up to 130 characters.

Note: If the mobile sites uses the Title and Meta description of the desktop site, take into consideration the fact that the Meta description tag will be truncated at its half (130 characters in mobile versus 260 characters in desktops).

  • H1 tags: H1 tags should be unique for each page, and should be short, descriptive, and include the primary keyword.
  • Image tags: Image descriptions and ALT attributes must be available as per the desktop web pages.
  • Links to and from the desktop site: Users should be able to easily navigate between the mobile and desktop website. This is usually achieved using links between mobile and desktop pages. Depending on the site, this may be at a page to page level or to the home page of each respective site. The anchor text should include “mobile site” and “desktop”, “classic”, “original” or similar.
  • Mobile XML Sitemap: Create a mobile XML Sitemap and use it to submit the site to Google Webmaster Tools.

User friendliness: As Google is all about user experience, consider making the mobile page easy to use. Here are some points that will help you to create a user-friendly mobile site:

  • Assign access keys to links in navigational menus and frequently accessed functionalities.
  • Do not cause pop-ups or other windows to appear and do not change the current window without informing the user.
  • Keep user paths simple.
  • Clearly display any target file format unless you know the device supports it. It annoys the user when it cannot open the file after clicking on a link that says “open” or “download file”.
  • Use clear and simple language.
  • Do not use images that cannot be rendered by the device. Avoid large or high resolution images except where critical information would otherwise be lost.
  • Use web technologies that are universally adopted. For example, Apple smart phones do not display Flash, so we recommend using HTML 5.
  • Do not create pages which auto-refresh periodically.

Note that the majority of these recommendations would already be in place if the desktop URL is optimised, and if the responsive Web design method is used. That alone is a major benefit as it reduces development time and you will not need to recreate or manually transfer content to a mobile sub-domain.

Takeaways

To summarise:

  • Responsive Web design is the recommended solution for a mobile site build.
  • If you are halfway through developing a mobile site project, inform your mobile development team about the recent announcements.
  • If you are planning to create a mobile site, then the guidelines stated in this article should be a good starting point for deciding which path you should go down.
  • Building the site is only the first step. Follow best practices on mobile SEO best practices to ensure high visibility of your mobile in the SERPs.

The other important point to consider is your overall mobile strategy.

Some businesses may want to use mobile sites for a particular purpose. Banks, for example, tend to use mobile sites to provide ease of use for checking account balances, paying bills and finding the nearest ATM or branch facility.

In this instance, having a sub-domain may be a more ideal solution and this is why they are the preference for the major banks in Australia.

Consider also the return on investment (ROI) on a mobile site when deciding how best to build it. It is not a sound business decision to spend large amounts of capital if mobile revenue isn’t your forte.

Mobile as a source of traffic is increasingly important in today’s world. Making sure your site is optimised for Google and other search engines will help you increase the visibility of your site amongst million others.


 

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