Mobile SEO Guidelines and Recommendations

Mobile is becoming more complicated with the increasing popularity of tablets and mobile phones. As such, SEO is getting more complicated (primarily in regards to URLs). Google has tried to simplify this by getting behind responsive design and having one URL and one version of your content, but I have a hard time getting behind this as a widespread solution (more on this below). Though this post contains guidelines for mobile SEO, keep in mind that there are always exceptions to the rule and sites should deviate from best practices.

URL Structure

While Google recommends responsive design for mobile, having the same content and same URL for all users; I recommend having one URL that dynamically serves different content based on whether the user agent is a desktop or mobile device. It may be worth even serving different versions of domain.com to mobile users based on whether they are on a tablet or smart phone.

This is a better solution than responsive design (as a whole solution) as desktop, tablet, and smart phone users can all have very different needs – I think that very few users will make significant and high value purchases on their phone (though they may well do research), but users are very likely to on a desktop and it’s definitely possible on a tablet. I think that this warrants different content and experiences for different types of users. 

I prefer a consistent URL over m.domain.com as having a consistent URL will consolidate all link equity on one URL and maximize your link equity. People are less likely to link to mobile content, so link equity flow from mobile pages to desktop pages is not a concern, but having one URL allows your desktop link equity to flow to your mobile site.

When you use a single URL and dynamically change the content, it is important to use the “Vary HTTP Header”. This signals to Google that the content here changes based on the user agent; as such they will know that the content may be different for mobile and can crawl with their mobile bot as well. Google has provided some documentation on this here (about halfway down the page)

Google has a good overview on implementing user agent detection and redirecting users here.

Advice for Using a Mobile Specific URL

Redirecting Mobile Users

If you end up use a mobile specific URL (m.domain.com), you will need to redirect users based on their user agent. You should do this via a HTTP header status code. Google has said that it does not matter if you use a 301 or 302 redirect for this.

Rel Alternate

You need to make use of the rel=”alternate” tag. On the desktop page, you need to add the rel=”alternate” tag and point to the mobile version of the page. This will help Googlebot to discover the mobile content. This can be done either in the <head> section of the web page or the xml sitemap. You can find more on rel alternate here and here.

Canonical Tag

Again, if you use the mobile specific URL (m.domain.com), you will need to set the canonical tag of the mobile page to the desktop page URL. For example, the canonical tag for m.domain.com/slug would be set to “www.domain.com/slug”.

Onsite Recommendations

Overall, you want to be carrying over the same principles of onsite SEO from your desktop pages to your mobile pages.

Page Titles for Mobile

In most cases, you should be using the same title for mobile and desktop content. The one thing to keep in mind here is that mobile is inherently a smaller screen. Titles will probably show up properly for tablets but most likely not on phones.

For this reason, for smart phones (or mobile if you don’t separate tablets and phones), you should format your titles as follows since you have a recognizable brand:

Brand Name | Page Title/Keyword Phrase

Headline/H1

As with the desktop versions of pages, you should have a large headline on every page that has your primary keyword phrase on it.  This should be an H1 tag (and the only one on the page). I know a lot of people argue that the H1 is no longer a factor, but these arguments are based on correlation studies which say that the H1 is not very strongly correlated with higher rankings, not that it isn’t a factor. I still believe the H1 tag is a ranking factor.

Onpage SEO Copy Guidelines for Mobile

For desktop pages, I recommend about 150 words minimum of onpage copy that is targeted and focused on your primary keyword/category for the page(not all text on the page: does not include reviews, product descriptions, etc). For mobile, we still want to have a good block of text, but we should take into consideration the user’s smaller screen. For this reason, I think 50-75 words is a good starting point for mobile users. If you are going to break out phones and tablets, 50-75 words is good for phones; with tablets, this number can be higher, it would probably be fine to give tablet and desktop users the same content here.

JavaScript

Mobile phones aren’t great at JavaScript so you need to be careful if your site is JavaScript intensive. I’m not a JavaScript expert so I can’t offer a lot of unique insight into what you should do but here are Google’s tips for using JavaScript on mobile sites.

6 Comments

  1. Interesting post. I definitely like the idea of dynamically serving content with the same URL from device to device better than having a mobile version of the site, but it’s good you covered both.

    You mentioned that you think dynamically serving content is a better strategy than responsive web design since mobile users have different end goals than desktop users. But, does the fact that a mobile user only wants to research rather than buy mean that their experience should be completely different? As a user, I would prefer that my experience is fairly similar from screen to screen, I just might choose to use the different screens differently.

    Reply
    • I think they can have a similar experience. I think it really depends on your product, but for most products I don’t think people will buy on their phone so things like calls to action (unless it’s for an email address) will end up being wasted space.

      Reply
  2. Don’t you think, though, that people will start being more willing to buy on their phone if the process is made simpler (and if it’s clearly secure)? For example, syncing shopping carts across platforms and a one-time login which allows 1-click purchasing are a couple things I expect to see more of in the near future…I think Amazon already does this in their app?
    The one downside to that, from a security standpoint, is ‘what if my phone gets stolen’, so I expect this is where companies like Lookout will come in, with their option to wipe a stolen phone etc.
    And I suppose it wouldn’t work as well for sites that only have one-off purchases, but more for the ones that see heavy repeat business.

    Reply
    • I think it really depends on the product. Anything that’s high value, I don’t think that will happen on people’s phone for a while. Same goes for things that are new (to the buyer). If it’s something that the buyer is really familiar with, or has little complexity such as office supplies, sure, I think phone conversions will see pretty significant increases.

      Reply
  3. I agree completely. Mobile users have different needs than desktop users, and the design should reflect that.

    Unless you’re running a simple blog, simply rearranging elements of your desktop site using responsive design isn’t going to cut it. Dynamic serving allows you to create a unique experience that’s tailored for mobile users.

    Also, there is the issue of speed. Mobile devices often have slower Internet connections than desktop users. Having a separate mobile site allows you to optimize for speed.

    Reply
    • That’s a really good point – you can change to mobile experience to be simpler and faster!

      Reply

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