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March 14, 2011

Why Mobile SEO Is Mobile-Friendly

(Read in entirety at Search Engine Land. Published 20110)

In this column, I want to address the subject initiated last week, titled “Why Mobile-Friendly is Not Mobile SEO,” in response to Google’s recent change in its position towards mobile content. I agree with the interpretation: You’re not going to drift into #1 in mobile search by settling for “mobile friendly.” But I think we need to expand the definition of what “mobile-friendly” means.

I agree 100% with the premise – “mobile-friendly” and “mobile seo” are distinct activities, outcomes, and objectives. Launching a “mobile-friendly” site does not ensure that it is “mobile search optimized.” It should. The strongest mobile sites feature both as requirements from the start – most do not.

The main reasons I see, are complexity and money:

  1. Mobile search is just one of many smartphone channels that brands are realizing a need to optimize for. Not to mention mobile-social, mobile-apps, mobile-instore, and mobile-offline channels (each of which also feature variations of “earned” and “paid” media-types to optimize). It’s quickly evolving into a really complicated matrix to navigate (see my illustration).
  2. Despite its growth, mobile search query volume has appeared too small to warrant significant investment (by comparison to desktop search volume). That will change with Google’s mobile keyword tool.
  3. In search of positive ROI, brands target the low hanging fruit (like home-page brand traffic), with mobile content optimized for that segment first.

This is where I think marketers get the scope of optimization wrong. Mobile search is such a dominant mobile use case, it can act as a high-margin supercharger to maximize the number of users satisfied by the mobile content, in the least amount of time. It’s a tactic to accelerate ROI on the “mobile-friendly” investment.

By coupling them together (instead of treating them as separate), your mobile site can more quickly reach escape velocity, attract further investment, and minimize execution risks. In a sense, you’re optimizing the optimization process. Whether we call that “mobile friendly” or “mobile optimization” –  it’s something bigger than just mobile SEO, but it includes mobile SEO.

Mobile Sites Are Cruising Along

I’ve provided illustrations of this in the past. But let’s consider a current example using a popular brand that just launched a new mobile site as an example: Carnival Cruise Lines.

In February, Carnival launched an upgraded, cutting-edge mobile site (m.carnival.com). As with many brands, the mobile-friendly site is “good enough” for a certain segment of consumers (brand traffic).

For example, the pages are right-sized for smartphones; typing requirements are minimized through pre-selected cruise time slots; step-by-step visual instructions make it easy to buy from the device, just to name a few.

(Note each of these features are mobile-specific, and more than mere CSS stylistic changes.) Compared to Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, and other cruise lines, I’d argue Carnival is unquestionably ahead of the mobile competition.

But Carnival does not really optimize for the mobile search channel (or social, for that matter).

For the sake of brevity, let me recap some of the primary issues that impact their search performance (the full mobile site analysis including social and app issues, is available at my blog). Typical issues apply:

  • Page weight, speed, and latency – in this case 10x worse than best practice (increasing bounce rates and raising PPC cost);
  • XHTML validation failures (recommended for inclusion in Google);
  • Lack of meta tags (lowering mobile search click-through)
  • “Untitled” title tags (need I say more?)
  • Internal search engine returns desktop links, not mobile site links. When clicked, they lead you back to the mobile home page.
  • Lack of intelligent redirect to appropriate mobile landing pages (technical issue I covered in a recent article). For example, the desktop page for “Caribbean Cruise” ranks #2 organically. Clicking this link lands you at the home page, not the mobile equivalent Carribbean Cruise landing page you’re looking for (increasing bounce rates).

Carnival Cruise Lines Mobile Search Results

I may be just one impatient, picky, mobile Carnival customer who uses search, social, apps and the rest. But I’m not alone. Google reports over 280,000 monthly global smartphone queries across 100 location-specific cruise phrases (like “Bahama Cruise,” “Mexico Cruise,” etc.). In sum, the demand across these markets outweighs Carnival’s mobile brand query volume (see XLS or PDF breakdown).

I did not examine where they rank in mobile SERPs. But considering Carnival already has a competitive mobile advantage to bring to these markets, I would imagine with a bit more indepth research even a conservative click-through, conversion, and average order value model would justify the marginal cost of mobile search optimization against marginal revenue.

(To be fair to Carnival, Google’s keyword tool may not have been available when the mobile site requirements were established. And searchers do at least get directed the mobile home page in most cases. Still…)

The lesson? Had they optimized the new mobile site not just for brand traffic, but for search as well, they could have maximized the ROI achieved on their “mobile friendly” content. To me, this is how you master the internal resource (and budget) allocation process required to keep you on the leading mobile edge.

Can you still optimize for search as an incremental next step?  Sure. But if SEO was not a requirement from the jump, that milestone will at minimum be delayed, incurring missed opportunity cost, and at worst introduce elements of execution risk. Do you know whether the underlying technology is capable of flexing in that direction? What’s the level of difficulty to continually improve?

As for Google’s change in position, I would just add that this emerging complexity I think demands a somewhat contradictory position. Unlike desktop, mobile internet is in its infancy. Some of the taboos and stigmas (like cloaking) developed for the desktop world may be permissible or even good practices in the mobile matrix. We’ll see.

Algorithmically, I think it’s in their strategic interest right now to impose fewer restrictions to let this mobile internet develop in a natural, self-organized way. Thus, the original point: Don’t mistake Google’s relaxed position as strategic advice to settle for “mobile friendly” (or as a license to spam). But be creative and expand your definition of what it means to be “mobile-friendly” to your users – brand users and mobile searchers.

It’s the optimal approach.

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