There have been a number of misconceptions and half-truths circulating about mobile optimization, mostly as extremist responses to major announcements by tech companies like Google, and a panic that’s set in thanks to the rising trends of mobile use in most demographic segments. Fortunately, once you understand it, mobile optimization is relatively simple, and your site might already be in the clear. Still, there’s an ongoing component to mobile optimization—striving for a perfection that can never be reached—so there’s always more to learn about the process.
Here’s the simplest definition of mobile optimization you’re liable to find on the Internet: mobile optimization is changing your site to be as usable and convenient as possible for users on mobile devices. Ten years ago, mobile devices didn’t exist (or at least, weren’t popular), so most sites were designed specifically for desktop screens. Mobile screens, like those on smartphones, offer a handful of unique elements that desktop-designed sites can’t address:
Mobile optimization strives to fix all these problems.
You may be asking yourself what the benefits of mobile optimization are. After all, a good chunk of your user base is still accessing your site through desktop devices, and even those who aren’t can get most of the same experiences even on the un-optimized version of your site, right?
Consider these benefits of mobile optimization before neglecting the strategy altogether:
(Image Source: Google)
Let’s take a look at the factors shaping mobile user experiences, and how they relate to mobile optimization overall.
We’re in the middle of an era that revolves around mobile experiences, and it’s not going away anytime soon.
It was May of 2015 when Google announced that mobile searches had overtaken desktop searches for the first time ever. Now, we’re on an ever-accelerating upward trajectory, with mobile use still growing and desktop use starting to look more and more obsolete.
Why the steep growth? Mobile Internet access used to be nothing more than a novelty, to be used in rare circumstances by a fraction of the population. Coverage was limited, speeds were egregiously slow, devices were clumsy, and smartphones were only in the hands of the super tech-savvy. But slowly, tech giants have favored mobile use with innovative features like better touchscreens, voice-activated search, faster Internet, and better geographic positioning. Collectively, these improvements have led more users to rely on mobile devices, which in turn has prompted more tech companies to invest in mobile technology. It’s a self-perpetuating and exponential cycle with no end in sight.
Google is one of these forerunners of mobile technology, and they’re one of the biggest influencers of this steep rising trend in mobile use. The company unveiled its Voice Search product back in 2002, and local search started developing even before that, but they’ve been two major areas of development in the past decade. Voice search has become more intuitive, local search has been integrated with mobile, and most importantly, Google started giving ranking advantages to sites that ranked well on mobile devices. For a while, this was somewhat informal and unspoken, but back in April of last year, it took a massive leap forward.
Announcing the update nearly two months in advance, Google proactively warned webmasters that on April 21, it would be launching a massive update to reward sites that had been properly optimized for mobile and penalize those that had not. This was a rare move for the company, as most of its search algorithm updates came as undocumented, unannounced surprises that the rest of us optimizers had to scramble to try and crack. Now, Google heads were telling us exactly what to expect—more or less.
The search community went on a rampage, donning the coming update as “mobilegeddon,” and using it as an opportunity to wrangle up business from webmasters who hadn’t yet updated their sites for mobile devices, or how exactly to go about it. Some insisted that this reaction was overblown, and to a degree it was, but the impact of “mobilegeddon” was still significant.
It’s not impossible for non-mobile-friendly sites to rank today, and desktop searches weren’t hit as hard as mobile searches, but it’s still a significant difference to note. Without a mobile-friendly site, your SEO potential is seriously compromised—and that update is here to stay.
When Google released the so-called “Mobilegeddon” update, it penalized any site that didn’t appear properly on mobile devices. Though the update was made out to be more significant than it actually was, millions of business owners breathed a sigh of relief when they realized their sites weren’t hit.
But unfortunately, that sigh of relief has led to a degree of complacency. Because they survived the Mobilegeddon update, they believe their site to offer a great mobile user experience. However, this is a product of a misconception: that being “mobile friendly” in Google’s eyes means you’ve essentially won the battle for mobile supremacy. Unfortunately, this correlation doesn’t exist.
People feared Mobilegeddon as some massive, unpredictable, and subjective algorithm with the potential to crush their sites. But Google was open and honest about its intentions and its standards since it announced the update nearly two months before its rollout.
There are only a handful of standards that Google holds for mobile sites:
And if you’re ever in doubt, Google offers a convenient testing tool you can use to determine whether any page on your site is or isn’t mobile friendly.
All this seems relatively simple and straightforward, but it isn’t all that matters to give your users a great user experience.
Mobile Internet speeds are generally slower than connected ones, and users are as impatient as ever. If your site takes more than a few seconds to load for a mobile device, a user is far more likely to bounce and never come back. It’s possible to have an aggravating site loading speed but still pass Google’s mobile-friendly test, so if you want to offer the best possible mobile experience, you need to reduce those loading times by optimizing your site and eliminating unnecessary material.
“Aesthetic appeal” is a subjective feature, but it’s also an important one. Good design features of a desktop site don’t always apply to a mobile site. For example, mobile devices tend to sport a “stacked” vertical look far better than a desktop site. Responsive sites add convenience for developers, but can also result in awkward-looking pages on a mobile display. Your main navigation can also appear strange if not designed and implemented properly. There are very few objectively “right” or “wrong” ways to design your site, so put it to the test with user experience trials to see what people actually think.
Removing all the images and videos on your site is not the best solution to reducing site loading times. People still love seeing visual content, and it’s going to help take your site to the next level. Being judicious about the format and placement of these pieces of content is vital to ensuring the best possible experience.
Mobile users should have the “full” experience that your desktop users have. For example, if your desktop site has an e-commerce platform and a checkout process, your mobile users should be able to access it. Adding those extra functions can be tricky if you’re hosting separate versions of your site, but it’s necessary if you want to create a seamless experience.
Making your site mobile friendly will stop you from getting penalized or ranked harshly in Google’s search, but as I’ve demonstrated, that isn’t enough to stay competitive in the mobile arena. But is optimizing your mobile user experience going to help your rankings or is it all about making your visitors happy?
The short answer is, improving the user experience can increase your ranks peripherally. You’ll have lower bounce rates, people will recognize your brand more, they’ll want to link to you more, and you’ll see a host of other benefits, all of which can incidentally increase your rank. As far as we know, there are no direct “bonus points” you can win from Google by having a “mobile friendlier” site as opposed to an average “mobile friendly” one.
That being said, your users are why you exist. Making them happy should always be your primary objective. Forget for a moment that mobile usability is a ranking factor in Google at all—if you could make your users happier by making a simple tweak to your site, wouldn’t you still?
It’s in your best interest to offer your mobile users the best possible experience you can. As new technologies like the Apple Watch and Google Glass start to herald an era of wearable technology, an adaptive mobile experience will become even more important. Figure out what your users need to be happy, and do your best to give it to them.
Mobile SEO has been in the spotlight for a few years now, as mobile traffic has risen dramatically to overtake desktop traffic in total volume. Google has added fuel to the fire by making mobile SEO an absolute must, launching its “Mobilegeddon” update earlier this year to penalize any webmasters who haven’t taken the time to optimize for mobile. Shortly after, Google’s John Mueller released a statement that to rank successfully in Google, a desktop site isn’t really necessary as long as you have a good mobile site—so what’s the deal? Are mobile and desktop SEO really that different, and if so, do you need both to succeed in SEO?
Why is there a “mobile” and “desktop” SEO in the first place? Why isn’t there just standard “SEO?”
In SEO, the terms “mobile” and “desktop” can actually apply in two different contexts. The one that people usually consider is a traditional desktop site versus a traditional mobile site—meaning that “desktop” and “mobile” refer to two kinds of sites, one of which is intended to function on desktop machines, and one of which is intended for mobile devices. This gets complicated because when these terms started appearing, most mobile sites were separately hosted versions of desktop sites (or else were found on subdomains via redirects). Now that responsive sites, which function seamlessly on both desktop and mobile devices, have emerged this terminology gets fuzzy; a responsive site is typically considered a mobile site, merely because it performs well on mobile.
In this context, “mobile” is important because it refers to a site’s ability to be easily loaded and viewed on a mobile device. “Mobile-optimized” and “mobile compatible” are often used here as well. Because desktop sites were the norm for so long, it is assumed that all new sites are automatically “optimized for desktop,” and because mobile devices are smaller and more finicky than desktop devices, even new “mobile sites” (responsive or otherwise) don’t bear much risk of sporting a desktop loading error.
The second context for “mobile” and “desktop” is more specific to SEO itself—Google actually produces separate results based on whether a user is performing a search on desktop or a mobile device. A few years ago, this meant your mobile searches were far more likely to fetch results that were mobile-friendly, and you might see different layouts for your destination SERP. Today, thanks to Mobilegeddon and gradual aesthetic tweaks from Google, mobile and desktop results are pretty similar. Being optimized for mobile can actually help your rank even in desktop sites.
With that explanation out of the way, we can start digging into what could qualify as mobile SEO versus “desktop SEO.”
When it comes to general best practices for SEO, mobile and desktop SEO are practically identical. Your rankings in both types of SERPs depend on your domain authority, onsite content, availability and functionality for mobile sites, security, site speed, inbound links, social integration and shares, and an appropriate technical structure. With these in place, along with an ongoing content and audience development strategy, ranking in mobile and desktop results should be more or less the same.
As I mentioned above, the term “mobile SEO” only came about because desktop sites were so dominant, and because mobile sites used to be hosted or developed separately. Now that responsive sites have offered an all-in-one solution, there’s no reason why a modern webmaster would be concerned with separating the terms. All sites should be accessible on both types of devices no matter what kind of SEO strategy you want to follow. In this context, there isn’t a major differentiator between “desktop” and “mobile” SEO—even if desktop rankings are all you’re after, you still need a mobile-optimized site.
Mobile and desktop SERPs are different, with different layouts and ranking structures, but they’re gradually growing to become more similar. Take, for instance, the new local 3-pack on desktop results, which emulates the traditionally mobile local 3-pack. Results are also becoming more similar as the months go on, reducing the need to differentiate the terms.
Despite all the similarities and shared space that desktop and mobile SEO offer, there are still some mobile-specific optimization strategies that only help your mobile visibility:
Even so, adopting these strategies won’t offer any miraculous turning points to your strategy by themselves. They’re only effective if you already have a responsive, functional responsive website (which works for both desktop and mobile optimization), and you’re adhering to all other SEO best practices across the board.
Roughly ¾ of mobile searches will result in conversion or other actions
Google and the respected Nielsen group recently released findings on a massive mobile search study: If someone is searching for your service or product, he or she is most likely to purchase, call, visit your store, etc., within ONE HOUR.
About 17% of mobile searches ended in the user visiting the store or making a purchase. Also, 25% of users visited the store’s site to get more info. Take a look at these actions, according to study:
Pretty amazing, right? But guess what? If they search for what you have to offer and visit you, let’s just hope they land on a mobile-friendly version of your site, or they’re probably just going to click out of there and go to a competitor’s site that IS mobile-friendly.
I know it’s like beating you over the head with this, but again: You have to have a good, clear, mobile-friendly site that gives people what they were looking for.
Most small businesses, even if they have a mobile-friendly site and obviously understand how important it is, don’t think developing an app would be profitable. Maybe that’s the case. Maybe not.
In most cases, there are plenty of ways your own app could be profitable. We aren’t talking the next Angry Birds game that will cost thousands to develop and become a top-selling commercial app. We’re just talking about simple but useful apps that your customers would find helpful.Let’s look at a couple of examples
If you own a restaurant
Seating: You could develop an app that lets customers instantly check waiting times in real time.
Carry-out orders: You probably have some regular customers who visit often and have their favorites. You know, those people that you simply ask “The usual?” when you take their order. Develop an app that saves their info and makes it a snap for them to put in their order on the go.
If you run an auto repair shop
Maintenance: Develop an app that will alert customers and give them reminders about maintenance that should be done.
“What’s That?”: You could design an app that has hints, tips, and answers to some of the most common questions you’ve heard over the years. A rattle here, a grinding there … help your customers narrow down the possibilities and get a free quote.
If you run a hair salon
Open seats: Let customers use your app to see which time slots are available for particular services, and which hairdressers are available.
Deadtime specials: Develop an app that covers those periods when no one is walking through the door and the reservation sheet is looking bare. Your app could send out an alert to customers that tells them they can get a 15% discount until 3PM (or something like that).
Now sure, these aren’t likely to be million-dollar apps. But they nurture your relationship with customers and help drive business by making things easier for them. Don’t you think that’s worth a little investment?
As the number of people accessing the Internet from mobile devices continues to increase, finding an alternative to Flash animation and video is essential for every website administrator. Mobile devices such as iPhones, iPads and Android phones don’t support the Flash video framework, so Google ranks mobile sites with heavy Flash content lower than sites using Flash alternatives, such as HTML5 and its graphical Canvas library. Web programmers have long used Flash for online games and video players, but with HTML5 gaining momentum, Flash development is most likely on its way out.
It makes sense for Google to penalize mobile websites for relying heavily on Flash content since very few devices can access this content. Not only do the iPhone and iPad lack Flash support, but most Android devices are incompatible with Flash, and Windows mobile devices natively support HTML5 as part of the Windows Metro interface. Google is simply making a rational decision to rank mobile Flash websites lower than HTML5 sites. While it can be a major undertaking to rebuild an entire mobile website using HTML5, the benefits of doing so speak for themselves. After all, most users won’t be able to access a mobile flash site unless they navigate there from a desktop or laptop computer, which hardly anyone ever does.
When you switch to HTML5 from Flash, you provide a wide range of benefits to users visiting your site from mobile devices. Your site will be natively supported by the core libraries of most mobile devices running all the modern operating systems, including Ubuntu, Firefox, iOS, Android and Windows. Flash only provides a graphical library for streaming content, displaying advertisements, drawing vector graphics, hosting online games and building rich Internet applications. Adobe has been moving away from developing Flash for several years, and in 2011, they stopped supporting Flash updates for mobile devices. In their place, Adobe began developing HTML5 libraries for mobile websites and devices because this format is what most users demanded.
Since mobile devices have interruptions in network connectivity, Flash tends to provide a disjointed user experience due to dropped connections and video buffering. HTML5 solves this problem by implementing the Offline Web Storage API, which caches content on a user’s device so that a mobile site can continue to provide content when a connection is dropped. Google is acting in its own self-interest by filtering out Flash-based mobile sites because they will either crash the user’s mobile browser or simply fail to load at all. If Google ranks these sites equally with HTML5 sites, their ad revenue will drop as users enter mobile domains directly into browser address bars or find a search alternative.
While support is still in the early stages, well-known Flash-based sites such as YouTube and Vimeo are gradually adopting HTML5 video streaming as an alternative to the now-outdated Flash framework. It doesn’t really make sense to embed Flash video on a mobile Web page anyway since device screens are too small to navigate such a page. Mobile sites ordinarily play video in full screen mode in a separate window, and mobile sites with video content can use alternative programming libraries to embed video. As for graphics, games, advertisements, animations and page transitions, HTML5 more than makes up for its rudimentary support for streaming video. With CSS3, Web administrators can make use of some of the newest technology on the Internet, in terms of smooth, seamless mobile Web animations and graphics.
It’s hard to answer this question without speculating on Google’s motivation for ranking Flash sites lower than HTML5 sites. Google and Adobe have cooperated on their respective roles in developing the Internet as we know it today. Of course, Google is not only interested in providing the best search results, but they want their Android customers to have the best mobile Web experience possible as well. When it comes to search results, however, they have to take into consideration the millions of iPhones and iPads searching for mobile websites on Google.com. Add to that number the portion of mobile devices comprised of Windows users, and Google’s behavior is not hard to understand.
Windows phones use Bing as their default search engine, and users must manually choose Google from the browser settings to perform a Google search. Apple, of course, has no search engine competing with Google and Bing, but Apple Maps has made much progress since its notorious debut in which it impressed users with its shocking mistakes and lack of functionality. Neither of these services use Flash to provide graphics, and mobile users frequently rely on Google Maps, and to a lesser extent, Apple Maps. Flash-based mobile sites that try to deliver such Google services will have a hard time reaching their target audiences unless it’s through a search engine other than Google.
Switching from Flash to the Google-friendly HTML5 is simply a matter of porting your website’s code to the new framework. The task can be quite time-consuming and challenging, but both languages are fairly simple for programmers to implement. The good news is that converting a Flash site to HTML5 gives website administrators a great opportunity to fine-tune their websites for their mobile audiences. Programming libraries such as the GeoLocation API and Offline Web Storage can turn a buggy, disjointed mobile website into a slick, modern user experience. Probably the most important improvement will be the local caching feature built into HTML5.
Not only will your website benefit from a higher Google page ranking, but your site visitors will use the site more often, stay on it longer and enjoy it more because it will provide a far smoother user experience. If your site provides location-based services, HTML5 natively supports the GeoLocation library, which can make suggestions and recommendations based on your visitor’s location.
Google is only going to continue punishing mobile websites for using Flash, and website owners are only hurting themselves by holding onto a framework that is becoming obsolete. Only a small number of mobile users with devices built between 2009 and 2011 can access mobile Flash content, and in a few years, no one will be able to play Flash games, view Flash graphics or stream Flash video on their phones and tablets.
First, I want to take mild issue with the term “mobile SEO.” It implies that traditional SEO is “desktop SEO,” and that “mobile SEO” is a wholly separate entity. There are definitely some differences between them, but there are a greater number of similarities. Basic SEO best practices like proper coding, sitemapping, meta text writing, content optimizing, ongoing content, and several dozen other “basic” ranking factors I won’t take the time to list are relevant to both desktop and mobile SEO. There’s only a handful of differentiating strategies, which mostly revolve around offering seamless mobile functionality for your site, that distinguish the two (and these factors affect both desktop and mobile ranks!)
There’s a persistent idea that mobile search and search results are totally different from desktop counterparts. First, people like to claim that mobile queries are shorter, or that they’re more conversational due to voice-based search. Even a few years ago, this wasn’t the case. Now that voice-based search and apps have advanced further for both desktop and mobile devices, user queries have certainly changed—but they aren’t very different between devices. Similarly, mobile and desktop results have different layouts—but as evidenced by Google’s recent switch to a local 3-pack ranking system for local results, these are getting closer and closer together in form and function.
The separation of “desktop” and “mobile” SEO is probably to blame for this myth. For a time, mobile-specific URLs were one of the best and most efficient ways to set up a mobile site. Mobile sites were comparatively rarely accessed, and mobile URLs were an easy way to make sure your site was properly formatted for mobile. Today, responsive design is a much more popular means of optimizing for mobile, thanks to its easy implementation and flexible parameters.
Responsive design is fantastic, easy, and effective to make a site mobile-compliant for practically any device—that being said, it isn’t necessary. You can still have a mobile-specific URL or subdomain and suffer no ranking penalty. As long as your mobile users don’t notice the difference, Google won’t either. Personally, I recommend a responsive design for any modern site since it’s the easiest to manage and least time-consuming when it comes to testing, but the choice is yours.
Even before it announced its landmark Mobilegeddon update, Google was more than willing to help webmasters get their sites ready and functional for mobile devices. It has, and still does offer a mobile compliance test to let you know exactly how your site stacks up for mobile devices—even letting you know if there are specific pages of your site that aren’t functional. The problem is, this is a pass/fail test that only covers the basics—if you pass, that’s a good start, but it doesn’t guarantee that your site is user friendly or that it will rank well in mobile search results. Check all of your content to make sure it loads properly, work to reduce loading times, and put mobile users in priority consideration when it comes to designing interactive elements.
If you have a mobile app, it’s possible to give it more visibility for certain user queries. Accordingly, having a mobile app can boost your brand’s overall visibility in search engines on mobile devices. That being said, a dedicated app is not necessary for every mobile SEO strategy—you’ll suffer no penalty by not having one.
This myth stemmed from a recent statement by John Mueller that mobile-only sites are completely fine—that having no desktop equivalent will suffer no ranking penalty. This is definitely true, and it’s fine if you want to go mobile-only, but don’t misconstrue this information; mobile-only isn’t inherently better in any way. Instead, it’s tolerated. If you have any desktop traffic at all, it’s worth considering it in your UX design.
Don’t buy into these all-too-common mobile SEO myths. Yes, having a site optimized for mobile devices is important, and yes, mobile and desktop search results do have differences, but you’re better off sticking with the strategies you know work for sure and avoid overcomplicating things. As always, keep watch for new updates as they roll out and listen to what Google is telling you—there aren’t many buried secrets about how to improve a site or how to rank well, regardless of what devices you target.
If you haven’t already taken measures to ensure that your site is optimized for mobile experiences, it’s time to do so. If you don’t, you’ll officially be behind the ball. Fortunately, these five fantastic WordPress plugins are invaluable for taking your site to the next level:
WPtouch is a plugin currently used by 5.5 million different blogs. While you can’t judge the usefulness of an app simply by its popularity, the amount of recognition it has garnered is well received. WPtouch is the self-proclaimed “complete mobile solution for WordPress,” and is compatible with virtually any type of mobile device.
With WPtouch, you’ll be able to choose a responsive WPtouch theme, which tends to run about four times faster than comparable responsive sites with touch enhancements. Furthermore, the WPtouch plugin features something called an “infinity cache,” which works to cache your mobile site on mobile devices, which will make your site even faster when accessed via mobile. The faster your site is, the happier your users will be—and you’ll get a ranking boost as well.
The only potential downside of WPtouch is that, unlike the majority of WordPress plugins, it is not free to use. The basic version of WPtouch is $49, though there are more advanced versions of the plugin available, with a host of other features.
Jetpack is a single plugin that can help you optimize your site for mobile, and make other tweaks that enhance site performance and allow you to improve both SEO and user experience. The Jetpack plugin comes with 33 distinct special features, attempting to be a catch-all that can help you improve multiple different dimensions of your site performance.
As one of the primary selling points of the plugin, Jetpack offers a mobile theme that you can use to make your WordPress site responsive, which will ensure that both desktop and mobile users have a similarly great experience when attempting to view your site. You can also customize your Jetpack responsive theme, so long as you’re familiar with CSS and bit PHP.
In addition to its mobile-optimization functionality, Jetpack sports a number of verification and site enhancement tools. For example, the “photon” functionality will increase your site speed, and another feature can integrate directly with your social profiles.
Best of all, Jetpack is completely free to download and use. Despite its many features, it’s a relatively easy plugin to learn, so if you’re not confident in your abilities, it’s a nice beginner platform to experiment with.
WP Mobile is an option for any webmasters who want to forgo the responsive style of web design in favor of converting your website into a mobile version. In a responsive site design, one web layout will adjust based on what type of device is accessing it. In this style, separate desktop and mobile versions exist, and users will have the ability to toggle between the two based on their preferences. From a search engine perspective, Google doesn’t care how you make your site mobile-optimized—responsive and mobile-specific designs are treated with equal weight. However, you may find a user experience advantage in one over the other, depending on your core audience.
The WP Mobile plugin features a straightforward mobile theme, which is simple and easy to load, keeping your loading times well within your comfort zone.
The adaptation feature of the app also auto-detects the device being used to access the site, so it automatically loads the appropriate version while still giving users the option to switch if necessary. It even comes with mobile advertising settings, which are optional, in case you want to pursue that route. The plugin is free to download and use, so if you want a mobile-exclusive version of your site—have at it!
The WP Mobile Detector doesn’t have quite as many features as some of its competitors, but it’s a perfect fit for some businesses who only need a convenient way of detecting which users are accessing their site from a standard mobile phone or a smartphone. If you’re in a business where a sizeable portion of your audience is still using traditional mobile phones, it could be extremely useful.
With this plugin, your site will be able to automatically detect the type of device being used to access it, and will load an appropriate theme based on that information. It also features an integrated analytics platform, which can help you identify your audience’s makeup and behavior, and seven pre-loaded mobile themes that you can use to ensure your site is properly optimized for mobile without compromising your brand standards.
Like WPtouch, WP Mobile Detector is not free. The basic version of the plugin is $50, with more features and greater functionality attributed to the premium version, which is a bit more expensive.
Last but not least is a plugin that comes from WordPress itself. The WordPress Mobile Pack 2.0 exists to help you consolidate your website and provide a similar experience across any platform, any operating system, and most importantly, any device. It has full compatibility with all the major players in the web world, and allows you to convert your website into a responsive format.
The plugin also comes with its very own custom theme, which features six abstract covers and plenty of customizable options to ensure that the theme becomes your own. Like the WP Mobile Detector, it also has a fully integrated analytics platform, which allows you to track your user behavior and regularly measure your site’s performance. It’s a simple, easy-to-use application that can help almost anyone optimize his/her WordPress site for a mobile experience. The plugin is free to download and use.
Optimizing for mobile isn’t complicated, but it isn’t as simple as flipping a switch. There’s no single patch of code or button you can push to magically alter your site to be compatible with mobile devices. However, you do have several options.
Responsive websites are optimized for mobile at a design level. They are created in such a way that allows the components of the page—such as the banners, blocks of text, headlines, and so on—to organize themselves on the page based on the size of the screen that’s accessing the webpage. These components may flex or stack to accommodate a smaller screen size, so a desktop user and a mobile user would both be able to easily navigate the site (even though the layout might be different).
There are a number of advantages to responsive websites. Since the design is flexible enough to adjust to any screen, every type of mobile device will have a customized experience. However, the “responsive” element only needs to be built once. There is only one URL for your website, which makes it easy to develop and easier to manage over time, and it’s relatively simple to implement. The loading times for responsive sites tends to be slightly slower than the other options, but that’s generally a small price to pay for a universally adaptable website.
Mobile URLs are exactly what they sound like—they’re separate, customized URLs that exist for the mobile version of a webpage. For example, if your traditional website was www.example.com, your new website could be www.mobile.example.com. Whenever a user accesses your site using a mobile device, you can automatically re-point them to the mobile version of your site (and provide a link to toggle between these versions, just in case a user wants to switch).
Mobile URLs are starting to become antiquated, but they’re still useful for some businesses. They take more time to create than a responsive design, since they require an independent creation, and require more extensive ongoing upkeep. They’re also vulnerable to fault points in the redirect system—if you accidentally direct a mobile user to the desktop version, they may have a poor experience.
The third option for mobile optimization is closer in theory to responsive design. Like with a responsive design, dynamic content structures require a single URL to house both a mobile version and a desktop version. The difference is, in a dynamic content setting, you’ll have twin versions of your site—the desktop and mobile versions—ready to display based on the type of device and screen size trying to access them.
This is an improvement over mobile URLs, since you’ll only need to manage one URL, and you won’t have to worry about creating and sustaining a redirect. However, there are some flaws that may prevent you from achieving the best results. Creating one mobile version can be problematic, since there are hundreds of different mobile devices that could theoretically access your site.
Before you start trying to optimize specifically for a mobile experience, you have to ensure that Google approves of your mobile site. That means having your website perfectly capable of loading when accessed by mobile devices.
There are three types of mobile layouts that are considered the standard for modern websites: responsive designs, dynamic content, and mobile URLs. All three are viewed equally by Google, but some webmasters may have a preference for one over the others.
A responsive design is one that automatically detects the type of device being used to access it, and adjusts the layout of the site accordingly. For example, if your site is being accessed from a desktop machine, it may display traditionally, but if it’s being accessed from a smaller, vertical smartphone screen, it might “stack” some of the horizontal features to maximize the user experience.
Responsive designs use one URL and one design, which makes it very convenient and efficient for developers. It’s relatively easy to incorporate, and it consolidates an otherwise multifaceted development effort. The only potential drawback of the responsive web design is loading time—since mobile users will technically be loading the entire site, it may take longer to download than a specific mobile landing page. Still, responsive design is the most popular mobile option today.
Dynamic serving content is similar to a responsive design, since only one URL is used no matter what type of device is accessing the content. However, under dynamic content, you’ll actually be serving up totally different versions of your website. For example, you’ll have a “desktop” version of your site loaded up and a “mobile” version of your site loaded up, and you’ll serve the version that corresponds with the device trying to access it.
This allows you to serve each device more specifically. However, it takes much more work to develop, implement, and manage since you’ll need to create a version for almost every type of device that could access your page.
Mobile URLs are an old-fashioned way of getting your site optimized for mobile, but they still work fine for some businesses. Rather than trying to adapt on the fly the way responsive designs do, with mobile URLs, you’ll essentially be building a separate, mobile version of your site on a different URL. When a user access your site from a mobile device, you’ll automatically redirect them to the proper URL, usually a variant of your primary URL.
Mobile URLs are typically more difficult to manage. You’ll have to ensure that your desktop and mobile versions redirect appropriately, which can be difficult. Otherwise, your users will view an inappropriate version of your website, and they may be left with a terrible first impression.
Users searching on mobile devices, like smartphones, are searching using the same index as desktop or home searchers. That means, as long as your site is present on that index, both desktop and mobile users will be able to see you. However, there are a handful of specific ranking signals on mobile devices that will interfere with your rank:
For the most part, mobile SEO is going to function the same as traditional SEO. You’re still going to function on user experience, onsite content, offsite backlinks, and the same navigational improvements that lead to higher ranks. In terms of your ongoing strategy, there isn’t much you’ll need to improve on as long as your strategy is currently in order.
To start things off, you’ll need to optimize your site for a mobile layout. The specifics are up to you, but you’ll need to ensure that your site loads appropriately and quickly—perform multiple tests on multiple devices to ensure that your site is loading the way it should, and don’t hesitate to consult Google Webmaster Tools to see if your site is registering as optimized for mobile. From there, you’ll need to do periodic tests for your page loading times and to ensure that the full content of your site is available on all mobile devices.
Google doesn’t care how you optimize your site for mobile, as long as it is optimized in some way. Whether you choose responsive, mobile URLs, or dynamic content, Google will consider your site optimized for mobile, and you’ll rank accordingly. Your users likely won’t care what type of mobile-optimization strategy you use either, as long as you’re giving them the best possible experience.
That being said, your decision should come down to your own personal preferences. From a technical standpoint, responsive designs are generally the cleanest; they only require one redesign to be complete, and the ongoing maintenance is pretty much nonexistent, at least compared to dynamic content or mobile URL strategies. Plus, you’ll eliminate the vulnerability of failing to accurately judge the type of device being used to access it.
After optimizing your design and structure for mobile, there are a handful of ongoing strategies you can use to boost your rank in mobile searches, even beyond the strategies of a traditional SEO campaign:
Now that the “mobile landscape” is out of the way and you have a good idea what you can expect from mobile optimization, let’s dig into the details of exactly what mobile optimization entails. These are mostly a series of onsite changes that you can implement to make your site appear and perform better on mobile and alternative devices, but there are many options when it comes to implementation and of course, testing.
Let’s start with the basics. These are hallmarks of mobile optimization that you can’t ignore, and following all of them will put you in pretty good shape to be qualified as “mobile-friendly:”
(Image Source: Google)
The above “best practices” are the basic ones you’ll need to comply with Google’s mobile standards and get your site seen as “mobile-friendly” by search engines. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean your mobile optimization journey is complete. Meeting the basic requirements will help you appeal to search engines, but you also have to bear your users in mind. Yes, meeting the above thresholds will be valuable for users, but if you really want to sell the experience of your site, you’ll need to go above and beyond the line of duty:
Aside from smaller factors like optimizing your images, there are three main ways you can implement broad mobile changes to your website:
(Image Source: Google)
If you’re having trouble visualizing or comparing these methods against each other, here’s a handy chart that Google created to explain the differences:
(Image Source: Google)
There are some pros and cons to each method, but ultimately, responsive comes out on top in most scenarios:
(Image Source: Moz)
When it comes to the search optimization element of mobile optimization, there isn’t much more to be seen. The basic standards of onsite and offsite optimization apply here, and of course you’ll need to come up with high-quality content on a regular basis, but there’s nothing else specifically for mobile devices that you’ll need to do on an ongoing basis.
Let’s say you’ve done everything I’ve outlined above—even the “above and beyond” stuff—and you’re confident that your site is sufficiently optimized for mobile. Just how confident are you? Are you willing to bank the visibility of your website on it?
Even if you feel supremely confident, it’s important that you test your assumptions.
One of the biggest reasons to test yourself is because of the sheer diversity of devices that are currently out there. Each device has its own quirks, layout issues, and rendering issues, and if you want your site to be as mobile compliant as possible, you’ll have to adapt for all of them. Just because your site looks fine on your specific model of smartphone doesn’t mean it’s similarly rendering across the board.
Google is one your side. Google wants your site to be mobile-friendly. Accordingly, they’ve developed a handy online test you can use to determine whether or not your site passes their basic standards. Run your site through this test and Google will let you know exactly what—if any—errors or incompatibilities it finds. If you pass this test, you won’t have to worry about any irregularities in your search rank or visibility.
Even if you pass Google’s standard test, it’s a good idea to run tests on your own devices, or through a service like MobileTest.me, which will allow you to “simulate” how your site appears on different browsers and devices. This is because even officially mobile-friendly sites can have visual hiccups or unpleasant factors in their design that compromise your intentions or show up differently than you expected. Use this stage of testing to weed those errors and fault points out.
By now, you realize the importance of optimizing a site for mobile. You have a responsive design implemented, and you’ve used Google’s mobile-friendly checker tool to make sure every page of your site is loading properly for mobile devices. But how much attention have you paid to the speed of your site?
Site speed is an underrated quality in website optimization because it’s affected by a number of individual factors, and can’t be directly controlled or changed the way your onsite content can. Still, site speed if vitally important if you want to give your visitors the best possible experience.
For starters, slower page loading speeds lead to higher page abandonment, and every second here counts:
Faster loading times lead to higher user satisfaction, higher user retention rates, and allow for more time for site engagement. Plus, Google considers page speed as a ranking factor, at least peripherally. The faster your website performs, the higher authority you’ll be seen to have, and the higher ranks you’ll be able to earn (the user experience factor helps here too).
All these factors are amplified by the fact that mobile devices tend to load more slowly than their desktop counterparts (and mobile users are less patient as well, since they’re usually after more immediate information). Cutting your page loading times, even by a second, can lead to a dramatic increase in user engagement. So how can you do it?
Let’s take a look at some of the main ways you can make your mobile site faster:
Your first goal should be to optimize the images of your site, since they’ll constitute the majority of your site’s data. Reducing this data as much as possible (while maintaining the integrity of your images) is crucial to shrinking your page load time. First, make sure your images are in a proper format, such as JPG, GIF, or PNG. Then, strip your images of any unnecessary meta data (while keeping them optimized for SEO with proper titles and alt tags). Once that’s done, shrink your file sizes as much as possible without compromising your quality.
Content delivery networks are systems of distributed servers that make the delivery of your webpage information faster and more streamlined. The technical details here aren’t important; just know that this makes the request and delivery process faster for mobile users.
Take a look at the back end of your site. Are there any unused content drafts floating around? Is there meta data that’s irrelevant? These things can bog down your site speed with unnecessary size additions, so get rid of them.
This action is a bit technically complicated, but it’s actually much simpler than it sounds. In a normal environment, HTTP requests are done individually, but the “keep alive” response header keeps the connection open, allowing for multiple requests to be done simultaneously. The simple analogy? It makes the page loading process more efficient by letting your users grab more information at once. Setting this up takes a bit of technical knowledge, but it’s not totally unapproachable for a novice—you can read more about it here.
A good caching plugin will store some of your site’s data so users can access your site faster in the future. Try not to tinker with the settings too much or you’ll interfere with its ability to make your site faster.
Most plugins increase your site size and decrease its ability to load quickly, so do a thorough audit of all your plugins, and get rid of any that you don’t actively need on your site. Don’t be afraid to keep a handful that you actually use—but most webmasters end up accumulating far more than they realize.
Gzip compression can help you reduce the number of bytes different elements of your site occupy. In short, it keeps the integrity of your site intact while reducing the total amount of size it occupies. The bottom line is that your site runs faster.
(Image Source: YUI)
By this point, your site is probably decently optimized for speed. If your pages were loading slow at the beginning, you may have been able to shave multiple seconds off your loading times. Even if not, you’ve at least earned a somewhat faster web presence. If you find that these changes aren’t enough to reach your page speed goals, it could be an indication that something is wrong with your hosting provider, or your specific package. Some hosting packages lump many businesses together on the same plan, forcing you to compete for resources. Consider making a change to earn your own dedicated set of resources.
None of these site speed optimization tactics are inherently complicated or intensive. In fact, many of them can be accomplished in an hour or less. Once implemented, your site is going to run cleaner and faster, and all your mobile users will appreciate the increase in speed and availability. As competition continues to rise and Google continues improving the average user’s mobile web experience, any differentiating factor you can pull here is valuable.
All of the insights I’ve shared thus far have been relegated to optimizing websites for mobile browsers, but there’s another form of user interaction on mobile devices you should be preparing your business for: apps. Apps have surged in popularity, just as mobile devices have, and there’s no sign that their growth has an end point. In fact, they’re responsible for much more mobile use than web browsers.
To address this, Google’s been implementing a number of functions and updates for what’s becoming known as “app SEO,” including the basic presence of apps in search engines, app deep linking to take users to specific screens within apps downloaded on their devices, and even app streaming, which allows users to access apps they haven’t downloaded.
It’s not entirely certain whether apps may one day replace traditional websites, but they are becoming more important and they’re presenting more opportunities for marketers. Keep a close eye on their development as you fine-tune your strategic approach for mobile users.
Google offers a specific, easy-to-integrate API that will ensure your app is seen and indexed by its search algorithm. However, Android and iOS apps are treated a little differently. Namely, for Android apps, if a user searches for a term specific to your app and has not yet downloaded it, he/she will see it appear in mobile search results. Those who already have the app installed will get autocomplete suggestions, along with deep links to content within the app. For iOS, things are a little less beneficial; mobile search visibility only applies for users who have already downloaded the app.
Either way, applying the app indexing API is relatively simple. You can think about it in three steps:
That being said, Android and iOS apps do require a bit of a different approach.
To get your Android app’s content properly indexed:
For iOS, the process is a little different:
You may have noticed that one of the biggest parts of implementing app indexing is associating an app with a particular website. So what happens if your app has no corresponding website? Unfortunately, do to Google’s current structures and limitations, it is not possible to index your app. However, they are working on developing a new way to index and display app-only content. If you’re interested in being one of the first volunteers for the feature, you can use this form to apply.
This has been a long and exhaustive guide, so if you’re looking for some key takeaways, these are the highlights you should walk away with:
Mobile is a segment poised for even more expansive growth in the coming decade. If you want your brand and your website to not just survive, but outlast the competition, you need to prioritize the experiences of your mobile audience.