As mobile has become a breakout trend in ecommerce, mobile SEO has become increasingly important.
There are three well-known web design approaches: separate mobile sites, dynamic serving and responsive web design (RWD). There’s been a great deal of confusion about which approaches are best for mobile SEO, in recent years, due to the divergence of opinions presented by different sources. However, Google is the authority on the matter, and Google has made it clear:
Simply having a separate mobile site won’t hurt your mobile SEO rankings. Disregard any statement that says dedicated mobile sites using separate URLs will hurt mobile SEO because this is simply not true. When you make your desktop site responsive across mobile and tablet, your performance can suffer substantially, and hurt your rankings, as a result. Responsive is a one-size-fits-all approach; it can be very difficult for retailers to scale an entire desktop site to optimally fit any screen size, every time it’s updated. Google is neutral regarding your mobile approach; it recognizes that you should use an approach that works best for your company, given the particularities of your company’s infrastructure. 2
As long as you follow Google’s best practices for mobile and allow your mobile site to be accessible to both Googlebot and Googlebot-mobile, your site should experience optimal rankings in search results.
Important considerations for mobile SEO (this is an overview; see below for elaboration):
- Google’s new “mobile-friendly” label and test
- How to increase visibility: Allow Googlebots and Googlebot-mobile to crawl your site.
- Speed: While site speed depends on numerous factors, a fast-loading site improves user experience. Ideally, all of the mobile site’s main content and functionalities should load in less than one second.
- Separate Responsive alternative: Another option is to have your separate mobile and tablet sites responsive. This way, you can have your cake and eat it too. You can reap the benefits of responsive without having to download all of the items from the desktop site to the mobile site, and not risk performance issues that would impact your rankings.
- Downsizing: Are you reducing the number of HTTP requests made as well as the sizes of the pages?
- Duplication reduction: Use matching canonical and alternate tags, on mobile and desktop, to reduce the amount of duplicate content that is indexed for separate sites.
- Proper redirects, to ensure mobile users and bots are being routed to the appropriate mobile page version.
Google’s “mobile-friendly” label: Google launched a “mobile-friendly” label in November 2014. According to Google, a page is considered “mobile-friendly,” if it meets the following criteria:
- Avoids software that is not common on mobile devices, like Flash
- Uses text that is readable without zooming
- Sizes content to the screen so users don’t have to scroll horizontally or zoom
- Places links far enough apart so that the correct one can be easily tapped” 3
You can check whether your site meets these criteria by trying the “mobile-friendly” test here:
The purpose of this label is to let mobile users know whether a site is optimized for mobile before they click on it in the search results. This “mobile-friendly” label not only saves time for the mobile user; it also creates an opportunity to make your search results stand out from the others. Not having this label on your site’s Google entry could reduce your site’s incoming organic traffic, since mobile users may be less inclined to click on results without this label. Starting April 21, 2015, Google will be using the mobile-friendly label as a ranking signal. 4
Page speed: Search engines are particularly concerned about providing a great experience for Internet users. Slow, clunky sites tend to create frustrating user experiences. This is why having your site be fast and easy to navigate is very important for mobile SEO.
Downsizing: It’s important to reduce the number of your site’s HTTP requests as well as the download sizes of its pages. When you make a desktop site responsive across mobile and tablet, you’re forcing the user to downsize large items to fit on mobile devices, which causes performance to suffer.
Separate responsive alternative: If you want to use a separate tablet site or mobile site, you have the option to make them responsive to any screen size without forcing the user to download all of the items from the desktop site to the mobile site. Your mobile site would be faster and responsive to any screen size it is adjusted to. This is particularly beneficial for sharing purposes. If someone shares a link from their mobile device and the recipient opens the link from their desktop computer, the mobile URL they click on will optimize for their desktop screen. The recipient viewing the mobile site on a desktop won’t see a stretched out mobile site on their desktop.
How to increase visibility: In order for a search engine to rank a website, the search engine bot needs to find it. There are ways to increase a site’s visibility to these bots. For instance, a Sitemap.xml file can be used in conjunction with Webmaster tools to advise the search engine bot about every page that’s available on your website. Another example would be to use a Robots.txt file, which can be used to exclude certain parts of a website from being indexed by a search engine bot. However, Google doesn’t recommend blocking assets, as it could result in suboptimal rankings. 5 The Robots.txt is a required protocol that directs the search engine bot to the Sitemap.xml file.
Reduce duplicate content from being indexed: To let search engines understand that your separate mobile website content isn’t a duplication of your desktop content, use switchboard tags, which means using therel=”canonical” tag on the mobile page that points to the desktop version of the page. The rel=”alternate”tag on the desktop page needs to point to the equivalent mobile version of that page.
When using rel=“alternate” and rel=”canonical” tagging, there should be a one-to-one ratio between the mobile page and the corresponding desktop page. Canonical URL link markup for separate URLs prevents duplicate content from appearing in your search results. If search engines recognize it as duplicate content, it can hurt your rankings, because it confuses the search engine bot. It will fail to understand the relationship between the mobile and desktop URLs, with the same content, as well as their relative importance.
Canonicalization is the process of assigning importance to webpages, and of reducing indexing of duplicate content.
For example, suppose you have an ecommerce company that sells moccasins. You have a desktop site and a separate URL for mobile. You’re going to want to make sure the search engine bot knows that a product page on your mobile site isn’t a duplicate of a product page on your desktop site. In order to do this, you need to add a rel=”canonical” tag on each mobile page (to point to the corresponding desktop page), and a rel=”alternate” tag on each desktop page (to point to the corresponding mobile page). This will let Googlebot and Googlebot-mobile know that they aren’t duplicate pages and should be treated as a single entity. If both desktop and mobile URLs are shown in search results, they are being treated as separate entities, and their positions would be lower than they otherwise would be.
When developing a separate tablet site, Google says, “In this case, we strongly suggest you allow Googlebot to crawl the tablet URLs and use a rel=”canonical” on each tablet URL to point to the equivalent desktop URL.” 6
Here’s a sample of what the annotations should look like in the HTML for “Some E-Commerce Company”:
For the desktop site: , insert the alternate tag to point to the corresponding mobile page:
<link rel=”alternate” href=”http://m.some-e-commercecompany.com/brand-moccasins/prd15582″>
For the mobile site: , insert this canonical tag to point to the corresponding desktop page:
<link rel=”canonical” href=”http://www.some-e-commercecompany.com/brand-shoes/prd15582″>
For the sitemap annotation, follow Google’s instructions shown in the developer website. 7
So, how do you do this if you have hundreds of thousands of products? Pattern matching and substitution formulas should automate this process, by pointing the content shown on the mobile site to the corresponding desktop site and vice versa. This is certainly achievable for separate mobile sites.
Avoid faulty redirects: Mobile links should not direct users to the desktop site, and vice versa. Users should be directed to the appropriate version of the site, when on desktop or mobile.