Mobile Search Engine Optimization

If there is one area of certain growth in these troubled economic times, it is the mobile communications sector. And with significant improvements having emerged over the last few years in vital areas such as data transfer speed, screens and content, mobile devices are starting to challenge the PC as an Internet access device of choice. This in turn has raised a key issue in the Mobile Internet space: that of the optimization of sites for mobile devices and search engines.

It’s all very well delivering a repackaged version of a standard web site to mobile devices, and most of the presentational challenges this raises have been addressed one way or another. But the fact remains that mobile Internet usage diverges from traditional usage in a number of important ways. The failure of content publishers to understand the implications of these differences for content can only lead to sub-standard mobile sites that run the risk of providing irrelevant material and poor usability. This in turn results in an impoverished mobile Internet experience for users, which impacts take-up and slows down the whole cycle.

It is clearly very much in the interests of content publishers to optimize their sites not just for the mobile user, but also the mobile search engine. This is particularly important when the site contains information of particular relevance to the mobile sector.

Mobile searching is different

The first thing developers need to bear in mind is that there are real differences in the way mobile users tend to search compared with standard desktop-based searching. For example, there are differences in the type of content that mobile users tend to seek out. This content is far more likely to involve an area that fulfills some immediate requirement, such as music or a ringtone, a navigational query, or an entertainment-related question.

In fact, research has suggested that around 50% of search queries from mobile phones tend to fall into just seven key categories: the above three, plus sports, local knowledge, shopping, and reference. Clearly any publisher who deals in one or more of these kinds of data – probably most of them – needs to consider the likelihood that a significant proportion of the site’s potential audience could be mobile-based and optimize accordingly.

Another limiting factor that developers should consider is the impact of the form factor of a typical mobile device on how it is used. This can express itself in any number of ways; for example, it is common knowledge that few users navigate beyond the first couple of pages of search results for any given query. If they haven’t found what they are looking for by the end of page two they will tend to rephrase the query and start over.

In a standard desktop search environment, which typically returns ten or so results per page, this means that while a front page search ranking is preferable, a top twenty ranking is generally regarded as satisfactory. On a mobile device with its tiny screen, two pages might only include eight search results. This puts an additional premium on search engine ranking for which webmasters need to account.

A third point to consider is that mobile search queries tend to be extremely short, containing fewer keywords on average than their desktop-based counterparts. Data provided by Massachusetts-based mobile search solution provider JumpTap suggests that the average desktop search contains something between two and three keywords, whereas less than 15% of all searches carried out from mobile devices contain more than two keywords. The onus is on publishers to take account of this by ensuring their content is highly focused, relevant, and preferably identifiable by a single keyword.

There are a number of steps that can be taken to improve the accessibility of mobile data and to optimize it for mobile search engines. Some of these are relatively obvious, such as minimizing and optimizing interfaces, submitting the site to all the major mobile search engines and as many of the minor ones as possible, and being sure to allow their crawlers into the site afterward.

Others are – or should be – familiar already to most content publishers as they are standard practice on all types of web sites. These include things like conforming to the relevant mobile standards (the W3C’s mobile validator – currently in beta – can be used to verify this), specifying the appropriate doctype and character encoding in page headers, and keeping the site structure as simple as possible.

Other possible approaches are a little more demanding. One such is being sure to design for low-end mobile devices, not just the newest and latest.

Many mobile content developers will no doubt be too young to remember the early days of the Internet before conforming to standards became commonplace. In the race to create bold and innovative sites that would exploit the potential of the new medium, many graphic designers sitting in front of 21″ full-color monitors fell into the trap of building sites that looked great on 21″ full-color monitors. Unfortunately many of them neglected to consider that most of the potential audience was experiencing the Web on VGA screens in 256 colors or less. A good number were still using text based browsers such as Lynx.

The unfortunate outcome was that millions of potential visitors were disenfranchised from visiting large numbers of sites. There is a similar risk in today’s mobile Internet space, where developers could be tempted to neglect to test and optimize their sites for the full range of devices.

One welcome innovation that could have potentially revolutionary implications for content publishers seeking the holy grail of mobile search engine optimization is metatxt. Introduced by the Irish company Visibility Mobile, this is an attempt to create an optimization standard for mobile search engines.

The idea is to create a small text file that will help search engines and other web software to understand the content of a site and refer visitors to the most appropriate version for the device that is browsing it. One of the key aspects of the metatxt file is that it can be indexed directly by crawlers, meaning that they will no longer need to examine the actual site content.

The metatxt file is not just useful for computers. It is also readable by humans, so they can gain a better understanding of exactly how their sites appear to the crawlers and bots that need to be able to index them.

It can sometimes be a sobering experience to find out that your carefully constructed code, with its beautiful presentation and minimal layout, is utterly incomprehensible to a Google crawler. Perhaps this ability to understand how well your site works at the software level as well as the human will turn out to be one of metatxt’s key contributions.

Visibility Mobile is aiming higher than that, however. The company is seeking to partner with key mobile website and blogging companies in what appears to be a serious attempt to establish metatxt as a recognized standard.

The simplest way to add metatxt to a site is to use the online generator at gomobileseo. This simple four-step tool needs to be fed with relevant information, such as the site’s main URL, any URLs that refer to general mobile content or to content aimed at specific devices such as smart phones, and the URLs of any other content relevant to metatxt such as RSS feeds, podcasts and video podcasts. It will also accept the URL of a sitemap, and ask you to specify your geographical location.

Once this information is fed into the generator it will return the metatxt file in plain text format to the supplied email address. The publisher can examine the file, and if the content is satisfactory, can copy it directly into the site’s root directory, where it will become available to any web tool that can make use of it.

If the metatxt file isn’t satisfactory, the publisher can set about optimizing the site with the knowledge that any modifications are based on reliable information about which areas need to be improved. This shared insight by developers and crawlers into the inner workings of the site can only help to remove the sense of working in the dark that bedevils so many attempts to optimize sites for search engines.

Where next?

Given the apparent inevitability that mobile devices will occupy an increasingly large proportion of Internet space, no content publisher can afford to ignore the implications and requirements of this. By taking the need to cater to mobile users seriously, publishers can ensure that their sites are up to speed as the Internet adapts to the changing habits and preferences of its users.

While the desktop Internet isn’t about to disappear, a whole new category of users with their own content and search requirements is growing up alongside it, providing an array of new commercial opportunities. Publishers can only put themselves in a position to grasp these opportunities by understanding the new demands that this places not just on how their content is delivered, but on the content itself.

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