Mobile Search and SEO Considerations for Mobile

Mobile Search is experimental. The big search engines constantly change their search offering in response to market segmentation; global changes in the market; technological capability and a raft of other variants.  Generally this is done by leveraging more than one collection of data—news, images, wikipedia, weather etc—and presenting the collected results to users in a helpful way. This is known as Universal Search or Federated Search and it’s not unique to mobile. This case study looks at just how experimental—read immature—mobile search is and what this means for mobile SEO in a quickly changing market.

Let’s get straight to some examples.

Universal Search Configuration - WAP vs. iPhone for Google

A few interesting points:

Both device types share the same default collection – web. Come again, it defaults to web collection… on a mobile device… Interesting.

WAP configuration Web | Local | Images | News | Mobile Web

iPhone configuration iPhone defaults to web as above. Okay, but where is the option to select mobile web results? After all, this is a mobile device. Actually, forget mobile web results, where can I do a local search? With it’s Safari WebKit browser, Google presumably treats it like a full featured PC, offering results that look a lot more like those you’d find on standard Google search:

Web | News | Video

This is too brazen - those mobile web results must be in there somewhere. Say hello to Google’s Blending Mobile Search Results patent. Let’s not get into devilish detail here, enough to say that this patent describes a method by which mobile web results are blended into web results - removing the need to keep them separate.

Here’s an example

Web vs. Mobile-Web Search with Google shows Blended Results in Action

Note that only one listing—the first—from web results has a mobile icon next to it, indicating that it’s a mobile web listing. This is a blended results page. In the mobile web results, as you’d expect, there are only mobile web listings. You might also notice that many of the listings for mobile web look suspiciously like online sites. In fact, in this list of 10 results, only one is a bona fide mobile site. We’ll talk about this some more later.

So, why use Blended Search for some devices (iPhone) and standard Universal Search for others (WAP)? The answer lies in that dirty C word, Convergence. We know that iPhone handles standard web content with considerable grace—at least in context to its peers—and, it also brings a new school of mobile web users – those that may not even be aware that mobile web exists, but rather think in terms of accessing the web while being mobile. With this in mind, Blended Search makes sense for this type of device. Compare this to a crummy old WAP device with a Symbian/Opera browser, and you can easily see why Blended Search doesn’t make sense here. In fact, on these WAP devices, you’d expect to see web results buried under more usable tiers of content like news and weather. Yahoo does exactly that.

Universal Search Configuration - WAP vs. iPhone for Yahoo

WAP Configuration News | Mobile web | Images & Photos | Web | Wiki | Answers

iPhone Configuration News | Web | Answers | Photos & Images | Wiki

Note the absence of mobile web for the iPhone - this suggests that Yahoo also now have Blended Search capability targeted at specific devices. Now, for comparison's sake, let's take a look at the difference between web and mobile web results for Yahoo.

Web vs. Mobile-Web Search with Yahoo shows Non Blended Results

You see here, Yahoo take a slightly more traditional approach - notice that mobile web results are all legitimate mobile entries and not blended with web results. They maintain discrete collections for both web and mobile. However, it's pretty clear from the iPhone example that they also are moving toward Blended Results—in a similar way to Google—for devices that are deemed capable. Only time will tell if they retain the integrity of their mobile results, or go blended across the board as Google and others have done.

I’m surprised by this—not so much the change itself, but that I missed the change—because not even 12 months ago, mobile web search results were totally dominated by real mobile sites, you know the sort, remember .mobi TLDs? Putting anything else in here was risky at best, for fear of device unpredictability when trying to render sites not designed for small screen limitations and needless to say, bandwidth considerations.

What does all this mean for Mobile SEO?

SEO has long been a dark art and mobile SEO more so. There’s precious little information in the public domain about mobile SEO, and I'm yet to met anyone (SEO specialists included) who really understand this market, let alone how to optimise for it. I’m not an SEO specialist, but for the last few months, as a Mobile Web Producer I’ve grappled with a SEO implementation for a large enterprise mobile product. As with many SEO projects before this one, it was largely trial and error. There was some success (albeit limited) and the output from ‘error’ is learning.

So, here’s a few things learnt along the way

Mobile DOCTYPE and using domain naming conventions do not necessarily mean your site will be recognised as ‘mobile’, or rank any higher.

In the old model of Universal Search—where only bona fide mobile sites are included in a mobile web collection—these conventions are more important. It’s true that the big search engines often use special crawlers that act like mobile devices—Google’s for example behaves like a Nokia 6820—to collect mobile content. This might lead you to believe that information such as the existence of a Mobile DOCTYPE is collected from the HTTP header and is used to determine how ‘mobile’ the site is. This was found to not hold true. Of course, it’s still a good idea to have the correct DOCTYPE and to use conventions, but it may not deliver on business outcomes.

The Blending Mobile Search Results patent discussed earlier suggests that the search engine ranking for mobile is actually determined by keyword association in the content. This explains the perceived poor relevancy of the mobile web results compared earlier - results listings are not there because the search engine knows they belong to a site designed for mobile browsers, but because the content of the listing includes keywords that are associated with being mobile, or the site has mobile specific content, like ringtones and games.

Expect limited success (for now)

SEO can do wonders for the web if implemented properly and it’s natural to see success in one area and expect the same in another. However, as we’ve seen in this analysis, mobile search appears to be trending toward convergence which is currently manifested as Blended Results for high capability devices. This means that any given mobile site is not only competing with other mobile sites for ranking, but with the internet at large. Little is known about how sites are identified and ranked, so we don't know much but we do know there’s a long way to go.

Convergence may outpace the progress of mobile SEO

By the time we have good search results for (true) mobile web—supported by a body of knowledge on how to optimise for mobile—the majority mobile web usage is likely to be on devices that can gracefully browse standard web. In fact, that point in time has perhaps already arrived, Google and Yahoo both seem to think so.

Information and opinions in this article are largely based on my own experience and understanding. Feel free to point out any gaps in this analysis, or just leave an opinion of your own in the comments section.