The Getting Mobile SEO Right, Because Now Google Really Cares session at SMX East had a stellar group of presenters including Google’s Pierre Far, Resolution Media’s Bryson Meunier, Move.com’s David Roth and Local Market Launch’s Gideon Rubin. This was a fantastic panel with lots of great information, but there were a few topics that I expected to be covered, especially by Google, since apparently now they care; but, these topics were notably absent from the discussion.
There have been some major announcements from Google recently that seem to skew heavily toward the mobile side of the house — things like the new Hummingbird algorithm update (which clearly has deep ties to voice search queries that can be submitted from mobile devices); the recent re-launch of the Google PageSpeed Tool with mobile-specific page analysis; changes to Google mobile SERP layout; and the recent official inclusion of load-time in the mobile search algorithm or yesterday morning’s announcement about cross-device conversion metrics in AdWords.
Google has been steering webmasters toward Responsive Design for just over a year, but has generally included additional information about what webmasters could do if they already had a mobile-specific site (mDOT pages on a mobile subdomain, for example m.site.com). This was not the case today; the phrases “rel=canonical” and “rel=alternate” were not mentioned once in this mobile SEO session.
While bi-directional mobile annotation is still a valid mobile SEO technique, it is apparently really being deemphasized by Google; so much so, that it was omitted from the talk entirely. Rather than articulate how webmasters can optimize existing mobile content, it appears that Google will just focus on pushing Responsive Design.
The crowd clearly wanted more on this issue, since many of the questions during Q&A focused on how, when and why companies should choose to use Responsive Design—especially when mDOT pages are already available. Pierre did mention that the full technical documentation and Google mobile SEO recommendations are available online (and yes, the rel=alternate and rel=canonical stuff is still there—I checked), but gave no specifics.
Pierre also briefly mentioned dynamic/selective serving of mobile content on desktop URLs, but did not get into it deeply—probably because it is quite technical and there are known issues with this solution working on popular content delivery networks. Perhaps it is relevant that this was not discussed either. In his concluding thoughts, he put forward the idea that mobile site architecture decisions require a good business case, and should focus on the needs of the users and the goals of the business. Pierre said that there may be tradeoffs to any “business decision” that your company makes.
According to Google, there are technical crawl efficiency and indexing benefits for Responsive Design solutions that are superior to other mobile development methodologies. Accordingly, if Responsive Design sites rank better that mDOT sites, it is because they were easier for Google to crawl and index, but not because of penalties and not because of an artificial algorithmic boost for Responsive Design.
Bryson Meunier from Resolution Media, echoed the point that Responsive Design in-and-of-itself is not a ranking factor, and reiterated the need to do what is right for your customers and your company. Bryson is normally a great proponent of mobile-specific design and keyword targeting; but today, his presentation focused on the disconnect between what Google is recommending for mobile and what Google is ranking for mobile (not explicitly supporting mobile-specific solutions or Responsive Design).
He focused his analysis on four mobile site issues that Google described in June, which could cause a decrease in mobile rankings. These issues were:
- Use of interstitials to drive traffic to apps
- Broken videos that don”t play on mobile
- Poor load time
- Improper redirects
For each of these topics, there were examples of sites that had these problems but ranked the same between desktop and mobile, or actually ranked better in mobile, despite the apparent oversight of Google”s rules. Unfortunately, this disconnect is something that I have seen a lot in my own client work. The tasks Google is giving us to improve on our mobile sites are not having dramatic impacts on rankings—at least not yet.
Looking back, Google has always been slow to take a stand on mobile optimization, and even when they have, it has seemed a bit tentative. As we all know, Google has officially stated their philosophical preference for Responsive Design sites in mobile. Confusingly though, this emphatic endorsement for Responsive Design happened less than a year after Google partnered with and promoted a tool specifically designed to create separate, mobile-specific mDOT pages (Duda Mobile, re-branded as part of Google GoMo). When viewed together, these actions send mobile webmasters a very hazy, conflicting message, and makes you wonder if they might change their mind again.
Since most mobile–friendly sites still feature mobile-specific pages rather than Responsive Design, the best way to actively improve your mobile rankings is often to improve how tightly your mobile pages are aligned with the corresponding desktop pages. You do this using proper bi-directional tagging (rel=alternate and rel=canonical). While Google is finally giving mobile webmasters mobile-specific guidelines, a large portion of mobile rankings seem still to be derived from the desktop rankings.
Desktop search is what Google excels at, so they are leveraging that as much as they can in the mobile algorithm. Pierre assured us that we would start to see more algorithmic oomph behind their mobile SEO suggestions, and explained that these updates to the mobile algorithm were being rolled out over time, rather than all at once, so the changes might not be as noticeable.
Until the changes that Google is making in the mobile algorithm are more apparent in the mobile SERPs, there may not be enough incentive for some companies to make the changes. It is great to plan for the future, and build for the algorithms of tomorrow (rather than waiting for a change and panicking when things go wrong), but the information we are getting still seems to include smoke and mirrors.
The biggest mobile ranking factors in the current algorithm are not what Google has been telling us they are, and Google’s focus on Responsive Design at the expense of clarity may not be giving a large portion of webmasters enough guidance or information to really optimize their mobile sites effectively.