The increasing adoption of responsive design is paving an easier path for mobile SEO within browsers; it's not always the ultimate silver bullet, but it's a welcome relief to brands looking for a single-site solution to cross platform content. But mobile devices have ushered in a whole new set of search challenges in the form of apps, forcing SEO professionals to diversify their search strategy beyond the browser.
Search is widely acknowledged to be the number one mobile browser activity – actually, it's the number one mobile activity overall. The browser factor is no surprise – it's logical that most of us would automatically transfer our desktop search behaviors to our mobile devices.
But an increasing number of us seem to prefer apps for many mobile activities, search included. The top 10 U.S. mobile smartphone apps are either directly search-focused (e.g. the Google Search and Maps apps) or search-oriented in nature (e.g. Google Play, iTunes), according to comScore.
The reasons we're gravitating toward apps are fairly obvious – the interfaces tend to be more user-friendly, the content and results more streamlined. The reasons why this shift in behavior matters are less readily apparent but rest assured that the move toward app-based search is a game-changer for search marketers.
- As users gravitate more and more towards apps for search, the types of content a search leads to will diversify – it's not just about browser-based content anymore.
- Search destinations will diversify as well – most brands must focus on apps from the major engines while also striving for visibility within niche engine apps and directories.
- The old SEO rules still apply, but new SEO best practices are evolving as apps become more and more popular and the search ecosystem splinters into myriad proprietary indexes and directories.
Mobile SEO: Browser Basics
To succeed as this app-based search ecosystem evolves, brands need to understand the relevant apps on the market, the value proposition of each, and how to build rank and findability.
Desktop preferences seem to translate to mobile search in a big way – if you're a Google person on the desktop, you'll be using Google your mobile device as well. Or Bing, or Yahoo, and so forth.
The important thing to keep in mind about these app-based iterations of the big engines is that for the most part, they are simply app UI "windows" that deliver you pretty much the same results as the browser.
Most big engine mobile apps source results from their web index – hence, applying mobile SEO best practices is essential to visibility in both web and apps. With that in mind, a brief review of mobile SEO basics is probably in order:
- URL structure: According to Google, a single URL strategy, courtesy of responsive design, is the ideal way to go but a responsive approach isn't always possible in the near-term since a great deal of planning and redesigning and re-engineering are required to do it correctly. So be aware that a subdomain or subdirectory are equally acceptable providing you adhere to these additional best practices, namely:
- Crawler Access: Allow access for all crawlers to both desktop and mobile websites to fully understand page structure and to consolidate signals.
- Page Load Speed: Ensure quick page load speeds, as mobile users are typically on slower connections.
- User Experience: Ensure visitors can find the information they are looking for and interact with the website suitably.
- Content Optimization: Optimize important page elements and content to identified keywords.
The Big Engines
Google's hegemony in the browser extends here as well – in addition to the main search app, Google owns an additional four out of the top 10 mobile apps on the market (Maps, Play, Gmail, and YouTube) and is taking the lead in moving away from a solely browser-based system of results.
Of course, with the introduction of Google Now, it's clear that the ultimate goal is to negate the need for proactive search altogether on the part of the user. However, a complex and interdependent suite of applications are developing to feed this ultimate holy grail of user experience and for brands, it's important to understand the nuances of each since there are subtle differences from optimizing for the desktop.
- Google Search App: As discussed, the basics of browser-based mobile SEO are what counts here. Well-formatted content (whether Responsive or mobile-specific) that loads easily, is accessible to all crawlers, free of obstacles, and well-organized for mobile navigation and information retrieval is the key the to visibility within the main Google Search App. However, the app's UI contains prominent prompts that nudge the user away from browser results to app-based discovery paths, including:
- Google Voice Search: Voice search sources results primarily from the main Google index and while SEO professionals may feel more pressure to optimize for natural language queries vs. keywords, at this point, it's still not quite semantic, utilizing speech-to-text and text-to-speech. Thus the focus here is on well-optimized mobile web pages with an emphasis on local content and keeping an eye towards future optimization for longer queries and more slang and colloquial terms.
- Google Goggles: The Goggles experience is improving rapidly in the wake of Glass and it's obvious that as image recognition becomes more refined and wearable technology more readily available, users are bound to become more reliant on visual search. Our best recommendation here (at least at this point in time) is to pay specific attention to image tagging with keywords and geo-spatial information.
- Google Apps: The Apps link on the Google Search app homepage routes users to the full suite of Google applications, increasing the possibility that one might search for results via Google+, Google+Local, News, Offers, Voice, YouTube or one of many other Google app channels. The key here is to understand the likelihood of your particular customers veering off into one of these niche Google Apps and then optimizing accordingly for the nuances of that particular app. While many source their results from the main Google index, there are subtle differences and divergent best practices for some.
- Google+ Local: Smartphone search is heavily oriented towards actionable, real-world activity – approximately 74 percent of local search volume is mobile and mobile local search volume is predicted to outpace the desktop by 2015. Hence, Google+ Local is a key discovery pathway and deserves special mobile SEO consideration. The Google+ Local App sources results from Google+ Local on the web so optimization carries over, assuming of course that you are indeed well-optimized; Google Places is the thing of the past and while many listings carried over to Google+ many did not. Ensuring that you're well-optimized for Google+ Local in general is the main concern and you can get started via the Google Places for Businesses site. Business details such as phone numbers, store hours, payment options, and video are especially relevant to mobile users.
- Google Maps: Destination search frequently starts – and almost always ends – with the maps app. Visibility within it is indispensable for brick and mortar businesses. According to a 2012 study from Google and Ipsos, 94 percent of smartphone owners look for local information, 90 percent take action, and 59 percent have visited a local business as a result of a mobile search. The key here once again is Google+Local optimization since Maps info is fed by Google+ Local listings. To ensure optimal visibility within Maps, strive for a complete listing with special emphasis on hours, photos, videos, and other locally relevant content. Citations from third-party apps like Yelp also help boost rank so your social strategy for your local business is critical here as well.
- YouTube: Smartphone and tablet users alike are active video consumers so YouTube presents a significant opportunity to create mobile search visibility. YouTube is the second largest search engine in the world and one of the most mobile centric with 25 percent of global YouTube views coming from mobile devices. The minutiae of YouTube optimization deserves its own post but a few special caveats for mobile include adding keywords in the video file name and video headline as well as adding a video script in the description and uploading a script for closed captioning, to boost relevance for voice search.
- Google Now: As discussed in my post from June, it's still early days for Google Now and SEO best practices have yet to surface. It is rumored there will be elements that brands can insert into content to flag it for Now but exactly how the value of content will be measured for Now cards remains to be seen.
Native to all Windows Mobile devices as well as Blackberry, Nokia, and Kindle, and available as a third party app on iOS and Android, Bing remains a smaller but still significant mobile search application.
Like Google, Bing sources app search results from its main index – mobile optimization of your .com site will create a halo effect of visibility for the Bing app.
Despite a slow start in mobile, Bing’s foothold on Windows and Kindle devices and the fact that it still powers mobile search for Yahoo, earn it a certain amount of consideration and increase emphasis on implementing the aforementioned mobile SEO best practices for your browser-based content.
While Android devices outnumber iOS in circulation and shipment, iOS users continue to be the most avid consumers of mobile web and app data and are likely to have a certain affinity for the Apple search tools that are preinstalled on their devices.
- Apple Maps: Despite a shaky start, Apple Maps is still native to iOS6 which accounts for over 90 percent of iOS, iPad, and iPod touch devices. The app sources results from a proprietary Apple database, the core data provider for which is Localeze. If your listing isn’t appearing in Apple Maps, you can (and should) proactively create a free listing with Localeze (note that they also offer a premium option which speeds submission for $297 per year). Reviews and additional content are syndicated from Yelp, so Yelp optimization boosts Apple Maps visibility.
- Siri: Though it is positioned as less of a search engine and more of a “mobile assistant", 67 percent of Siri users actually use the search functionality. The interesting twist here is that while Siri sources results from Localeze, Wolfram|Alpha and myriad other sources, it often bypasses traditional search altogether, skipping right to social results like Yelp – so ranking in Siri requires attention to curating your presence in social spaces. What's more, Siri totally disregards PPC so if your strategy up until now was heavily paid, you’ll need to relegate more resources to SEO.
Social, Vertical, and Meta Search Apps
There's a whole other search ecosystem evolving, composed of social and topical search applications that help a user find more personally meaningful and topically relevant content faster and more efficiently than they ever did with the big engine apps.
It's increasingly common behavior for a user to bypass Google in favor of Yelp to figure out where to shop, or to head right to Foursquare for local deals.
There are apps to find real estate, apps to find restaurants – even apps to find apps. It's a shift in user behavior that provides a potentially faster path for brands to connect with the right customer.
The challenge for brand-side marketers, most of whom are still figuring out the Google mobile formula (and probably will be for some time to come) is to figure of exactly which apps matter for their particular purposes. That, of course, is a case-by-case process for which there is no specific formula, but we can offer small amount of advice on a few standout social apps which feed and influence the search results presented by big engine apps as well as offering their own unique mobile search opportunities.
Facebook is the most popular mobile app in the U.S., used actively by 76 percent of smartphone owners so from a mobile perspective, it's arguably as important as Google.
All the SEO basics matter here in terms of getting your branded content indexed by Google and other engines (e.g., special attention to keyword strategy, category selection, page name/URL, and About page description will all serve to not only boost your visibility within the network but will have the added benefit of increasing your rank within other apps that rely on social networks to inform their results).
But overall, it's consistency and engagement that will influence the success of your content via Facebook mobile and all the other apps it feeds – publishing regular posts, encouraging likes, and maintaining a consistent and positive level of engagement with your audience.
For all its popularity with the digerati, Foursquare has been slow to gain traction with the general populace. The audience is relatively small with an estimated 1 million businesses, 10.4 million monthly users, and 25 million users overall, but its specifically mobile and local nature gives Foursquare special importance as a search channel for brick and mortar brands.
The challenge here is that Foursquare content is difficult for bots to crawl – SEO is reliant on submitted XML sitemaps to enable search engine visibility. However, true visibility within the app is contingent on proximity, ratings, and reviews so much like Facebook, it's the quality of your brand, your content, and your interaction with your community that will count most.
Yelp is also highly mobile – the application was used on 9.2 million unique mobile devices on a monthly average basis during Q4 2012 and approximately 40 percent of all searches on Yelp overall come from their mobile app. But the importance here isn't so much the volume as the influence Yelp has on other search apps.
Yelp is a key feeder of results for many big engines and is particularly influential for local results. Yelp does license content from third-party data providers but much of its data comes from users and business owners so proactive content development and curation are essential.
Much like Google+Local, locally oriented content such as store hours, photos, and service offerings are key. Ratings and reviews also figure heavily in rank as well.
Basically, the same rules apply here as they do for Facebook – set up and maintain your presence, carefully curate your informational and local content and cultivate as positive a relationship as possible with users of the application. So it's not just about the browser anymore!
We'd need a whole new post to cover the minutiae of niche and vertical search apps but the same essential best practices are applicable across the board from Google Goggles to Kayak – practice the essentials of basic SEO, submit, create, and curate content whenever and wherever possible, cultivate positive sentiment and sharing, and above all understand the apps most relevant to your business and your consumers.
Image Credit: Smashing Apps