Search to Go: Meeting the Needs of the Mobile User

If you have not yet begun to consider mobile search, now is the time. Search for mobile sites presents many challenges already familiar to search marketers, yet adds different twists that make it unique.

At the Search Engine Strategies conference in New York last month, a panel of experts provided attendees an excellent overview of mobile search marketing and why search marketers should focus on it. The panel, entitled “Mobile Search Optimization,” featured Cindy Krum of Blue Moon Works, Gregory Markel of Infuse Creative, and Rachel Pasqua of iCrossing. Today, I’d like to focus on a few of the problems unique to mobile search marketing.

To get a site’s message to a consumer by audio, video or text, search marketers must jump three hurdles. The site must be: (1) indexed in the engines, (2) delivered by the search engine as relevant to the user’s keyword query and (3) clicked on by the user. With mobile, the device adds another hurdle.

Mobile User Interfaces

As any cell phone user (now more than half the population) knows, simply entering a name and phone number into the directory of a typical 12-key cell phone takes multiple taps (clicks) each with an attendant lag which makes each word take far longer to enter than if the user had at hand a standard QWERTY keyboard.

Just as with a name and phone number, a search query requires these same multiple taps and lags. Even phones with PDA functionality do not offer the ease of entry so familiar to desktop searchers – the user must poke the letter with a stylus or work an often awkward, smaller than standard keyboard.

Then, once the search results are delivered, the user must parse through them screen-by-screen, not page-by-page. A simple search is not a trivial undertaking. Studies have shown that mobile users are looking for very specific answers. Dealing with these challenges is the fundamental difference between mobile search marketing and regular search marketing for the desktop.

SEO for the Small Screen

Similar to standard text sites, search marketers can submit their mobile sites to Google’s index and use mobile sitemaps to direct search engine crawlers. Similarly, standard page optimization rules apply: use keyword-rich titles and do your keyword research, build links, add social bookmarking, and make tagging easy. The panel also recommended using keyword-rich short file names and strongly recommended not using scripted or Flash elements since mobile browsers cannot interpret these elements.

None of these recommendations are unique to mobile. So what is the big difference? In the case of mobile search the search marketer is charged with ensuring a positive search experience, within the confines dictated by the device’s unique requirements.

The small screen on mobile devices adds a dimension that Web designers and search marketers alike must consider as they create and market powerful mobile sites. Among the SES panelists there was some difference of opinion as to whether to use the same site for wired and mobile users. For a dual-purpose site to work for wired and mobile users, it is essential for it to be 3C XHTML compliant, fully accessible for all users and fast-loading.

These are solid recommendations for wired sites, not just mobile. With mobile they take on new urgency. This is because mobile browsers are very intolerant of non-compliance, graphic images are stripped and their text equivalents displayed on slow-loading mobile devices; hence a need for speed and accessibility.

In my experience, relatively few sites are fully compliant, have the code load reduced to a minimum for fast-loading, and meet strict accessibility requirements. This being the case, my own recommendation is to develop a mobile-only site. Knowing that it is going to need to meet the needs of mobile browsers and the navigational challenges of the small screen will help drive the use of mobile best practices.

A mobile-only site can then be designed to meet the mobile user’s needs. Shumeet Baluja and Maryam Kamvar, both research scientists at Google, published a research paper last year, A Large Scale Study of Wireless Search Behavior: Google Mobile Search, which showed that mobile users do not browse; they search deliberately looking for content that meets their query.

Because of the difficulty they encounter in entering a query, their queries are slightly shorter on average just 14.5 characters. Even queries of this length require on 12-key phones numerous taps, so search marketers should optimize mobile pages for shorter keyword phrases.

Mobile users know what they are looking for, since they often enter specific URLs and use search to guide them. Reward them with content that does not require multiple clicks to access. Because search on a mobile device is slow and tedious, users do not perform multiple queries in a single session. The search marketer must make sure that content that answers the query is presented promptly – no more than three clicks, please.

From the SES panel on mobile search, it was clear that the search marketer and site design team must work closely together with the needs of the user directing the effort. Most of the actual optimization is familiar ground to search marketers, but mobile offers search marketers a chance to emphasize how search marketing and the user experience intersect to address the users’ query.

Amanda Watlington is the owner of Searching for Profit, a search marketing consultancy focusing on the interaction of the consumer with businesses using search engines, RSS, blogs, podcasting or other new media to deliver their message. She is a frequent speaker at Search Engine Strategies, WebmasterWorld and other industry conferences. She’s the author of three books and has written feature articles for over thirty magazines and journals. She has twenty years of experience as a communications, sales and business strategy consultant, and over ten years as a search marketer.

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