Google’s changing recommendations on SEO for mobile

Check you’re not making these 5 mobile SEO mistakes to get your SEO right in 2014


Recommended link: Google’s new advice covering mobile SEO mistakes

December 2013 update

We originally alerted readers to Google's new advice on mobile SEO in June 2013. This is a BIG deal since more searchers are performing mobile searches and your mobile SEO traffic may fall if you get the user experience wrong as explained below.

In this update, Google have again highlighted the importance of a seamless mobile experience by releasing a new tool to help site owners review mobile SEO errors. We also advise comparing your mobile/desktop SEO traffic in analytics to see whether you may be missing out on mobile SEO visits. Here is the output from the new Google Webmaster's tool taken from Google's new announcement:


June 17th alert

Over the last few years we’ve seen “moving goal posts” on Google’s advice for mobile SEO as the technical options for delivering mobile experiences have changed. Initially, the advice was to create mobile-specific sites on a separate mobile sub domain, e.g. and to notify Google about them through mobile site-specific sitemaps and giving access to Googlebot-mobile crawler.

Around a year ago, Google updated its recommendations for building smartphone optimised sites to explain that Google supported three mobile SEO configurations, as remains the case:

  • "Option 1. Sites that use responsive web design, i.e. sites that serve all devices on the same set of URLs, with each URL serving the same HTML to all devices and using just CSS to change how the page is rendered on the device. This is Google’s recommended configuration.

  • Option 2. Sites that dynamically serve all devices on the same set of URLs, but each URL serves different HTML (and CSS) depending on whether the user agent is a desktop or a mobile device.

  • Option 3. Sites that have a separate mobile and desktop sites".

You can see that for the first time they made a clear recommendation for a single URL for each piece of content based on responsive design.

These are explained further in Google’s Webmaster guidance pages on Building Mobile-optimized websites.

Mistakes to avoid in mobile sites

The latest guidance is also useful in that it explains mistakes to avoid which can affect your mobile rankings.

The mistakes to watch out for are:

  • 1. Faulty redirects. For example, redirecting to the homepage rather than relevant content. For example:

Mobile SEO errorsWhile Google won’t be able to detect these errors directly since no error is generated, it’s well known they do distinguish between short clicks and long clicks i.e. short clicks are where people search and then search again immediately because they don’t see relevant content (in contrast to long clicks where people search, engage with a site and don’t repeat a search for some time). As AJ Kohn explains in his post these are not based on bounce rate in analytics since this is not a sufficiently accurate signal and Google have said they don’t use Google Analytics data within SEO spam analysis.

  • 2. 404 Not found errors. For example, if a mobile user is detected and sent to a 404 page because of the device they are accessing on.
  • 3. Googlebot-Mobile errors. For example infinite redirect loops which means the mobile site can’t be crawled.
  • 4. Unplayable video on mobile sites. Likely to be a problem on iOS if your video isn’t delivered through HTML5. This could lead to an increase in short-clicks.
  • 5. Tagging to show the link between the mobile and desktop site not in place. Not explicitly explained in Google’s errors post, this is a problem if you are following Option 3 above with a separate mobile site. Google gives separate details of how you should markup/tag pages with rel="canonical’ and rel=’alternate’ as shown here:

Mobile configuration

Using analytics to check you're not making these mistakes

Applying advanced segments is the technique to use here. Since Google have said there is the potential for different rankings for mobile device searches you should isolate SEO results for mobile and check you're getting the volume of traffic you are expecting. I’m sure many reading this far will know this, but the screengrab below shows how you can apply advanced segments to break out your mobile natural traffic and keywords in Google Analytics.

Mobile advanced segments

You should check that the brand and non-brand traffic you receive in mobile is at least consistent in volume with your desktop site. Beyond that you should check the quality and value also in terms of conversion rates and revenue generated although you can expect conversion rates will be lower for smartphone devices - see these desktop vs mobile conversion rate averages for reference.

Share your thoughts

  • Nice info for mobile platform

  • Tally commented on March 27, 2016

    It’s an amazing post, these points are really necessary.

  • Nice information for mobile SEO, however things are going to be more complex varying from platform like android, java, ios and more…noticed that Google rankings differ on different mobile platforms..more to learn as we are moving towards mobile internet very fast..

    • Thanks for your comment – I haven’t noticed rankings change by device – that’s surprising / not logical unless Google is assessing relevance by clickthrough. Perhaps it’s just personalisation/Google search history is different for different devices you’re doing the test on?

      • Dave, its not personal history based..we have seen android smartphone and featured phone serp different at times..Even Google separately crawl smartphone and featured phone compatible website and there would be definitely some inclusion of the factor while populating serps for different platform..even i raised this point in a Google office hangout and they agree to the aspect till an extent..thx

  • Hugh Gage commented on June 20, 2013

    Just one thing to note when using the mobile segments shown in the screen shot above, the ‘Mobile Traffic’ default segment includes both mobile phone and tablet. To split out so you are looking at only mobile phone traffic you’d need to create a custom segment using the ‘Device Category’ dimension and then select ‘Mobile’, [confusingly] this then only filters traffic from mobile phones. The way to be completely certain is to then select all three segments and you should see that total visits from your custom ‘mobile’ segment + all visits from your GA default tablet segment = total visits from the GA default ‘Mobile’ segment.

  • Andrea Moro commented on June 19, 2013

    These should be guidelines dictated by the common sense rather than a search engine, and surprisingly enough most marketers or developers ignore these simple principles.

    • Hello Andrea – it’s a complex choice though isn’t it, so maybe people don’t take any decision. At least RWD is the obvious decision for anyone who hasn’t decided yet although I do think RWD can degrade the desktop experience/conversion for the majority of visitors unless it’s tested carefully.

      • Andrea Moro commented on June 19, 2013

        I can’t really say anything about RWD as I didn’t use it.

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