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Mobile SEO: the ultimate guide

We are addicted to our smartphones. For many people, the smartphone is the first thing they check when they get out of bed in the morning. It is also the last thing they check before they go to sleep. People use it for everything. It’s huge. Mobile has changed our lives. It has also changed SEO. Mobile SEO helps you to reach customers and satisfy their needs in an enjoyable way. This guide to mobile SEO will show you everything you need to deliver a perfect mobile experience.

Why is mobile SEO important?

Mobile SEO is so important because it helps you get in the right place at the right time and makes sure the experience you offer consumers is stellar. Mobile traffic has eclipsed desktop traffic. Every day, more and more people are discovering the enormous advantages of the smartphone. Our whole lives are in those machines – it’s almost scary to see how attached we’ve become to our smartphone. Many people call it an extension of themselves and something they couldn’t live without. To reach these people you need mobile SEO.

Mobile does not necessarily mean on the go. Studies find that people often grab the nearest device to look something up and in most cases that’s their smartphone. They use it to inform themselves about products before making the decision to buy something. Anywhere any place. According to research by Google, smartphone users have a higher buyer intent than desktop users. They’re focused and ready to buy. It’s your job to be there when they are looking for your products.

Mobile SEO vs. desktop SEO

There’s a difference between desktop SEO and mobile SEO, but the goals are often comparable. You want to reach your audience and turn them into customers. In some ways, desktop SEO tactics also work for mobile SEO, but in a slightly different form. Three big themes still apply: focus on performance, user experience, and content. In desktop SEO you’ll often focus more on the general public, while mobile SEO is somewhat more local oriented.

Google’s mobile-first index

The importance of mobile SEO is made even clearer by Google’s recent announcement. Sometime in 2018, Google will switch to a mobile-first index. What does this mean? For the first time, Google will determine rankings based on the quality of the mobile version of the site instead of the desktop version. A new Googlebot will crawl your mobile site and determine if its performance, content and user experience are up to scratch. If so, you can get a good ranking. If it fails somehow, other sites will be higher rated and will pass you by. Even if you’re not focusing on mobile you will still be judged by your mobile site, so now is the time to take action.

Things will change

Right now, nobody knows exactly how this process will differ from the current one. We do know, however, that you must keep your mobile site crawlable by taking down all possible barriers like poorly loading scripts. Don’t block stuff in your robots.txt. It also has to offer the highest possible performance if you want to be indexed well.

You can no longer present less information on your mobile site than on your desktop site. Your content has to be the same on both, because, in the future, you can only rank on the information that is on your mobile page. Or, like Google’s Maile Ohye told us in an interview:

“To “optimize” for a mobile-first index, make sure that what you serve to mobile users is the version of the content you’d want Google to index, not a pared down version, or a version that gets updated later than desktop, or version that redirects to the mobile homepage.”

Don’t forget to tell Google your site is mobile-proof. You can add a viewport declaration – if you’re using responsive design – or a Vary header when using dynamic serving. More on later on in this article or in Google’s developer documentation.

Know what to do

Mobile SEO is – just like regular SEO – all about making sure your site is crawlable and findable. Also, you need stellar performance, great content and a flawless UX. To get it right, you need to know how your site is currently performing and what your visitors are doing right now. For instance, do people use the same keywords on mobile to find you? People often change how they search while using a mobile device. And what do you want people to do? Offering to navigate to the nearest Whole Foods is less than ideal when you’re on a desktop machine. It makes total sense on your smartphone, though.

Mobile SEO tools

You need to become best friends with Google Search Console. Its search tools are legendary and a big help if you want to find out how your site is doing in the search results. For instance, by using the Search Analytics feature, you can see how mobile and desktop users use words to find what they need. Are you targeting the right words? Should you focus on something else?

One of the other Google Search Console tools that make your life a bit easier is the Mobile Usability tool. This tool checks your site and presents an overview of posts and pages that don’t follow Google’s mobile-friendly rules. This is an excellent way to start improving your mobile SEO.

Another Google tool is PageSpeed Insights. This tool shows you exactly how fast your site loads on mobile and desktop. It also suggests performance improving enhancements. Use this alongside the Developer Tools in browsers to see how your site is rendering its contents. Some other great tools to up your mobile SEO game are Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test, Analytics, SEMrush, Ryte, ScreamingFrog, and SimilarWeb.

Read more: Google Search Console: Search appearance
Read more: DIY: Test your mobile site

Design for performance

It’s the number one thing you’ll be working on when you’re trying to improve mobile SEO: performance. In this case, performance almost entirely boils down to site speed. It’s a given: the faster your site is, the happier your users will be. We all know that a site has to load within a couple of seconds or else your visitors will be gone. If you combine this with the knowledge that sites are only increasing in size, you know you have your work cut out for you.

Optimizing performance, however, is a continuous process. Your site will never be fast enough because there’s always more to improve. And that’s ok. By keeping a close watch on how your mobile site is performing, you can immediately jump onto every opportunity to improve it. Google loves fast sites, and so do your customers.

Read more: How to improve your mobile site
Read more: Page speed as a ranking factor, what you need to know

Responsive design vs. dynamic serving vs. separate domain

While developing your mobile site, you’ll have three options: responsive design, dynamic serving and a separate site on a subdomain. Google prefers responsive design. This way, you have one site that adapts to the device it’s used on. There’s only one code base, so maintenance is easy. According to Google, using responsive design will make your site eligible for addition in the new mobile-first index. Always let Google know that your site is mobile-proof by adding the meta name=“viewport” declaration in the head of your documents.

<meta name="viewport" content="width=device-width, initial-scale=1.0">

Dynamic serving takes a different approach. It uses server-side technology to serve a different version of your site to mobile users, depending on the way they access your site. The URL stays the same, but the files sent differ completely. You need to add the Vary header to get Google to crawl your site. This way, Google immediately knows that it will receive mobile-optimized files from somewhere else. A Vary header appears like this when a browser makes a request:

Vary: User-Agent

The third option is a separate mobile site on a different URL – usually an m. domain – and with different content. Google supports this method, but only if you make correct connections between your regular desktop domain and the mobile domain. Use rel=”alternate” and rel=”canonical” to tell Google how these pages are connected. More on these different types and how Google uses them on this Developers page.

PageSpeed Insights

PageSpeed Insights is a powerful tool to analyze the performance of your mobile site. It’s easy to use and gives you loads of insights into the loading speed of your site. Put in your URL and Insights will give you two scores: one for mobile and one for the desktop. These will differ. If your score is red, you have work to do. Orange means an average performance and green is good. You’ll receive suggestions to enhance the performance of your site. Follow these suggestions, and you’ll be on your way.

I hear you thinking:

“Nobody has a score of 0/100, right?”

Well, think again. It’s a combination of things that can do your mobile site a lot of harm. Find a bad hosting provider, install WordPress on a crappy shared hosting program, activate thirty plugins and upload a hundred non-optimized images to your blog and you are well on your way to a bad score. But these things can easily be undone. Run PageSpeed Insights and other speed analyses tools and follow their advice.

What can you do to improve your site speed?

When improving your page speed, you should always ask yourself if you need all these assets, libraries, images, plugins, theme features and so on. The famous saying “less is more” is still as valuable as ever.

Read more: Site speed tools and suggestions »

Think about implementing AMP

The Google-led open source project AMP, or Accelerated Mobile Pages, has one goal: loading your pages as fast as possible. It’s been in development for some time now. It has reached new heights with the release of amp-bind, a JavaScript library that adds interactivity to AMP pages. Now, one of the biggest drawbacks of using AMP is fixed.

In the beginning, AMP was used on static posts, like blogs or news articles, that didn’t need interaction from the user. For e-commerce purposes, AMP fell short. Until now, that is. Look into what AMP could do for your site and how you might implement it. Not every site needs it, but the ones that do could gain a lot from it.

Read more about implementing AMP with WordPress »

New kid on the block: Progressive Web Apps (PWA)

PWAs offers another way of targeting that mobile user. A progressive web app is an all-in-one solution that works on all devices, for all users. It’s the perfect crossover between the app world and the web world. The web app works like an app, without the need to publishing it in an app store. PWAs combine the loading speeds of mobile sites with the best functionality of a native app. If done correctly, a good PWA might fool users into thinking they are using a native app.

Thanks to technologies like service workers, the browser can do a lot more in the background, while keeping the front end updated in real-time. This makes it a viable option if you need an app, but can’t justify the cost. There will be a lot happening with progressive web apps in the next couple of years. Google has a must-read blog post if you want to know how to create indexable PWAs.

Focus on user experience

Besides being findable and lightning fast, your mobile site should offer an enjoyable user experience. Try to take away any obstacles and make sure users can reach their goals quickly. There’s a lot you need to consider when optimizing your user experience. I’ve listed a couple of things you can think of below:

Read more: 10 ways to improve mobile UX »

Optimize for local

While we use our smartphones a lot in our house, these devices become extra useful when we’re out and about. Google found out that 76% of the people who search for something nearby visit a related business within a day. 28% of those visits lead to a sale. To cope with that local demand or so-called near me searches, you need to work on your local SEO. Local search results can look very different from regular desktop searches, so you have to know what to target and how to target that. Here are some things you can to do to improve your local SEO for mobile:

Read more: Ultimate guide to small business SEO
Read more: Local ranking factors that help your business’ SEO

Finetune your mobile content

The screen of a smartphone is small, that’s a given. On that screen, text gets truncated or wrapped in a seemingly never-ending stream of paragraphs. A user has to scroll endlessly. Text on a mobile screen has the potential to give every web designer a headache. But the design – and use – of text is of crucial importance to the success of your site. If your site is unreadable or plain ugly, people will not read your 1,000-word article. Hell, not even your 100-word summary. Fix your typography.

People read a lot on their smartphones, but you have to make it as easy as possible for them to do so. Also, you have to make sure that your content is up to scratch as well.

Read more: Optimize your mobile content

Write for the small screen

Always keep the restrictions of the small screen in mind when creating or editing content. Don’t use too many long sentences, keep your paragraphs around four sentences and use many stops like lists and headings to break up your text. Nothing is more daunting to your visitor than a massive block of unformatted text. Check your content on a smartphone to see how it works and if it’s possible to improve it.

Read more: Copywriting for mobile (coming soon!)

Write better meta descriptions and titles

Google will show less information in the search results on mobile than on a desktop. Your meta descriptions and your titles will be truncated if you made them too long. Thinks about that when you optimize your posts and pages. You lose several characters when optimizing your meta descriptions and titles for mobile. In Yoast SEO’s snippet editor, you can switch between a mobile and desktop preview. This way, you can see how the differences between the two and pick a perfect middle ground.

Read more: The snippet preview in Yoast SEO

When working on your content, you should take the next biggest thing into account: voice search. Yes, it’s been around for a while. But with the advent of Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s nameless Home assistant, things are moving fast right now. More and more people are using their voice to perform actions on the web, and your content has to provide answers. If done correctly, you might kill two birds with one stone: you’ll not only respond to questions mobile users have, but it might also lead to so-called featured snippets or answer boxes on desktop searches.

To prepare for voice search, you need to take a good look at your current content. Ask yourself, does it answer any question a user might have? If not, change it. Find out which questions people use to find your content and optimize for that. Use Google’s autofill or tools like Answer the Public to find alternative questions to answer.

Read more: How to prepare for voice search

Add structured data to a mobile site

Structured data is hot. By adding structured data in the form of Schema.org to your site, you can open a line of communication with search engines. Structured data makes it clear for search engines what all the different elements on your site mean. If done correctly, search engines can use this data to give you highlighted search results, known as rich results or rich snippets. This way, your site immediately stands out from the crowd, and that might lead to a higher click-through rate.

Structured data forms the basis for many new ways of presenting search results. The rich results we used to know as rich cards, for instance, use data you can add to your mobile site. The result is a snippet that is mobile-optimized and very enticing to click. Structured data is one of the most important topics you have to read up on. Follow our structured data course if you need an easy way to add structured data to your mobile site.

Read more: Structured data with Schema.org: the ultimate guide

A mobile SEO guide

This ultimate guide to mobile SEO gives a lot of pointers to improve the performance of your mobile site.  Mobile SEO should always be a work in progress because there are always new things to improve. Also, technologies arrive or get discarded. The world is always changing, and you have to keep up. If you do, the rewards can be great. So, what are you waiting for? Get your smartphone, check your site in a mobile browser and find and fix those issues. Use this mobile SEO guide well, because 2018 is going to be an important year! This is the time to take action because if you don’t, you might miss out in the new year.

Read more: ‘Why every website needs Yoast SEO’ »