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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 and the last thing they look at before they go to sleep. People use them for everything – it’s become huge! Mobile phones have dramatically changed our lives, the way we use the web and, consequently, it has changed SEO. Mobile SEO helps you to reach customers and satisfy their needs while enjoying the experience. This guide to mobile SEO tells you everything you need to know to deliver the perfect mobile experience.

Why is mobile SEO so important?

Mobile SEO is crucial because it helps you reach your your customers in the right place at the right time and and give them the very best experience. Mobile traffic has now eclipsed desktop traffic. Every day, more and more people are discovering the enormous advantages of the smartphone. Our whole lives are in these devices – it’s almost scary to see how attached we’ve become to our smartphones. Many people call it an extension of themselves and something they can’t live without. To reach these people you need a mobile SEO strategy.

Mobile does not necessarily mean on-the-go. Studies have found that people often grab the nearest device to look something up quickly and more often than not, that’s their smartphone. They use it to inform themselves about products before making the decision to buy something, any time, 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 or services.

Mobile SEO vs. desktop SEO

There’s quite a difference between desktop SEO and mobile SEO, but the goals are often comparable. You want to reach your audience and convert them into paying customers. In some ways, desktop SEO tactics also work for mobile SEO, but in a slightly different form. Three major 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 has more of a local focus.

Google’s mobile-first index

The importance of mobile SEO is made even clearer by Google’s recent announcement. At some point 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 get a better ranking. If it is lacking, other sites will rank higher and you could lose out. Even if you’re not focusing on mobile you will still be judged by your mobile site, so now’s 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 such as poorly loading scripts and not blocking stuff in your robots.txt. It also has to load lightning fast 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 identical on both, because, in the future, you will only rank based on the information on your mobile page. Michiel wrote a post about the so-called mobile parity. 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 a version that redirects to the mobile homepage.”

Don’t forget to tell Google your site is mobile-friendly. You can add a viewport declaration – if you’re using responsive design – or a Vary header when using dynamic serving. More on this later – 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 example, will 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?

Another Google Search Console tool that makes your life 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 great Google tool is PageSpeed Insights. This tool shows you exactly how fast your site loads on both 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

The number one thing you should be focusing on when you’re trying to improve mobile SEO is performance. Performance almost entirely boils down to site speed. It’s a no-brainer: the faster your site is, the happier your users will be. It’s well known that a site has to load within a couple of seconds or your visitors will give up and go elsewhere. If you combine this with the fact that sites are only getting bigger, it’s clear you have your work cut out.

Optimizing performance, however, is a continuous process. Your site will never be fast enough because there’s always more you can 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, or a separate site on a subdomain. Google prefers responsive design because you only 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-friendly 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 are completely different. 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 the 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. Another great Google tool to get a sense of how users percieve loading speeed is Lighthouse. Both tools are easy to use and give you loads of information on the load speed of your site. Type in your URL and Insights will give you two scores: one for mobile and one for desktop. These will be different. If your score is red, you have much work to do. Orange means an average performance and green is good. It’ll give you suggestions on enhancing the performance of your site. Follow these suggestions, and you’ll be on the right track.

I hear you thinking:

“Nobody has a score of 0/100, right?”

Well, think again. A combination of factors can do your mobile site a lot of harm. Find a bad hosting provider, install WordPress on a crappy shared hosting platform, activate thirty plugins and upload a hundred non-optimized images to your blog and you are going to score badly. But these things can easily be fixed. 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, but 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 has been 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 an awful lot from it.

Read more about implementing AMP with WordPress »

Progressive Web Apps (PWA)

PWAs offers another way of targeting mobile users. 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 publish it in an app store. PWAs combine the load speeds of mobile sites with the best functionality of a native app. When 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 good 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 easily found and lightning fast, your mobile site should offer an enjoyable user experience. Try to remove any obstacles and make sure users can achieve their goals quickly. There’s a lot you need to consider when optimizing user experience. Here are a couple of things you need to think about:

Read more: 10 ways to improve mobile UX »

Optimize for local

While we use our smartphones a lot in our homes, these devices become even more useful when we’re out and about. Google found that 76% of people who searched for something nearby visited a related business within a day. 28% of those visits led 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 it. Here are some ways you can 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

Smartphone screens are small. On that screen, text gets truncated and wrapped in a seemingly never-ending stream of paragraphs. Users have to scroll endlessly. Text on a mobile screen has the potential to give any 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 just plain ugly, people will not read your 1,000-word article. Hell, maybe 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. You also need to make sure that your content is up to scratch.

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 to around four sentences and break up text using bullet points, lists and headings. Nothing is more daunting to your visitor than a massive block of unformatted text. Check your content on a smartphone to see how it looks and find ways to improve it.

Read more: Copywriting for mobile

Write better meta descriptions and titles

Google shows less information in the search results on mobile than on a desktop. Your meta descriptions and your titles will be truncated if you make them too long. Think 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 compare the differences between the two and find the perfect middle ground.

Read more: The snippet preview in Yoast SEO

Prepare for voice search

When working on your content, you should account for the next big thing: voice search. Yes, it’s been around for a while, but with the advent of Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Home assistant, things are moving fast. More and more people are using their voice to perform actions on the web, and your content has to provide the 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 ideas for 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 to 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, which could lead to a higher click-through rate.

Structured data allows for many new ways of presenting search results. The rich results we used to know as rich cards, for instance, uses data you can add to your mobile site. The result is a snippet that is mobile-optimized and very attractive to click. Structured data is one of the most important topics to get your head around. See our structured data course for an easy way to learn how 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 you 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 developments, but also technologies arrive and are superseded. The world is always changing, and you need to keep up. If you do, the rewards can be great. So, what are you waiting for? Get your smartphone, check your site on 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 get left behind.

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