How to Optimize Your Website for Mobile Search

Improve your rank in mobile searches and engage users across devices

While many search engine optimization (SEO) best practices are similar for mobile and desktop devices, there are important variations. Mobile SEO is affected by mobile device technology and user experience. Some of the best practices aren’t covered in Google’s mobile guidelines, but going beyond the requirements can pay off for a business. Not only will these tips help you rank well in Google, but they will also help you attract clicks, drive conversions, and provide users with a great experience.

Why you should prioritize engagement alongside SEO

It’s worth thinking about your website’s conversion rates (and how to improve them) alongside SEO, especially on mobile. If your website is discovered through search, it’s important to know that the site is going to do its job when a new user gets there.

Although this is somewhat controversial in the professional SEO community, Google seems to reward sites with strong engagement. Google guidelines don’t reference counting a page or a site’s bounce rate towards SEO, but they may use other metrics as a proxy by evaluating how soon after clicking on your site or your page the average user submits a follow-up search query. The longer a user waits to search again, the more likely it is that they are engaged and found what they were looking for on your site. Even if this is not how Google measures engagement, it seems that some assessment counts towards rankings.

Why might Google prioritize engagement? Because they want people to find what they are looking for via their search engine. This means that they must surface websites that meet a user’s needs, so that they don’t need to return to the search results over and over again. Otherwise, users might consider switching search engines, which would be a loss of business for Google.

These tips are meant to improve rankings, but increased engagement and conversion rates will impact your business’s bottom line, even if the rankings stay the same.

Mobile SEO best practices

Mobile SEO is similar but different from traditional SEO. The main differences are not in the substance, but on the focus of the optimization effort. Good content and links are still important, but since the way that mobile pages are built to meet Google’s guidelines adds complexity, mobile SEO focuses on technical requirements that are sometimes less obvious and harder to test than they those of traditional SEO. An effective mobile SEO strategy focuses on URL rendering, page rendering, and mobile-focused markups.

URL rendering

URL rendering refers to the way a URL looks in the address bar, and it’s essential to mobile SEO. To succeed with this element of mobile SEO, businesses must devise and maintain URL rendering rules in canonical tags, internal links, and sitemaps.

Search engines and servers often take URLs very literally, and any change in a URL could be perceived as a separate URL. This means that even a URL with capital letters might be perceived as different from the same URL with lowercase letters.

For SEO, your goal should be to have only 1 canonical version of a URL. Canonical URLs are the HTML link element that tells search engines that this is the URL you want them to surface for each page.

By setting normalization rules, you can use your server to recognize the request and rewrite or redirect the browser to the correct version of the URL so that the user still gets to the page. Normalization rules provide code that automatically changes things like capital letters, incorrect prefixes (like when a user doesn’t type “www.” at the beginning of a URL), and trailing slashes to direct users to the right page.

Setting a single canonical URL for each page ensures that there is only 1 version of a page URL that is being worked on, optimized, and indexed. Indexing is how a page gets added to a Google search. By following this guideline, you know which URL to edit if there are issues with the indexing.

Canonical URLs are also especially important for page rendering and page speed, because variations in URLs can slow down the rate at which pages load. And canonical URLs also prevent pages from being missed in a migration—like if you have to change servers—when URLs are updated or moved. This can mean that old pages won’t remain live after a redesign, and their link-equity won’t be lost in the long term as the new page URL and content builds up rankings.

Page rendering

The programming language JavaScript is often used to control page rendering, but the impact that it will have on crawling and indexing is hard to predict. Google says that they can crawl JavaScript, and that it’s not a negative ranking factor, but it can still add complexity and limit the ability of content to rank. Deferred JavaScript rendering happens up to a week after actual crawling of the site, so even if it is only a time component, this is important to consider. If you are selling seasonal swimwear or posting holiday deals, getting content into the index in a timely manner can make all the difference.

For SEO projects where rankings are critical and time-sensitive, it’s important to know what is happening in both the executed and unexecuted versions of the page—meaning the versions in which JavaScript is and is not yet at work, respectively. This is because Google now seems to send most JavaScript to the Deferred JavaScript Rendering process, which is generally delayed up to a week compared to the regular crawl of the site. This means that anything that is critical or time-sensitive still needs to be included in the unexecuted HTML version of the page.

Another part of the difficulty of optimizing a JavaScript-heavy site for mobile has to do with the limitations of a “view source” browser request. JavaScript is used heavily in responsive design and other mobile-focused design solutions to organize and fetch content as the user interacts with the website by clicking buttons or scrolling. But if the page or the source code is altered by JavaScript, it cannot be seen when you command the browser to “view source.” This makes it hard to know what is and is not impacted by JavaScript until the JavaScript has been run, the only way to really know what’s going on in a page is to view the executed or rendered page.

This is tricky if you aren’t a developer. But you can use the "inspect element" function in Google Developer Tools, or there are some other plugins and tools that show you executed source code. Be sure to look at the mobile view.

It can be easier and more accurate to either access the rendered HTML in the Google Search Console URL Inspection tool, or if you need to check many pages at a time, crawl the site using Screaming Frog. Make sure to set the user-agent to “GoogleSmartPhoneBot,” the rendering to “JavaScript,” and the Advanced Options to “Store Rendered HTML.”

Obviously, this is very technical, but the important thing to know is that “view source” is no longer a good way to view what is going on in a page. Because things like title tags, meta descriptions, schema, and even page content may be populated by JavaScript, they might not be seen with a simple “view source” command.

Mobile-focused markup

Mobile-focused markup refers to the schema (which is code or microdata) that helps a page get discovered by a search engine on mobile. This includes product ratings, reviews, recipes, addresses, and product details—all of which make a page more relevant to more searches, and thus more likely to surface on a search engine results page (SERP).

Speakable schema is also becoming more important to mobile searches. This includes frequently asked questions (FAQs), question and answers (Q&As), and how-to markups. And especially if you include images with this content, it drives great-looking mobile search results. There’s also a belief that Google is crawling with a new bot, called the Read Aloud Bot, presumably to enable Google Assistant to respond more clearly to questions or to read instructions. These appear to add carousels and expansion arrows to search results from pages with the markup included, but they should also ensure that the pages that have them will be more prominent and engaging in voice search, as that technology grows.

In general, Google does appear to be focusing much more on ranking answers to questions in search. Many in the SEO community have gone from talking about Google as a “search engine” to talking about it as an “answer engine.” The growth of voice-enabled search is likely driving this and growing quickly, so it is a good idea to focus your effort on creating content that answers questions about your business or industry. Google has even launched Answer Hubs in some countries and languages, potentially as a test for something that will be launched worldwide at some point soon. They are also showing Questions Answered results that focus on celebrities answering personal questions, another interesting spin on the concept.

The best practices of mobile SEO are more technical than traditional SEO, but they are all within the reach of anyone with the patience to investigate and learn. Make sure that your website does a good job of URL rendering, mobile page rendering, and mobile-focused markup to take your efforts beyond meeting the burdens of Google’s mobile-specific updates and guidelines and to ensure that all the SEO possible is driving top rankings on the search results that will also drive click-through rates.

Written by Cindy Krum for Mailchimp. Cindy is an expert in mobile SEO features.