What is Mobile SEO and How Does it Differ from Desktop?

How location, operating systems, screen size, and more impact search engine optimization on mobile devices.

People spend more and more time on their mobile devices, interacting with the web in a variety of ways. But even when you use your phone or tablet as you would a desktop computer, there are many differences between the 2, including the way that search engines work.

To reach people on all devices, you can optimize not only for search engines on desktops, but also for mobile. Unlike desktop, mobile search engine optimization (SEO) is impacted by the location of the user, the size of their screen, the device’s operating system, and more. Understanding these differences makes it possible to improve your rankings across devices and grow your business.

How Mobile SEO is Different

Optimizing for mobile devices requires many of the same best practices of desktop SEO. But mobile search results are much more variable than desktop searches, because they are influenced by an additional set of factors.

Things like page organization, user location, operating system, screen size, and more impact what content receives a top ranking. The interaction of these variables means that search engine crawling, indexing, and ranking processes differ between devices. Mobile SEO provides a framework to succeed on any device. But first, it’s important to know what differs between desktop and mobile, and how those differences impact search results.

Here’s where they diverge:

Search engine results pages (SERPs)

  • What differs most between desktop and mobile SEO is the layout of the SERP. Because mobile phones are smaller than desktop screens, Google doesn’t have enough room for 2 columns. This means that anything on the right side of a desktop search result will stack above or below the organic search results, and fewer results will show on the first page—this is especially true for paid listings (pay-per-click results). Also, the Knowledge Graph panel is displayed at the top of mobile SERPs—this is the block of content that answers a web query with summarized information so you don’t have to click on any links. Similarly, Landmarks, Things to Do, and Google My Business results surface at the top of mobile SERPs. This attractive, highly interactive content pushes search results further down on the page. However on desktop, it’s to the right of results.

Location

  • Most modern mobile phones have a global positioning system (GPS), which provides search engines with more accurate location data than stationary desktop computers. Even if a device doesn’t have a GPS, mobile phones have other ways of giving search engines location data, which influences search results. This is one of the primary reasons that mobile search results are much more variable than desktop search results—if you search something in Bangkok, the results will likely be very different than if you search while in New York City. However, desktop searches are also influenced by the physical location of your mobile phone if you’re logged into a Google account on both. Some believe that the weighting of location information is higher in mobile searches, meaning that it has more influence over the results. For example, you might be more likely to get a map result when searching for a restaurant on your phone than on a desktop. But it can also change which pay-per-click ads are shown, since Google’s ad platform, AdSense, allows advertisers to geo-target ads based on zip code or postcode. You can test the impact of location on your search rankings with MobileMoxie’s SERPerator tool.

Phone operating system

  • Mobile search results are also impacted by phone operating systems. This is especially true if Google thinks that the query might have an app-oriented intent. In this case, search engines are more likely to show an app pack—the colorful grids of app icons that link directly to an app in the app store. Keywords like “run tracker,” “fun game,” or “image editor” tend to rank apps, because these keywords are associated with apps that people use and download often. Google will only show app packs with apps that work on your phone’s operating system, generally iOS or Android. As most apps don’t work on desktop, app packs typically don’t display in desktop results.

Screen size

  • Google adapts search results to fit the device that you are using to search. This impacts how many results are visible on the page. When tablets flooded the market they added even more variations to SERP layouts.

Other factors

  • Finally, Google has new search capabilities and some are mobile-specific. For example, Google now offers search through augmented reality (AR). This technology allows Google to provide search results about what it finds in the camera frame on your mobile device. Let’s say you have a golden retriever dog—if you were to open your mobile device’s camera with your dog in the frame, Google will identify the dog breed and surface search results about it. Mobile SEO experts anticipate that search capabilities on devices will continue to get more interactive.

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