Will SEO Matter in the Mobile Web?

Mobile Apps, Responsive Web Design, & SEO

responsive web design seoThere are two trends that Internet marketing agencies who offer web design and search engine optimization (SEO) must pay attention to because they appear to be on a collision course. Saying “collision course” is unnecessarily dramatic because there will not be a winner and a loser like there was with HD-DVD and Blu-ray. The collision will have to do more with how these trends affect SEO. The mobile app development and responsive web design trends will soon have a great impact on how SEO, if at all, impacts the web in the future.

One trend is explored in a recent article by the New York Times, which suggested mobile web searches will cut into Google’s lead in search dominance. In my own experience, this suggestion is often true because, while I have both the Google Search app and Chrome installed on my mobile phone, I tend to go directly to the app of the service I need and skip Chrome, Safari, or even the Google Search app. The article references searching for nearby restaurants on Yelp instead of searching via a browser or Google app in which Google would receive mobile search traffic. The overall point being, app developers are quickly taking mobile search traffic away from Google. With the exponential growth in mobile and tablet usage vs. traditional desktop searches, the Times’ article suggests we are quickly headed to a place where people don’t go to the “grocery store,” as Danny Sullivan called Google, and instead go directly to the “specialty store” (apps on a mobile device) for the information they need.

Will Mobile Apps Kill SEO?

As someone who is interested in SEO, the question I ponder in all this is, Will specialty app searches reduce or even kill the need for website search optimization? As desktop web use shrinks and non-search engine related apps take away mobile web search traffic from search engines, does SEO become irrelevant? While these questions are extreme, they are not without relevance to the industry I am in and not something to ignore.

When done correctly, search engine optimization does help the most important, non-monetary goal of a search engine: organize the web with relevant search results to the end-user. So I do not think Google and other search providers will let SEO die. However, there is credence to the fact that mobile users’ search habits are fundamentally different than that of desktop users.

Without a drastic change in how users view the web on mobile devices, SEO could end up part of Internet history like dial-up.

Enter responsive web design.

Can Responsive Web Design Save SEO?

In my own experience, I use specialty apps for search over a mobile web search app or browser because of how the web looks and feels (read: user experience) on these devices. This way of viewing the web has nothing to do with the size of my phone’s screen. I recently purchased an iPad mini and one of the first things I did was download iPad versions of certain retailer apps I use on my phone because I am brand loyal and have found their apps more useful for web activity than the mobile versions of their sites. The larger screen still did not encourage me to use the Chrome or Safari browser on my iPad. My reluctance is strictly related to the disconnect in my desktop experience of a site and how that same site translates (or does not) on a mobile or tablet device. In two words: it sucks.

The second trend is responsive web design. Responsive design is fun for graphic web designers because it increases the creativity factor by at least two since you are inherently coming up with multiple layouts of a site without separate URLs. The short of responsive design is that the desktop version of a website, through breaking points, adapts with full functionality for the device it is viewed on. Responsive design sites are not separate websites and drive traffic to one URL. From an SEO client perspective this is ideal to the alternative of a separate mobile site(s). From a user perspective, the benefits are a fully functional website while on the go. No mobile web browser or in-app limitations.

A site with responsive design is good for SEO on a basic level because:

Low Bounce Rate – Users are less inclined to immediately return to other results when they click on your site. Finding a full blown usable site when they select you on the SERP is a trust signal that your site is made for mobile and was what the user was looking for when they clicked.

Consistent Content – Content on a mobile site vs. a desktop site is almost always dramatically different. Even if both sites employ the same content for exact match pages, user frustration could mount if Google finds the desktop version of a page on a mobile device. This is becoming less likely to happen, but still could. Responsive web design allows all of your content to be in one universally acceptable place.

Ranking and Link Building – The most important reason the SEO industry should root for responsive web design is that search engines rank sites optimized for mobile higher than those that are not and because all of your link building will count for mobile as well. Duane Forrester, Sr. Product Manager at Bing, promotes a tagline for the search engine that is a dig at Google in “Your data, always provided.” Responsive design allows a site to keep all analytics and SEO work at one URL no matter what device is viewing it.

Building a better web through adaptive, responsive design will encourage users to use the mobile web in more similar ways to the ones they use on a desktop. Users don’t like to change their patterns but will when forced to. The web design and SEO industry can do their part and help their own cause without sitting back and waiting for the search engines to do something. This effort will be a giant step into saving search optimization in a mobile app driven world.

The Future of SEO Is in the Mobile Web User’s Hands

In the end, the user still controls the effectiveness of these trends and how efficiently and smartly the industry rolls them out will either excite the user base or turn them off to the point the trend dies. What we must do is pay attention to the new shiny toys and tools we are given and keep the user in our cross-hair with their best intent in mind.

I believe responsive web design can save SEO. If we can build a better mobile web for the user, we should. We can. Our industry can build better, cooler, fully functional websites and drive the user back to the browser on their mobile devices, giving useful SEO even more areas to thrive and grow.

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