Though Google has never offered a clear position on the best SEO strategies for mobile websites, Webmaster Trends Analyst Pierre Far recently announced a few specific guidelines for developers. The official recommendations are intended to help developers build mobile sites that work well for both users and Google’s ranking system. As with most SEO strategies recommended by Google, the mobile guidelines focus on usability and value for a website’s visitors.
In general, there are three ways to design mobile websites. The first approach, responsive web design, sends data to all devices from a single set of URLs. Whether a visitor accesses the website from a laptop or a cell phone, content is delivered using the same HTML. Then, the website uses CSS to render the content in a way that is appropriate for each device. Mobile websites can also use a device-specific HTML approach. In this case, the website delivers different HTML and CSS to users based on their devices. Finally, some companies choose to build entirely separate desktop and mobile websites. While this approach can be effective, it is costly and often difficult to implement.
The Benefits of the Responsive Design Approach
Google’s official guidelines suggest that developers use the responsive design approach whenever possible. Developers using the responsive design approach enable CSS3 media queries to determine how the page will be rendered on each device. Though the URL and HTML data stays the same, CSS reads the device and figures out how the website should be displayed. In general, Google prefers this method because it is easy for their search algorithms and for users. Google only has to index a single site rather than crawling through multiple pages to determine a page’s ranking. It is also easier for users to interact with a single page through the responsive design approach.
Understanding the Device-Specific HTML Approach
In some cases, developers are unable to use the responsive design approach for mobile websites. While Google prefers the simpler method, their search engine algorithms also support the device-specific HTML approach. Developers using this approach should use a header that notifies Google of the site’s configuration. Without the header, Google’s crawling agent might miss the page and fail to index the site. It also allows Google to see that the content from a desktop and mobile site are equivalent and only differ in the devices they target. This notification gives websites a better chance of high search engine rankings because Google will be able to understand the site’s content.
While Google’s algorithms and methods for ranking mobile websites will likely become more complex and sophisticated in the future, these initial guidelines are an important asset for any developer hoping to achieve better rankings. The responsive design approach is preferable, but the device-specific HTML approach can still yield positive results when the developer specifies that the website’s content depends on the user’s device. Google’s first set of clear recommendations for mobile SEO strategies offers a helpful perspective on the future of mobile website development.