Mobile SEO

10/10/2010 3:06:52 PM
Search engine optimization (SEO) refers to a set of best practices that you can follow to allow your website to be in the best possible place in a search engine.

In general, typical desktop SEO techniques apply to mobile websites, too, but some extra care must be taken. As we’ve already discussed, generating too much code (metadata) and too much text for keyword crawling is not the best solution for the mobile web.

The first thing we need to understand is that mobile search users are not the same as desktop search users. Mobile users are typically searching for something very specific, and we should do our best to facilitate access to those resources.

Mobile search engines (Google, Yahoo!, Bing) localize the search results, so if your service is location-based, you should make sure that your location is properly defined in your text and code. In mobile search engines, the user only types a few characters and the engine tries to suggest the best possible results based on location and previous results, with mobile-specific content given priority.

Note: If your mobile website gets content using Ajax, you should implement Google’s proposal for making the content being indexed crawlable. You can find more information about this at

Search engines like Google will try to serve mobile-specific content first, but if someone is looking for the exact name of your application and Google doesn’t know that you have a mobile website, the user will be redirected to your desktop site or to a transcoded mobile version of it produced by a Google server.

If you appear in the search engine’s databases, you will also be found using the native applications that many search engines are developing, including voice-powered search applications.

1. Spiders and Discoverability

The first problem is how to make your mobile website known to the search engines. This can be different depending upon whether you already have a desktop website that has been crawled or not.

If you already have a desktop website, you can give search engines the URL of your mobile site using the alternate link method:

<link rel="alternate" media="handheld" href="" />

You can also add your mobile site manually, using these URLs:

1.1. Mobile Sitemaps

Google has created an extension to the Sitemap protocol ( for mobile web content discoverability, called Mobile Sitemaps. After creating an account in Google Webmaster Central (, you can add your mobile site to Google’s database. You will need to verify that you are the owner of the site, by inserting a temporal metatag or HTML file in your site.

Note: Googlebot-Mobile uses the Accept HTTP header to determine whether a site delivers mobile content types. If you want to be sure that the bot can access your site, you can also check that the User-Agent header contains Googlebot-Mobile. Some sites will only allow access to mobile devices, and while Googlebot-Mobile tries to emulate such a device it is not always successful in gaining access unless it is specifically allowed.

Once your site has been validated, you can submit a Sitemap for it. If your mobile site is targeted to only one country using a non-country top-level domain (like, you can also define the geographic target for which your mobile site is prepared. or

Note: Check the Sitemaps documentation at for full tag and option support.

A Mobile Sitemap is an XML file, based on the Sitemap standard, that lists the mobile URLs for your site (XHTML, XHTML MP, WML, cHTML). You can provide URLs for both mobile and non-mobile versions depending on the headers, but you should not list non-mobile-only URLs. A sample Sitemap file looks like this:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8" ?>
<urlset xmlns=""

You should provide one url element for each mobile URL and page, including the mobile:mobile empty tag. If you have many versions using different URLs (for iPhone, WML, etc.), you should provide them all in the same file.

Note: To check whether your website is listed in Google Mobile, visit with a mobile device and use the search operator site:your_domain.

The Google Webmaster Team also suggests detecting Googlebot-Mobile in your desktop site and redirecting it to the mobile-specific version of the same page. For example, for information about a product X in your desktop site, you should redirect the bot to the mobile URL displaying information about that product. Otherwise, Google will use a transcoder on the desktop page, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. If you don’t provide a mobile version of your website, Google will use its transcoder for users with low- or mid-end devices. Here is the O’Reilly home page transcoded.

2. How Users Find You

Search engines are not the only way for users to discover your mobile website. Obviously, offline marketing is always welcome, but there are also other online features we should implement to facilitate discoverability. These include advertising the new mobile website to your current desktop visitors and implementing newsletters and feed readers.

The first problem to tackle is simplifying the user’s first access to the mobile website. Many mobile users still don’t know how to go to a URL if it is not on the carrier’s home page, and many others will not want to type a long URL on a numeric keypad device.

2.1. SMS invitation

A good solution is to include in your desktop website a form to collect the user’s phone number and then send him a WAP Push or an SMS link. A WAP Push is a special message with a URL inside. This is generally a premium SMS, and some carriers don’t allow sending them from a website.

An SMS link is just a normal SMS with a link inside. Almost every modern device with a browser will autodetect a URL inside a text message if it begins with wwwhttp:// and will convert the URL into a link that the user can click after receiving the SMS (see Figure 1). or

Figure 2. Modern devices detect URLs inside an inbound SMS and allow the user to access them with a click.

The big question, is how do we send an SMS from a website? The answer is not what you might expect—there isn’t a simple or free way to do it. We have to use an SMS provider or gateway that, with a simple web service call, will send the message to users in one country or worldwide. We will have to pay for that SMS, but depending on the business, a new mobile web user will probably be worth the small expense.

Note: Some SMS gateway providers also allow inbound SMS messages that will be routed to your scripts or will be accessible via an API. This could be an excellent solution to receive queries by SMS to your service.

Some SMS gateway providers include:

Alternatively, you can install a 3G or GPRS modem on your server or in any machine and develop a little SMS gateway of your own, with a corporate or personal account. A widget or an application on your device could also work, although this is not the preferred way.

Note: Zeep Mobile ( offers a free, ad-supported SMS API for sending and receiving messages, but it only works in the United States at the time of this writing. You can also pay for an ad-free plan.

You can also use carrier developer networks and the up-and-coming OneAPI to send messages to known networks.

2.2. Email invitation

For newer smartphones with email support, an alternative to SMS is to send the user a free email message containing the mobile URL.

2.3. Mobile Tiny URL

To enable the user to type your URL easily, you can use the free service Mobile Tiny URL (, shown in Figure 3. It converts any URL into a short form that can be typed with only 13 keypresses on a numeric keypad. By default the generated short URL doesn’t work in desktop browsers or on iPhone devices, but you can add desktop and iPhone support. These short URLs are useful for publication on desktop websites and in printed advertising.

Figure 3. With the Mobile Tiny URL service, developed in 2009, you can generate valid web address that can be entered using only the first characters of a numeric keypad.

For example, instead of typing, a mobile user can type (saving 57 keypresses). As you can see, the generated URL uses only the first letters associated with every key on the keypad, to speed up entry. Even apparently simple URLs like will require 37 keypresses on a mobile phone, and you can save 24 by using the compressed URL (

Warning: The Mobile Tiny URLs aren’t intended to be URLs that you will remember; they are intended for you to have in front of you while you are typing them in.
2.4. QR codes

A QR code is a two-dimensional barcode (also called a matrix code) that allows the storage of several bytes in a graphic. These codes have many uses, one of which is to provide a URL that can be read by devices with bar code readers. Many Nokia and Android devices come with these readers preinstalled, but on other devices, users will need to download one. A sample QR code is shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4. Google Maps created the Favorite Places campaign, sending stickers like this one to businesses (like restaurants) that the users can scan with their mobile devices to access information, reviews, etc. Today, the service is known as Google Places.

Note: A QR code can contain 4296 alphanumeric characters, or 2953 bytes for binary data. Some devices also support other data inside, like contact information (for example, a vCard file).

They are well known in mobile advertising; many campaigns use these codes in newspapers, on street signs, and even on t-shirts.

To create a QR code, you can use any of these free services:

If you need to generate a QR code dynamically, there are libraries for almost all server-side platforms that will generate the right image for you.

The free Google Chart API ( allows you to generate free QR codes using an XHTML img tag with parameters.

There is also WordPress plug-in ( that creates a QRCode widget for inserting in your blog).

3. User Fidelizing

Once you’ve gotten a user to your mobile website, how do you encourage her to come back and maintain an interest in your service? If you are not providing a must-use service (such as online banking or email), you may want to implement some of the following techniques to “fidelize” your users:

  • Encourage the user to add your site to her bookmarks, or to the home screen on selected browsers (like iPhone or Android).

  • Offer the user a widget or mobile client with richer features.

  • Offer the user a shortcut to download for the applications or home menu.

  • Offer the user a home widget on supported devices, with automatic updates.

  • Create a mobile RSS news feed.

  • Provide an SMS alert subscription.

Creating a widget for your mobile website  could be the key to getting the user back, via the icon in her applications menu. This can be useful even if the widget is just a void container for the same website.

Note: A great feature to incorporate into a widget or mobile client is friend recommendation using the Contacts and SMS APIs available on some platforms.
3.1. Web shortcuts

A web shortcut is a native application or widget that has an icon in the menu that launches the browser when it is activated, like the one shown in Figure 5. Adding a shortcut is better than adding a bookmark, because it will be installed just like any other application.

Figure 5. In Gmail, you can access the mobile website or download a richer client (“Get faster Gmail”). The same technique is used for downloading a shortcut.

You can create Java ME, Windows Mobile, BlackBerry, and widget versions to cover all the possible shortcut platforms.

Note: You can create a free shortcut for your website using the free service.
3.2. RSS

Some browsers (Opera, Bolt, NetFront, Symbian) detect feed metatags and offer the user the option to subscribe to the feeds to get updates on the sites that provide them. To offer this service, you should provide an RSS file with a mobile web link inside:

<link rel="alternate" type="application/rss+xml" title="Mobile RSS"
href="" />

If you have an RSS file for your mobile content, you can create a free mobile client reader at and offer it as a download from your site.

3.3. Open Search

If your website provides a search engine, you should supply an Open Search description protocol file that will allow users of compatible devices to add your engine to the list of possible search engines. Not too many mobile browsers support this format at the time of this writing, but a mobile extension is in draft by the Open Search organization (

To define an Open Search declaration for discoverability, use the following link tag:

<link rel="search" type="application/opensearchdescription+xml"
href="" />

The Open Search descriptor file will look like this:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<OpenSearchDescription xmlns="">
<ShortName>Mobile Web Search</ShortName>
<Description>Search in our mobile web</Description>
<Url type="text/html"
<Image height="64" width="64" type="image/png">

3.4. BlackBerry Web Signals

RIM offers a push service called Web Signals that can push real-time information to BlackBerry devices. The customer has to follow an opt-in process to subscribe to your content. When you want to push information you send an icon and a URL to the RIM servers, and they deliver the information to the subscribed users. The mechanism can be used for public information for end users (news, weather, traffic) or for private information (corporate alerts).

To see more information and start providing Web Signals to users, go to

Note: Apple, Android from 2.2, and Palm offer push service notifications for applications distributed in their stores. We can also use these if we provide hybrid web applications.
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