Analytics and Conversion

Why Mobile SEO Is Not What You Think

What is mobile SEO?  Ask that question to 100 SEO’s, and I’d wager that 95 of them will tell you its about having a mobile-friendly website.  Earlier this year Google released new guidance on the matter which focussed on common user mobile experience issues – and stating that a poor experience will negatively affect your rankings – and many SEO’s have taken this to be the new “Mobile SEO Rule Book”.  This is a very important reality to be aware of and to address, but there is a bigger picture here – a fundamental movement in the way that search engines and people are interacting – that will have have a major impact on the way we optimize our web content for mobile.

If you’re reading this post, most likely its because you’ve recognized a trend in SEO  -  maybe you’ve heard the “mobile SEO” buzzword – and you’re doing some research.  But think about that trend for a second: what is actually changing?  It’s this: the devices people are searching from is changing (think functionality, like geolocation) and how they’re using it – the context – is changing.  You might be thinking: “Well that’s obvious.  Besides, I’ve been using Google Maps as a GPS for three years”.  But look at this graph – from Google Trends – and see if you catch the implication here.

Get another perspective on this in our Search Engine Watch article on mobile SEO.

Context in Search Queries

Let me explain myself.  The graph above is revealing because it shows that the way people are interacting with search engines when looking for nearby restaurants has been changing significantly for the past few years, but this year it has really turned on its head.  Note that this search query is missing a crucial aspect: physical location!  The word “nearby” is meaningless without a starting location  Google knows it can get your location from your mobile phone, so it can put context around “nearby” to give you relevant results for this query.  And, interestingly, people are modifying their search behaviour because they intuitively understand that Google can now do this for them.  You could say that Google is training people to behave this way.

A great way to conceptualize this is to think of the “implicit” and “explicit” aspects of search queries.  This post from Distilled sums it up well.  Their visualization, which we’ve modified a bit for Canadian-ness, pretty much says it all.


The SEO implication seems to be this:  The explicit aspect of search queries is trending down, and the implicit aspect of search queries is trending up, and the spearhead of the trend is mobile.  Why mobile?  Because the unique function a mobile device serves in the day-to-day of an individual, along with device functionalities like geolocation services, provides search engines with a richer set of contextual parameters for building an understanding of the implied aspects of a query.

Mobile is only the beginning.  The way things are trending, expect Google to become increasingly capable (as it has been) of gaining more varied types of context and integrating these into its search results.

The Context of Activity

Consider this revealing graph, taken from a Google Think Insights study, showing that mobile device search volumes for different kinds of searches vary by context.


We can see here that, for example, a pretty big chunk of users performing Arts & Entertainment queries on mobile devices are searching from home.  So “mobile” doesn’t necessarily mean out-and-about; it can also mean chilling on the couch with a tablet (often referred to as “lean-back” activities) instead of sitting at the desk in the den in front of a clunky old machine.

The upshot is that mobile users engage search engines when performing many varied activities using their mobile devices, and there are clear patterns and tendencies that provide insights into these behaviours.  I think you can infer the powerful marketing implications of this yourself.

Making Sense of Mobile SEO

At this point you begin to see that mobile context for SEO is quite complex.  When you put it all together it comes down to a close dynamic between many different contextual elements like device portablity, device functionality, location & surroundings, and finally the ways that people use search engines depending on the contexts.

So, knowing all of this, how do we begin to make use of it from a marketing perspective?  My solution is to begin by building searcher personas, which is a topic that we started on Search Engine Watch.  Searcher personas allow us to dig into searcher intent and context for groups of people, which provides us with a foundation upon which to build a user-centric digital marketing environment for our brand.

Ultimately, within SEO, we want to understand how different groups of target users are engaging search in relation to the brand and its products/services, with the goal of serving those users the right content for the right context, and of course making that content highly visible for all kinds of relevant queries.

This article was originally written by Wes Walls.

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