While the rise in the use of responsive web design is reducing the amount of SEO considerations developers need to remember when designing a new site, there are still fundamental differences that need to be considered during the design stages and beyond.

Even when a site fundamentally works regardless of the device being used, and Google has no problems in crawling it with its mobile user agent, those in charge of analytics can often forget the importance of segmentation, treating traffic from all sources as being identical.  

In this post, I am going to explain four mobile SEO mistakes you shouldn’t be making on your site that’ll help you think beyond how pretty your site looks on your mobile. 

Using the wrong configurations on non-responsive mobile sites

Yes, responsive design is quickly becoming the norm when serving up an optimised experience for mobile users, but that doesn’t mean it’s usage is yet universal.

The two other methods you’ll come across are:

  • Separate mobile URLs
  • Dynamic serving

Both of these ways of delivering mobile specific content require unique configurations that, despite how intelligent Google is becoming in knowing how to crawl and index your site correctly, are essential when optimising your site for mobile.

While I won’t be going too far into the specifics, I will be giving you an overview of what you should be doing, and link to resources that can explain in more depth.

Separate mobile URLs 

This was the more common method of delivering a mobile optimised website before responsive design came along. You have a mobile site on a different sub-domain, such as m.bbc.co.uk, keeping all of your mobile content on different URLs.  

The two most important points if you’re using this method are:

  1. Use the rel=”alternate” tag pointing to the mobile URL on the desktop version of the page, helping Google find your mobile content. 
  2. Use the rel=”canonical” tag pointing to the desktop URL on the mobile version of the page, helping Google understand which version of the content is duplicated.

You will encounter other problems such as people linking to the mobile URL and not the regular version, which while not a huge issue in itself, is still annoying nonetheless.

Dynamic serving

Dynamic serving of content delivers a user experience not dissimilar to having separate mobile URL’s as above, only you are able to keep the URL’s the same. This is achieved by serving up different HTML to desktop devices than to mobile devices. 

While this method is preferred over separate mobile URLs, it is more complicated to setup and configure. Because the mobile content is not immediately apparent, Google recommend that you hint to the different content by using the Vary HTTP header, so that Googlebot-Mobile knows to crawl the site as well.

If you need to use this method, I recommend that you check out Google’s own developer guidelines on the subject.   

Thinking Googlebot-Mobile will treat your site like Googlebot

With responsive design, you have to worry much less about Googlebot-Mobile specific crawling issues, but that doesn’t mean you can forget about them altogether. As part of your routine technical health checks on your site, remember to look at the regular and mobile user agents separately, otherwise you might miss issues that didn’t originally surface. 

You have two primary tools at your disposal:

  • Google and Bing Webmaster Tools. I will focus on Google Webmaster Tools, as this will be the most commonly used, but remember that Bing’s own version has some fantastic features itself.     
  • A search engine spider and crawling tool such as Screaming Frog SEO Spider. Your other main option is Xenu’s Link Sleuth, but as far as I’m aware, you can’t specify different user agents using it. Do correct me in the comments if I’m wrong.

Google Webmaster Tools

When using Google Webmaster Tools to look for crawl errors, remember to select the mobile tab to look for mobile specific problems. You’ll most likely see a different set of results for web and for mobile.  

You can also use the fetch as Google tool crawl specific URL’s (typically you would test the most important pages) and verify the HTML and HTTP status codes, although this will primarily be for debugging.

Also, while we’re in Google Webmaster Tools, when looking at the incredibly useful search queries report, remember to filter the results by mobile so you can see what you’re appearing for in mobile search results.  

Screaming Frog SEO Spider

Screaming Frog SEO Spider is an excellent tool, and one that is an indispensable weapon in my arsenal. One of its many uses is to see and understand how Googlebot-Mobile, the user agent Google uses to crawl mobile sites, crawls the site you’re working.

From the Configuration menu, you can specify the user-agent Screaming Frog uses to crawl with.

Forgetting that mobile searchers are not identical to desktop searchers

One of the benefits of the previous ways of designing mobile optimised website, prior to responsive, was that developers/designers had to think about the desktop audience from the mobile audience separately. 

This is because those audiences are not the same, and often, they can have quite different needs. This is not an excuse to deliver mobile users a dumbed-down or reduced experience though - one of my pet hates is when websites give me a version of the page with only a fraction of the content when viewing it with my mobile. 

With responsive design you are delivering the same website to all users, meaning the same content and the same keyword optimisations. But, the sorts of searches people make on their mobiles tend to be different from the ones they make on their desktops, therefore you always need to be considering context on your website. 

In what context is your content most likely to be accessed?

Separate your keyword research

When you are conducting keyword research, look at values for searches from mobile devices separately from desktop devices to understand the differing search habits.

Armed with this knowledge, you can understand how to optimise the content on your site. 

Consider mobile in your on-page optimisation

Your potential audience on mobile devices might be searching for different things to desktop users, so be sure to consider this in your on-page optimisation.

For example, if you know a particular page is important to mobile searches, e.g. the contact details of a local branch of your restaurant, make sure that page has a title and meta description that is short enough to make sense to a mobile user (they have less space available in their SERP’s). 

Make sure to also consider your mobile specific keywords when writing your copy: don’t assume your desktop optimised copy is sufficient. 

Not segmenting your mobile traffic

The last mistake you shouldn’t be making regards analytics. While I’ve left this to the end of my post, don’t leave your own analytics efforts to the end.

If you’re seriously considering going mobile, start by understanding your audience and their browsing habits using your analytics platform, most likely Google Analytics. Then, continue to segment your data to understand how different users are using your site.

Thankfully, Google Analytics makes this easy for you as the advanced segments are already there and ready to be used.

Take this beyond simply looking at traffic numbers however, try and understand usage habits. Areas to look at include:

  • Organic, to see the search queries people are finding you for on different devices.
  • Engagement metrics on content reports, e.g. Landing Pages, to see whether users are treating content different depending on the device. What may be a good experience on desktop might not be on mobile.
  • Conversions/goals/events, to see whether people are taking the actions you want them to. If your conversion rate is significantly lower on mobile, have you checked that your call-to-actions are appropriately easy to spot and use?

If you have an ecommerce website and are looking for a mobile dashboard, check out this mobile commerce dashboard that’s great for tracking some top-level data.

What other mistakes would you add to this list?

Are there any other common problems you see with SEO for mobile devices? Let us know in the comments below. 

Peter Meinertzhagen

Published 17 June, 2013 by Peter Meinertzhagen

Peter Meinertzhagen is Digital Marketing Manager at Nominet and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can follow Peter on Google+, Twitter and LinkedIn

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Comments (8)

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Stuart McMillan

Stuart McMillan, Deputy Head of Ecommerce at Schuh

Hi Peter,
The mobile GA segment includes tablet traffic, so be selecting both mobile and tablet segments, you'll be seeing tablet in both. If this isn't what you intend and you'd just like to see mobile traffic without tablet traffic, Graham wrote a useful post which contains a link to this segment: http://econsultancy.com/uk/blog/62534-11-valuable-google-analytics-advanced-segments


about 5 years ago

Peter Meinertzhagen

Peter Meinertzhagen, Digital Marketing Manager at Zest Digital


Hi Stuart,

Thanks, you are right. For the purposes of this post, I was just trying to segment mobile along with tablet at the same time (for which there was no need to tick tablet too), but the custom segment in the post you linked is also invaluable for understanding differing user habits.


about 5 years ago


Ian Wright

Great article Peter, brands really need to be concentrating on their analytics data in more depth. This is especially true for future growth , for web, mobile and tablet measurement. It's vital they do this to stay ahead of the game/competitors.

Brands need real investment in these measurement areas as it will drive higher efficiency and greater ROI.

Most SEO companies just look at top line data only, which is not that effective in the long run.

Thank you guys, really interesting article.

about 5 years ago

Peter Meinertzhagen

Peter Meinertzhagen, Digital Marketing Manager at Zest Digital

@Ian Thanks Ian. I've seen so many examples of companies that are only looking at top-level data in their analytics while not focusing on the metrics that matter. For this, segmentation of data is essential. And for any brands still not convinced in the importance of mobile, a quick look at analytics will be enough to show that the way we use the web has already dramatically changed.

about 5 years ago


Sue Lloyd

Not only are mobile searchers not the same as desktop ones - but also their buying habits are very different.
Mobile platforms provide a great "first contact" for just about any product or service on the net - at any price point. However Sachs Goldberg have discovered that there is a solid ceiling on what people will buy on mobile devices - at least in terms of initial outlay.
And it's quite easily defined as "2 hours salary for whoever is performing the search" Sorry It won't let me link to the piece on Forbes where this is discussed.
However - that aside first contact is increasingly made on mobiles and tablets so if you don't optimize for those devices you aren't in the race for either immediate sales or deferred purchases.
If altering your website would be a major chore, what about just trying to ensure you have a 960 page width that factors down to most mobile sizes and that any sidebars are either 20, 25 or 33 percent of that width so that they also scale down appropriately?
It's a quick and dirty method, but bounce rate is an increasingly important SEO factor and a site that looks terrible and misshapen is going to get a lot of visitors looking straight for the exit.

about 5 years ago


Bob Arthur


Though some interesting elements in your article your comments about Responsive Design are completely misleading. To suggest it is the norm is very wide of the mark.

For most organisations a Responsive Design approach is inappropriate and it has serious impact on customer experience and usability. You have to ask why organisations like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, BBC etc. have not adopted universally. There are many issues with a responsive design approach; Services often present badly with the layout often distorted and basic features do not work, Services can be very slow, It can be very expensive and take time.

It is essential that organisations understand the implications of the various options and are not being pushed down a route that does not suit strategically and commercially.

For many organisations optimising for mobile using a separate URL is going to be the best option by far.


about 5 years ago

Peter Meinertzhagen

Peter Meinertzhagen, Digital Marketing Manager at Zest Digital

@Bob Hi Bob, thanks for the feedback.

Yes, at the time of writing I thought that the statement could be misleading, and should have clarified it better.

For the scale of websites you are referring to, no, responsive design is very much not the norm, and there are some good reasons for that (although that isn't to say it shouldn't be considered).

However, for the average new/redesigned business website or blog, a responsive approach is certainly the norm in comparison to the other options. Simply because these sorts of websites would not have considered a mobile site because of the scale of work involved, but with the abundance of responsive themes, templates, and frameworks available, it would silly not to.

I agree that for many organisations, using a separate URL approach is probably the best way to go, but, I'm glad to see responsive design maturing.

about 5 years ago


Michael- SEO Chicago

Thanks for the article, very informational. Google webmaster tools are very helpful for tracking things on your site. I've been using it for awhile now and i love it. I've never used the screaming frog tool though. Might have to check it out.

about 5 years ago

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