In a nutshell, how does mobile SEO differ from desktop SEO?

Aleyda Solis, SEO and web analytics consultant

Mobile SEO differs from desktop SEO since it’s specifically targeted to the mobile search environment, taking into consideration the specific mobile user’s search behaviour and intent, and the characteristics, requirements and restrictions of the mobile web platform from a content, interface and technical perspective.

Although the principles of mobile and desktop SEO are the same, the environment characteristics and restrictions are different and in order to make the most out of the mobile search ecosystem it’s important to specifically optimize your presence for it.

Andrew Girdwood, media innovations director at LBi

Modern SEO helps digital assets, such as websites, earn the quality signals necessary to be considered appropriate by search engines for a prominent recommendation in response to a query from a user.

Modern SEO is about turning the success search to success in business; turning traffic and exposure into ROI and brand strength.

In desktop SEO the result pages, the recommendations, are complex with a variety of choices and options for the user. A sizable number of desktop searches are considered “long tail”, with multiple keywords, or entirely unique. Searchers are typically on good internet connections.

In mobile SEO the result pages are simplified as screen sizes are smaller. There is less clutter but fewer recommendations. The long tail of keywords is shorter in mobile and will remain so until voice search becomes more popular in which case long tail will dominate in mobile.  

Mobile SEO is more frequently about promoting a wider range of digital assets; websites, secondary mobile sites, apps and videos. Searchers may not be on a good internet connection.

In a nutshell, mobile SEO differs from desktop SEO because it connects brands to customers in a different environment.

James Bentham, SEO account manager at The Search Laboratory

The differences are subtle and lie within the implementation of the site. This could be how the site is presented; whether it’s on a mobile platform, an app or a separate mobile site.

Google prefers responsive design rather than a separate site, although this isn’t always possible due to high cost. Mobile search also takes into account location and device type much more heavily, therefore certain site aspects become more important such as a store finder or a call-to-action.

Is it enough to assume that if you rank well in desktop search then you will also rank well in mobile search?

Aleyda Solis

No, it’s not. The keywords that you rank well for in the desktop search results might not be the same ones that your mobile audience uses.

Your desktop pages might not be friendly towards mobile search users and bots, therefore, they might not attract the same visibility, rankings and traffic from them.

So if you want to make the most out of the mobile search audience it’s important that you develop a mobile search process, taking into consideration the specific mobile search platform and audience behaviour, characteristics and restrictions.

Andrew Girdwood

Mobile developments are racing ahead at such a pace that all assumptions are dangerous. It is entirely possible for a Head of SEO to come to work on morning to find that the Head of Mobile is diverting traffic “likely to be mobile” to an entirely different site.

There are ranking differences between desktop and mobile results. Click through rates will be different but many search engines weigh quality signals differently. Slower sites, for example, are less well suited to be included in mobile recommendations than faster sites.

James Bentham

No – mainly due to the differences previously mentioned. If content doesn’t render well on mobile it’s much less likely to rank well. Also, terms that rank well on desktop but are not relevant to mobile users will not help rankings so site architecture may require changes.

Mobile users generally have a different intent than those sat at a desktop. Sites that have a high download time will also suffer on mobile rankings – it’s crucial that mobile sites are as streamlined as possible. 

What tactics can marketers use to improve their mobile search rankings?

Aleyda Solis

By enabling a mobile site – selecting the best option depending on their site content and technical characteristics – that is friendly towards  mobile search users and bots, featuring relevant mobile content, including the keywords used by the mobile audience.

I shared the specifics about them in the Good Practices to Maximize your Mobile SEO SEOmoz Webinar I did recently.


Andrew Girdwood

Understand that SEO is increasingly an earned media but with mobile there are still technical gatekeepers in place. Marketers must absolutely be working with assets that are appropriate for mobile; be that responsive sites, apps or platform profiles.

Sites should use markup, be quick, responsive and should react well to unknown user agents. Sites should have content that is easy to share and read on a small screen device.

SEO should always be concerned about conversation optimisation. Marketers may find it easier to improve mobile conversions than mobile traffic. Make sure checkouts and shopping baskets work on touch screen devices.

James Bentham

Everything leads back to user experience and the user agent, or whichever search engine is crawling that version of the site. Marketers have to take into account things like prioritising content and making sure that it’s really easy to convert – CTAs are crucial. 

It’s also important to capture as much local search as possible. People tend to use mobile search when they’re out and about, for example searching for a coffee shop while in town, so naturally if you own a local coffee shop you want your site to prominent in these results. 

The difference between desktop and mobile sites is obvious for things like store finders. While on desktop sites these are buried away, on mobile versions they are afforded a much greater prominence due to the increased likelihood of relevance. 

Other tactics that should be employed include reducing site load time by minimising image size and the amount of content on the page.

Social signals and links from SMS messages and QR codes (although there is no evidence for the latter) can help mobile rankings. For apps, user reviews can improve rankings.