June 13, 2013, 1:11 PM

Google cracks down on mobile laggards

Google soon will begin penalizing retailers that don't follow its mobile SEO best practices.

Google Inc. has offered best practice recommendations for mobile search engine optimization for some time. Soon those practices will become mandatory for retailers that want to ensure their mobile web pages are not penalized by Google’s search algorithm and dropped from search engine results pages.

“To improve the search experience for smartphone users and address their pain points, we plan to roll out ranking changes in the near future that address sites that are misconfigured for smartphone users,” write Yoshikiyo Kato, software engineer, and Pierre Far, webmaster trends analyst, on Google’s official blog.

The primary change concerns what Google calls faulty redirects. A redirect occurs when a site detects that the device making a desktop site URL page request (for example, Retailer.com)  is a smartphone and therefore changes the path and instead sends the smartphone to the mobile site URL page (for example, m.Retailer.com).

Most retailers with mobile commerce web sites redirect shoppers who type in the home page URL of the desktop site to the home page of the mobile site. The problem that Google is looking to address is with pages deep in a mobile site, such as product pages.

“There is a very common thing that still happens among retailers: A consumer on a smartphone does a search and clicks on a deep link indexed by Google and is either taken to the desktop version of that product page or redirected to the mobile home page,” says Brian Klais, CEO of Pure Oxygen Labs, a mobile marketing firm. Klais specializes in mobile search engine optimization. “The consumer does not get the mobile version of the desktop page, which is what they really want. Google is labeling that a faulty redirect and is saying retailers with faulty redirects will suffer in the rankings.”

There is a way around this common problem: Instead of going mobile with an m-commerce site for smartphones, create a responsive web design site. In fact, that is Google’s No. 1 recommendation for businesses looking to optimize their sites for mobile devices.

Responsive design uses one set of web content and one code base to create a single site that renders differently to fit the size of the screen of any device, be it a desktop, tablet, smartphone or smart TV. Because a responsive site is a single site, it only has one URL per page; thus, there is no need to match desktop URLs with mobile URLs.

The vast majority of retailers in mobile commerce have built separate m-commerce sites for smartphones; a growing number are building separate sites optimized for tablet shoppers. But responsive design is a hot topic in m-commerce circles, and a small but growing number of retailers have been deploying responsive sites. Some mobile experts believe that one day responsive design will dominate the Internet landscape, and not just in retail. Last fall, car rental giant Hertz Corp. relaunched its web site after redesigning it using responsive techniques.

But for now, retailers with m-commerce sites need to pay close attention to Google’s rules for smartphone-optimized pages or potentially lose business stemming from mobile search to competitors. And mobile searching is on the rise. As an example, 15.1% of paid search clicks occurred on smartphones in Q4 2012, according to The Search Agency.

Another change to the way Google will rank mobile web pages concerns smartphone-only errors. Some sites serve content to desktop users accessing a URL but show an error page to smartphone users. There are many scenarios where smartphone-only errors are seen.

If a site recognizes a consumer is visiting a desktop page from a mobile device and the site has an equivalent smartphone-friendly page at a different URL, the site should redirect the consumer to that mobile URL instead of serving a 404 “page not found” error page.  That problem is not uncommon today, Google says. And retailers should make sure that a smartphone-friendly page itself is not an error page. If content is not available in a smartphone-friendly format, a retailer should serve the desktop page instead, Google advises. Showing the content the user was looking for is better than showing an error page, Google adds.

Retailers also must properly tag their mobile and desktop pages for Google to properly rank them. This is to ensure they are not incorrectly penalized for a practice known as “cloaking,” which runs afoul of Google’s rules. When cloaking, a company seeking to boost its ranking serves Google’s bot, the technology that crawls web sites, different content than it serves consumers. The problem with mobile content is that a site is serving a lot different content—mobile-optimized content—than what is found at the desktop URL. So even though that is what is supposed to happen, and is perfectly in line with Google’s rules, it still can look like cloaking. So Google has recommended some best practices to avoid this issue.

“Retailers have to tag content so Google knows they are doing redirects for the benefit of mobile users and are not trying to game the system,” Klais says.

There are three things a retailer must do, Klais explains. First, a retailer’s site must have what is known as a “vary header” that indicates user agent (the mobile platform initiating a request); this tells Google that the content at the URL varies by user agent, Klais says. Second, for desktop pages and mobile pages that correspond to one another, retailers must insert on the desktop page a meta-tag called an alternate tag that identifies the mobile version of the desktop page and the mobile URL, Klais says. And third, to complete the loop, retailers must insert on the mobile page a meta-tag called a canonical tag that identifies the desktop version of the page and the desktop URL, Klais says.

“These are the things mobile marketers have to do if they want their mobile content high up in search results,” Klais says. “Most retailers do not comply with this yet.”

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