How Marketers Can Rank High in Mobile Phone Search

Posted on by Marcus Tober

PrintMobile phone search is becoming an increasingly important part of the customer journey, with more searches now taking place on mobile devices than on computers in many countries, including the US, according to Google. CMOs must have a strategy in place that ensures they rank highly for the right keywords when it comes to mobile search.

Ensuring your site is mobile friendly is a strategic imperative for two main reasons. Consumers demand an optimized experience for their mobile device, and are unwilling to put up with pages and sites that don’t deliver. They will simply take their business elsewhere, and even complain on social media, damaging brand reputation.

Another factor is that Google itself takes mobile usability into account when delivering search results. It does not want to direct mobile users to sites they will find difficult to view and navigate on their device. The Google Mobile-friendly update, released in April 2015, downgraded the position of web pages that don’t meet its mobile usability guidelines when viewed on mobile phones.

In an analysis of the top 30 mobile phone search results for 10,000 relevant keywords on Google.com, Searchmetrics identified factors around three key areas—content, technical structure and user experience—that impact search rankings on phones.

  1. Relevant, high quality content

As Google has evolved its search algorithm, it has focused much more on content when delivering search results. Essentially it is looking for the most relevant, complete answer to the search query, meaning that marketing strategy has needed to shift to creating high quality content if companies are to rank highly for their key search terms. Old SEO tricks that were designed to manipulate rankings are no longer as effective.

Both mobile and desktop pages have to cover a topic comprehensively, with those that rank highly containing a high percentage of both “proof terms” strongly related to the search topic, along with slightly more distant “relevant terms”. Essentially this helps demonstrate to Google that the content covers the topic holistically touching on all areas that searchers might be looking for. So, for example, if the main topic or search query is “California holidays”, proof terms such as California hotels or California flights are likely to be common, as well as relevant terms such as “Disneyland” or “Napa Valley vineyards”.

There are however three important differences between the content of top ranking results on mobile phones and those on desktops:

  • Mobile content is significantly shorter than on the desktop (on average being 867 words compared to 1285), probably driven by the difficulty of reading longer form content on smaller smartphone screens.
  • There are significantly fewer internal links to related content on the same domain. This follows Google’s mobile usability guidelines, which advises against placing links too close to each other, in order to prevent users accidentally tapping the wrong one.
  • Top 30 mobile results average less than four images per page – compared to around nine in corresponding desktop pages. This is probably because pages with more images take longer to load on mobile phone devices.
  1. Cleaner, simpler interface and user experience

Accessing content on the move, on a small, touch-based mobile phone screen needs to be as easy as possible, so it is no surprise that Google rewards pages that make the user experience seamless and straightforward.

Simplicity is key. This means that high ranking mobile pages generally have fewer interactive elements such as menus and buttons as well as images.

Nearly three quarters (72%) of mobile pages in the top 30 search results contain at least one unordered list (such as bullet points) to help structure information. This is around a quarter more than in desktop search results. However, lists on mobile pages are also usually much shorter, with fewer individual points.

Many high ranking brands have dedicated mobile sites, while 22% of pages that rank in the top 30 mobile search results use responsive design that automatically adjusts the format to suit mobile, tablet or desktop. In fact, the real percentage may be higher as our research only studied the most common JavaScript patterns for responsive design.

Text above the fold – the visible area that can be viewed without scrolling – tends to be larger on average on mobile phones compared to the desktop. This is because above the fold text often includes links to other parts of the site – and making them larger makes them easier to click. Below the fold, text size on high ranking mobile pages actually shrinks to aid readability and it contains fewer links.

  1. Optimized technical structure

It is an obvious point, but mobile phones are technically very different to desktop or laptop computers. Screen size is much smaller, and data is often downloaded on the move, through cellular data connections. Dependent on their contract and package, consumers are being charged for data they use, and they generally don’t want to be waiting (and paying for) huge files to download on their phones.

This explains why the average page file size in phone searches was found to be around 25% smaller that on the desktop. Along with other factors, this translates into faster load times, with the average loading time of sites in the top 30 search results on phones being 1.17 seconds. The top 10 load even faster, with an average time of 1.10 seconds, which is up to one tenth of a second quicker than on the desktop.

A further technical consideration is avoiding the use of Flash design animation as it is not widely supported by mobile devices. While 14% of desktop pages featured Flash, only 5% of mobile phone pages analyzed in the study made use of Flash – and these percentages are decreasing every year.

With customers increasingly operating in a mobile-centric world, we as marketers must understand that applying the same organic search strategy as for desktop pages won’t result in correspondingly high rankings. CMOs need to treat mobile – especially phones – separately if they want to rank well in searches to attract traffic to their sites. Addressing content, user experience and technical considerations is therefore a must.

Marcus Tober is CTO and founder of Searchmetrics.

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