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GUEST OPINION Seek and you shall find

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With more and more consumers using mobile to shop, mobile search is becoming a crucial part of the marketing and discovery process – but it needs careful handling if you are to exploit it to the full. Mark Blenkinsop is head of search at Pod1 offers some advice

Google’s recently published survey into smartphone users, The Mobile Movement: Understanding Smartphone Users, produced some important insights into why brands and retailers need to focus on their mobile search strategies. For instance, 89% of people used their smartphones throughout the day, while 81% of people had browsed the internet in the past week. More than 77% used their smartphones as a search engine in the past week and nine out of 10 users have taken action as the direct result of a smartphone search, with 59% discussing their results, 67% continuing researching, 68% visiting a business and 53% purchasing. 95% looked up local information, with 77% contacting a business and 44% purchasing

While this is based on US users, patterns are likely to be similar in the UK and other markets with reasonably developed mobile commerce environamnts and with around 13.5 million people surfing the internet on phones in the UK this is a powerful market – especially as it is also predicted that mobile internet users will outnumber desktop users in the next five years. It also serves to highlight why brands and retailers need to have a set strategy about how to target their customers via mobile marketing.

The search element of this strategy will differ markedly from a normal search strategy as Google, and other search engines, use different search algorithms for mobile results compared to desktop searches. This means that someone performing a search on a desktop will get completely different results than if they run the same search from a mobile. Traditional optimisation techniques are still important, but understanding additional factors such as page size, text length, document type and image size can make a significant impact on the position a site receives in mobile search results. And because mobile users browse less, securing those top positions is even more important.

As Google is still the most popular search engine, retailers and brands need to understand exactly how it works and build their strategy accordingly. Essentially, Google uses two differing types of program to search and index the web: one for desktop searching (Googlebot) and one for mobile (Googlebot-Mobile).

However, it sub divides mobile into two categories:

1. Traditional mobile phones: Phones with browsers that cannot render normal desktop webpages. This includes browsers for cHTML (iMode), WML, WAP etc.

2. Smartphones: Phones with browsers that render normal desktop pages, at least to some extent. This category includes a wide range of devices, such Windows Phone 7, Blackberry devices, iPhones and Android phones, as well as tablets and eBook readers.

Google currently does not crawl the web with a specific algorithm for smartphones, however, as it assumes that these devices are capable of producing a browser experience similar to desktops. This doesn’t mean that brands should ignore smartphones in their mobile strategy, as any site that is going to be viewed by mobile still needs to be optimised for mobile usage and this includes using location-based keywords, for the growing number of people doing localised searches. This may mean that brands and retailers need to look at different search keywords for mobile to reflect the differing ways consumers search on these platforms, and they may also want to look at a separate mobile strategy for paid search functions such as Adwords.

Also with so many different mobile platforms on offer, brands would do well to set their functionality or the lowest common denominator as this ensures all mobiles have the same functionality. Once smartphones become more prevalent then the likelihood is that this will change.

While Google will automatically optimise some sites for mobile this can cause instability and can remove functionality, so it makes sense for content to be formatted differently for each platform, and the decision to do this should be based on how brands can best serve their users. Importantly, mobile users require a mobile experience, and without it they might get content that is confusing or irrelevant, and brands will therefore not be maximising their conversion rates.

It is also important as Google uses toolbar data in its ranking algorithm, so that if a company has a high bounce rate this can potentially adversely affect its search rankings. Ensuring that a website is optimised for mobile will make mean that there is more likelihood of visitors staying on site and not bouncing straight off for exactly the reasons stated above, thereby not inadvertently damaging its page rank score.

But, to do all this effectively, brands and retailers need to know exactly what information is important to their customers as well as having a deep knowledge of how people use their website. The most common mistakes come when brands and retailers don’t understand their customers’ behaviour, needs and goals.

Another key area for mobile optimisation is looking at how people get to the mobile content. There are two schools of thought here: one believing that you should simply use one URL to mobile and desktop users alike, and render the content with specific style sheets for mobile users. This is easier than developing two sites, and it doesn’t create two URLs, which can potentially split the site’s link popularity and make it more difficult to rank for competitive search terms.

The second school of thought involves having a separate website for mobile content – ie using a URL format such as m.yourname.com to direct people to a specific mobile site. There is no evidence to suggest reduced ranking of mobile sites as a result of split links, and the duplicate content argument is as yet unproven also. The benefit of doing this is that what you see is what you get – in another words your design will show up exactly as intended.

While mobile search is still very much in its infancy, by covering the areas listed above brands and retailers will be providing themselves with the best possible chance to have a successful mobile strategy.
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