Mobile SEO has been in the spotlight for a few years now, as mobile traffic has risen dramatically to overtake desktop traffic in total volume. Google has added fuel to the fire by making mobile SEO an absolute must, launching its “Mobilegeddon” update earlier this year to penalize any webmasters who haven’t taken the time to optimize for mobile. Shortly after, Google’s John Mueller released a statement that to rank successfully in Google, a desktop site isn’t really necessary as long as you have a good mobile site—so what’s the deal? Are mobile and desktop SEO really that different, and if so, do you need both to succeed in SEO?
Why is there a “mobile” and “desktop” SEO in the first place? Why isn’t there just standard “SEO?”
In SEO, the terms “mobile” and “desktop” can actually apply in two different contexts. The one that people usually consider is a traditional desktop site versus a traditional mobile site—meaning that “desktop” and “mobile” refer to two kinds of sites, one of which is intended to function on desktop machines, and one of which is intended for mobile devices. This gets complicated because when these terms started appearing, most mobile sites were separately hosted versions of desktop sites (or else were found on subdomains via redirects). Now that responsive sites, which function seamlessly on both desktop and mobile devices, have emerged this terminology gets fuzzy; a responsive site is typically considered a mobile site, merely because it performs well on mobile.
In this context, “mobile” is important because it refers to a site’s ability to be easily loaded and viewed on a mobile device. “Mobile-optimized” and “mobile compatible” are often used here as well. Because desktop sites were the norm for so long, it is assumed that all new sites are automatically “optimized for desktop,” and because mobile devices are smaller and more finicky than desktop devices, even new “mobile sites” (responsive or otherwise) don’t bear much risk of sporting a desktop loading error.
The second context for “mobile” and “desktop” is more specific to SEO itself—Google actually produces separate results based on whether a user is performing a search on desktop or a mobile device. A few years ago, this meant your mobile searches were far more likely to fetch results that were mobile-friendly, and you might see different layouts for your destination SERP. Today, thanks to Mobilegeddon and gradual aesthetic tweaks from Google, mobile and desktop results are pretty similar. Being optimized for mobile can actually help your rank even in desktop sites.
With that explanation out of the way, we can start digging into what could qualify as “mobile SEO” versus “desktop SEO.”
When it comes to general best practices for SEO, mobile and desktop SEO are practically identical. Your rankings in both types of SERPs depend on your domain authority, onsite content, availability and functionality for mobile sites, security, site speed, inbound links, social integration and shares, and an appropriate technical structure. With these in place, along with an ongoing content and audience development strategy, ranking in mobile and desktop results should be more or less the same.
As I mentioned above, the term “mobile SEO” only came about because desktop sites were so dominant, and because mobile sites used to be hosted or developed separately. Now that responsive sites have offered an all-in-one solution, there’s no reason why a modern webmaster would be concerned with separating the terms. All sites should be accessible on both types of devices no matter what kind of SEO strategy you want to follow. In this context, there isn’t a major differentiator between “desktop” and “mobile” SEO—even if desktop rankings are all you’re after, you still need a mobile-optimized site.
Mobile and desktop SERPs are different, with different layouts and ranking structures, but they’re gradually growing to become more similar. Take, for instance, the new local 3-pack on desktop results, which emulates the traditionally mobile local 3-pack. Results are also becoming more similar as the months go on, reducing the need to differentiate the terms.
Despite all the similarities and shared space that desktop and mobile SEO offer, there are still some mobile-specific optimization strategies that only help your mobile visibility:
Even so, adopting these strategies won’t offer any miraculous turning points to your strategy by themselves. They’re only effective if you already have a responsive, functional responsive website (which works for both desktop and mobile optimization), and you’re adhering to all other SEO best practices across the board.
In this age of Mobilegeddon, the domination of mobile traffic, and the availability of responsive sites, “mobile SEO” and “desktop SEO” are not as different as they used to be. You can optimize your site for mobile devices to improve user experience, or run checks on desktop to see if your site is displaying properly, but as long as you have one website that displays on both types of devices (and both types of SERPs), most of your other strategies will apply to both. That being said, there are a number of unique strategies that only apply to mobile devices, so “mobile SEO” does still exist, and should be taken advantage of if you want to reap more mobile traffic.