Making the Mobile Optimization Call

Feb 17, 2007 3:33 AM  By

(Searchline) No one can be sure that Apple’s rollout of the iPhone this June will make 2007 the watershed year for the mobile Internet and thus for mobile search. After all, asking users to pay $499 for a mobile phone with 4 GB of memory is about $300 more than all but the power users have been accustomed to spending. (In fact, no one can be certain the device will wind up named iPhone, thanks to Cisco’s contention that theyíve owned the iPhone trademark for years.)

But the company is projecting that it can sell 10 million iPhones by the end of 2008. So if Apple can do for smart phones what it did for MP3 players, this may turn out to be the year Web operators get really interested in optimizing their sites for discovery and display by mobile devices. And according to Cindy Krum, senior search optimization analyst for Denver-based Blue Moon Works, the time is now to start thinking about how your site shows up in mobile.

Krum spoke on optimizing for mobile search at December’s Search Engine Strategies Chicago conference, about a month before Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone at MacWorld. But Krumís basic advice about setting up Websites for mobile jibes with the iPhone approach, as she explained in an interview after the conference.

For years, some mobile site designers have been recommending building an entirely separate site for mobile users, using either a .mobi domain extension or the principles of wireless application protocol (WAP), with a special markup language that makes the sites display properly on a WAP mobile browser. But Krum maintains that the best policy is to construct a single Website for both desktop browsers and mobile and then use other tactics to make sure it appears properly on cell phone screens. As it turns out, that approach works for the iPhone, which won’t use a WAP browser but a wireless version of a standard HTML browser.

“That’s a strategic recommendation,” Krum says. “Most clients we see don’t have the resources to keep up with multiple sites and optimize them to the degree that they should. Also, it can be confusing for users if they see one site on their desktop and a totally different one on their cell phone. They might have to learn a whole new type of navigation and learn their way around the new site. That’s really not the way to endear yourself to customers.”

But using one Website for multiple devices also means making sure that your pages are properly laid out for mobile users and properly designed to be found in mobile search, Krum says. Both those aims require special care. The large search engines employ special bots to look for and index pages on the mobile Internet. And while PC users have settled on a small handful of basic browsers, wireless phones today still use a wide range of them and can do some unexpected–and unexpectedly damaging–things to Internet content.

To employ this device-agnostic approach, Krum says, Web merchants need to know about cascading style sheets (CSS). These are sets of rules that determine how the same HTML content is laid out on different devices, such as cell phones, printers, and TV screens. Basically they separate the Web page or document from the way it appears on specific devices. So operators can use CSS to build a specific mobile profile suited to the way they want their Web content to appear on cell phone browsers.

For one thing, sorting content from its display format can reduce the amount of code on each page and speed mobile page-loading times–still an important barrier to widespread use of the mobile Internet over handsets. These style sheets can get so granular that operators can design for specific mobile devices. And while that’s probably too much work for many operators, some might find it worth their while to bring mobile Web design down to the device level.

“If your site is targeting teenagers and you have analytics that show 80% of your users are coming in over a T-Mobile Sidekick, you may want to develop a specific style sheet for that phone instead of relying on one generic style for all handsets,” Krum says.

The mobile CSS should also take note of the fact that mobile phone browsers are a lot less forgiving about Web code anomalies than those for PCs. That can mean that elements of your Web page won’t show, or at least not properly, in a mobile environment. “Sometimes background images or those that are too large won’t display,” Krum says. “Specific font sizes may be a problem. Tables are often either compressed or totally eliminated in a mobile browser, because it wants to put everything in one long line and then has a hard time parsing that content back out into table format.”

The answer, Krum says, is to go back to good general Web optimization practice and make sure to use alt tags for content that may not render properly in mobile. Back when wired users logged in over a variety of bandwidths, alt tags were commonly used on Web content to give visitors who couldn’t load graphics at least some description of what they weren’t seeing. Now that most PC visitors are coming in at high speeds and capacities large enough to load movie files, alt tags describing image content may be a handy backstop to bridge the unpredictable capacities of wireless networks.

“It’s good SEO practice to use alt tags with traditional search engines, but it’s definitely advisable for mobile search engines,” Krum says. “And of course, it makes for a better experience for the mobile user. If a picture of your product doesn’t show, at least you can give that user some of the description you were hoping to deliver with the picture.”

Another point of SEO practice that should come back into favor, according to Krum, is submitting Websites to the search engines for indexing. Once a regular practice for all Web content, site submission has dropped off as the general search engines have gotten better at finding pages on their own. Now itís mostly done by optimizers who don’t want to wait until the search bots from Google and Yahoo! come crawling for new content.

But the big search powers have separate spiders for mobile pages, and Krum says Web operators should get in the habit of offering up their mobile-optimized sites for indexing using mobile site submission pages such as the one for Yahoo! [http://search.yahoo.com/free/mobile/request?ei=UTF-8&.scrumb=t2uU4PhlWt8).

Apart from taking greater care with their coding, operators who want to optimize sites for mobile should also pay attention to their site navigation. These days, most Websites put their navigation tools at the top of the page. But in a mobile environment, doing that can push the actual page content far down on the page below a long, exhaustive list of menus and submenus.

“Mobile browsers will render source in the order that itís provided, so if youíve got lots of navigation at the top of your general Web page, it will deliver that navigation on every page before getting to any fresh content,” Krum says. One effect is that every page will look the same at the top. That could confuse mobile users; they may think they’re stuck on the same page of your site when actually they’re moving through properly but seeing the same navigational buttons at the top of every page.

Krum recommends using CSS to make sure that the unique and optimized content shows up above any navigation aids on the mobile Web pages–to make it easier for both search engines and users to detect that theyíve reached a new page. Moving those tools down shouldn’t produce any SEO loss and might even result in an SEO win, by making it more obvious to the bots that theyíve found fresh new content.

Of course, users will still want to move around within that content. Krum advises resurrecting another old Web practice: jump links, phrases or short descriptions as active hyperlinks. Run a few of these at the top of a page and let users cut quickly down to content below the bottom of the screen that may be of interest to them. You can build these jump links into a Website and then tailor your CSS to make sure that desktop browsers don’t detect them. Keep them short and pithy; you don’t want to use up precious above-the-fold screen space with links rather than real, valuable content. And try to use keywords you’re optimizing for in those links.

These jump links cut down on the need for mobile users to scroll down a page–something that’s still hard to do on many handsets. Remember, just because you have a BlackBerry with a scroll wheel doesn’t mean everyone does.

As for optimizing other aspects of page navigation, the key point is to keep it intuitive. “Don’t force users to learn your site,” Krum says. “Organize buttons logically and consistently from page to page, and name them clearly.” Site operators should keep their most important pages within three clicks of the home page and offer a site map to help orient visitors who get lost.

In fact, Web operators can get a preview of how their sites will display on different mobile devices by using device simulators. Some of these are provided by the large phone manufacturers who are, after all, interested in making Web access easier and faster over their devices. Others are provided by Google (http://www.google.com/gwt/n), open-source browser Opera (http://www.opera.com/download), and Skweezer (http://www.skweezer.net).

“For smaller companies just starting out with a mobile site, testing on actual devices may not be practical,” Krum says. “But viewing a site on one of these simulators may help spot issues that need to be tweaked before the site gets indexed without a major overhaul or affecting their traditional creative.”

Krum offers some other tips for optimizing a mobile Website:

* Send e-mail confirmations for all transactions, registrations, download requests, etc. Users are often uncertain whether their wireless service has dropped a connection; let them know you’ve gotten their message securely.

* Don’t neglect to offer an RSS feed for mobile readers. That will keep interested wireless users abreast of new additions to your Web content without obliging them to log on and check the site.

* Make use of the tools Web 2.0 offers for spreading your mobile site, including social tagging, bookmarking, and “send me this page” links that let desktop users forward pages to their mobile phones for later reference.

* Make phone numbers on the site clickable so that users can make the call without having to plug in a number.

* Use your other promotions and press releases to get the word out that your site is mobile-friendly.

At this point in its development, mobile Internet in the U.S. is still in the process of trying to pick up fans among users relatively unfamiliar with accessing the Web over their cell phones. Those first-time mobile visitors are prone to assume that if a page or site doesn’t load properly, it’s because theyve done something wrong. “It’s important to make the mobile Web experience really cushy and not force users to ask whether they’ve dropped service or need to refresh a page,” Krum says. “For the moment, traffic levels on the mobile Internet are low. That makes what traffic there is all the more important.”