This article was written by Bob George, Director of Product Management for Websites, and Pete Bruhn, an SEO Product Manager, both at Dealer.com.
It’s no secret that delivering an exceptional mobile website experience is essential to a successful overall online marketing strategy. At SMX Advanced in Seattle this past June, Matt Cutts, Head of Google’s Webspam Team and distinguished engineer, indicated that mobile search queries for Google will soon surpass desktop search queries. Today, over 40 percent of all traffic across the Dealer.com website network comes from mobile and tablet devices and continues to grow - and that is just in the automotive industry.
If you want your business to remain relevant, therefore, it is imperative that your website provider prioritizes the mobile experience, one without any compromises in user experience.
With the growing importance of mobile, dealers are expressing a lot more interest in their mobile sites than they did previously – from perspectives such as user experience, design flexibility, underlying technology, performance and SEO. It can be a dizzying endeavor to understand all of these elements and how they all contribute to delivering the best and most relevant experience to your mobile car shoppers.
A lot of the recent website-related discussion has focused on the technologies underpinning today’s mobile sites, with a broad range of perspectives from both the web development and automotive dealer communities regarding the best technology approaches to mobile. Some have pointed to Google’s developer guidelines and made assumptions based on those guidelines regarding Google’s preferred solution in all circumstances, regardless of the industry and/or goals of the site.
What dealers need to understand is that what may be good for your average web developer isn’t necessarily the best – or even appropriate – for your dealership business. Additionally, a recommendation for your average web developer does not indicate a preference by Google when it comes to search rankings. When it comes to mobile SEO, dealers need to keep three primary elements in mind: user experience, content quality/relevance and site speed/performance.
Many website vendors are pointing to Google's "recommendation" of Responsive Site Design and leaving the conversation there. What those vendors are leaving out of the conversation, however, is Google’s recognition that sometimes a purely Responsive site – one that serves the same HTML across devices with only CSS breakpoints modifying the user experience (vs. server-side device detection serving device-specific HTML and CSS) – is not appropriate for all solutions. From the guidelines:
However, we appreciate that for many situations it may not be possible or appropriate to use responsive web design. That’s why we support having websites serve equivalent content using different, device-specific HTML. The device-specific HTML can be served on the same URL (a configuration called dynamic serving) or different URLs (such as www.example.com and m.example.com).
Within those mobile recommendations, Google also clearly states that all three mobile site types - Responsive, device-specific dynamic serving (Adaptive) and completely separate desktop/mobile - are considered fully viable options. At SMX Advanced in Seattle this year, the same sentiment was echoed across the convention floor, including that of Google’s Matt Cutts who clearly stated that all three approaches could absolutely be the right solution, depending upon the application. The developer guidelines are written for the broadest swath of webmasters - bloggers and those with basic websites - and Google’s recommendations are tailored to that user set. But Google recognizes and supports a wide variety of technology solutions and in no way gives preferential treatment in terms of search based on technology alone.
There are many approaches to mobile SEO, but the key elements are all the same: ensuring pages load quickly, creating crawl-friendly, relevant content and optimizing the user experience based on understanding user intent while navigating the mobile site. Some other key technical features include using dynamic serving of content on one set of URLs, ensuring there are no looping or erroneous redirects in place, properly using the Vary HTTP header, and making sure canonicals are setup correctly. Website providers can be successful from an SEO standpoint with any of the mobile website technologies; they just need to understand the intricacies of each approach.
Furthermore, the lines between technology approaches are blurring. Some web developers are realizing the limitations of a purely Responsive approach and are now including server-side logic within their Responsive strategy (a technology approach known as RESS). Adaptive server-side strategies are starting to include Responsive elements within each device type. These more sophisticated and modern approaches are walking the line between code complexity, ease of content deployment and user experience. All are designed to deliver the best and most relevant mobile (and desktop/tablet) experiences possible. Gone are the days of needing to pick one solution and live with its compromises or inefficiencies.
In some ways, Responsive versus Adaptive is a lot like the old automatic versus manual transmission debate. Which one is better? Well, consider the application. If you’re learning to drive or need a basic commuter car, an automatic is the way to go. It gives up some control for ease of use, and it is less error prone to new drivers than a manual. But what about your high performance sports car designed to carve the mountain roads? Or just your automotive enthusiast who wants complete control in all driving situations? Manual is the way to go in these cases. So while a new driver’s guidebook would likely recommend an automatic, the auto is in no way superior to a manual. Both can be perfectly acceptable options when used appropriately.
Similar to the web developers who are moving away from purely Responsive and Adaptive website technology approaches, car manufacturers are blending the lines today, developing more sophisticated clutchless/dual-clutch transmissions designed to deliver performance, efficiency and ease of use, without any of the compromises of traditional automatic and manual transmissions. This is especially occurring at the high-performance car end. The only transmission option for the new Porsche 911 Turbo is the company's amazing dual-clutch PDK transmission. Traditional manual and automatic transmissions are no longer even offered! Porsche believes its blended solution provides the best overall driving experience, while taking full advantage of the 911 Turbo’s 520 horsepower (or 560 in the Turbo S).
When selecting a mobile solution, dealers should be asking questions related to user intent and how much control they have in optimizing the shopper’s experience. They should be focused on site speed and flexibility to deliver relevant mobile content and calls-to-action quickly and efficiently. But most importantly, they should be putting the needs of their business - selling cars and building customer relationships - ahead of the specific technology solution.