Jessica Barker

Since about 2017, roughly half of all global web traffic has occurred through mobile devices. In 2020, that grew to two-thirds of all site visits. Simply put, if you haven’t been prioritizing mobile SEO, you’ve been missing out on a pretty major opportunity.

But it’s not too late to turn things around by building a mobile keyword ranking strategy that works.

In this guide, you’ll find an overview of why mobile keyword ranking is so important, how it differs from desktop keyword ranking and how to optimize your content for mobile search.

Why mobile SEO matters

Mobile matters for today’s marketers because of mobile-first user experiences, mobile-first markets and mobile-first indexing. Your web content needs to cater to these three important realities. Here’s a closer look at each one and what it means for your business and mobile keyword rankings:

1. Mobile-first user experience

Web users crave immediacy and convenience — and it doesn’t get much more quick or convenient than mobile search.

Whether someone wants to locate a business, find a product or search for B2B vendors, they’ll reach for the closest device. That often means reaching into a pocket or purse for a smartphone, typing or speaking a search query and exploring the results right then and there.

Some mobile traffic stats from Google provide insights on how web visitors engage with businesses over mobile:

  • Half of mobile users would rather browse a company’s website than download and use a branded mobile app.
  • 3 in 5 users have reached out to a company directly via the contact buttons that appear in mobile search results.
  • 1 in 3 users are more likely to use their mobile device to make a one-time purchase.

It’s up to you to optimize your site for search so these buyers can find you — and to provide a streamlined user experience. If there’s a potential customer out there who’s ready to call or ready to buy, the last thing you want to do is fly under their radar, or drive them away with a terrible user experience.

They don’t want to end up on a glitchy page that doesn’t function properly on their device. Or, even worse, an old-school desktop site that’s impossible to navigate on a vertical screen. They won’t think twice before bailing out and choosing another search result. There are so many other competitor sites to choose from, so it’s important that your mobile site encourages visitors to stick around.

2. Mobile-first markets

It’s not just about consumer’s demands for ease and convenience. Many markets across the globe are mobile-first regions where desktop usage pales in comparison to mobile browsing.

For instance, more than 9 in 10 internet users in Southeast Asia were already browsing from smartphones a few years ago.

In some markets, limited infrastructure and the rapid pace of technological change have meant many internet users essentially skipped the desktop phase entirely. Back in the early 2010s, CNN reported that “Africa is not just a mobile-first continent. It is mobile-only.” Fast-forward to 2020 and mobile usage is still more widespread than electricity in sub-Saharan countries.

Even in places like the U.S. that have a decades-long history of desktop browsing, there’s a huge population of digital natives growing up with mobile devices in their lives — if not their hands — from day one. As they grow up and start representing significant spending power, they’re more likely to reach for a smartphone than sit down at a computer to run a quick search.

If you want to grow your business among any of those demographics, you’ll need to pay close attention to mobile SEO. In addition to locking in a responsive site design and fast site speed, mobile rank tracking can help you understand how well your site performs in the mobile-first ecosystem.

3. Mobile-first indexing

Not all marketers realize it, but your site’s pages rank differently on mobile devices than they do on desktop browsers.

In March 2021, “Only 17% of websites retained their positions across both mobile and desktop SERPs, and 37% of URLs were actually thrown out of the top-10 when the search query was made from a mobile device,” according to SEMrush.

If you’ve only been monitoring your desktop keyword ranking, you may be overlooking the fact that almost 2 in 5 of your top-performing pages could be buried below page 1 for a mobile user.

This is all part of a plan to treat mobile sites a little differently in search. Google rolled out its mobile-first index in 2019, with the aim of extending this approach to every site by March 2021.

As Yoast explains, “For the first time, Google will determine rankings based on the quality of the mobile version of the site instead of the desktop version.”

Needless to say, if your mobile site is lacking in quality, you can expect that to drag down your desktop ranking in the very near future, if it hasn’t already.

How to choose the best mobile keywords for your site

You’re now up to speed on why your content needs to land at the top of the mobile search engine results page (SERP) and bring users to a mobile optimized site. But how can you choose the right mobile keywords to target?

Approach mobile keywords as distinct from desktop keywords

For a lot of marketers, approaching search engine optimization from a mobile-first perspective feels weird. While you don’t need to ditch desktop strategies entirely, it’s helpful to adopt a mindset around distinct desktop vs mobile keyword ranking strategies.

When picking mobile keywords, adapt tried-and-true keyword research strategies to the unique needs of mobile audiences.

Tailor mobile keywords to user intent

When choosing what keywords to target, it can help to understand user intent on mobile browsers. On mobile devices, users are more likely to make:

  • Spoken queries, especially when they’re on the move.
  • Typos in written queries, thanks to tiny keyboards and a habit of letting autocorrect pick up the slack.
  • Shorter queries that are faster and easier to input.
  • Quick searches for immediate answers.

Focus on short and snappy keywords that meet these criteria. And consider targeting question-based key phrases that mimic voice queries as well.

Practice local SEO instead of choosing “near me” keywords

A staggering 94% of smartphone users search for local information using their mobile devices, and there’s a good likelihood they’ll take action. That could mean calling a business, visiting a store or making a purchase.

For example, a mobile user may be more likely to search for geographically relevant information, like when a nearby business is open or what service providers are based in the region. So, a mobile SERP might prioritize results based on that user’s location.

But choosing “[product or service] near me” as a keyword isn’t the answer here. After all, people across the world use that search, and you may not be anywhere close geographically. That’s not how Google knows to serve up your content.

Instead, follow best practices like claiming your Google My Business page and including your company name, address and phone number on every page. This way, when a user in your area searches for something “nearby” or “near me,” you’ll have a higher chance of appearing as a local business.

Choose keywords with your area’s name in them

Although “[product or service] near me” is a slippery search you can’t necessarily target, you can focus on keywords that contain your city, state, or region’s name. “[product or service] in [location].”

By optimizing your web content with these location-based keywords, you’re telling search crawlers to boost your mobile ranking and put your pages in front of people browsing for goods and services in that specific area.

How to track your mobile keyword ranking

With a slew of mobile keywords in mind, here’s how you can start tracking and analyzing your performance in search:

Choose one of the top mobile keyword ranking tools

You can gather some mobile rank insights from free tools like Google Search Console. However, a subscription-based rank checker like SEMrush, Ahrefs, SE Ranking, AccuRanker or Backlinko’s Google rank checker, will help you keep tabs on your mobile keyword ranking. Each tool offers slightly different features and functionalities. But to get the most use out of your rank tracker, look for one that:

  • Allows you to track desktop and mobile keyword ranking separately, with the ability to compare and cross-reference data.
  • Automatically updates your ranking data on a daily or on-demand basis, so you can glean real-time insights.
  • Allows visibility into historical performance, enabling you to analyze trends.
  • Enables you to track mobile keyword ranking across Google as well as other leading search engines for complete visibility.
  • Allows you to select the country or countries in which you want to track your mobile keyword ranking.
  • Shows what mobile SERP features are appearing for the keywords you’re tracking, to help inform how you optimize your content.
  • Provides options for segmenting the data by search intent, content type, region, search volume and other factors.
  • Generates useful reports that show an at-a-glance overview of your performance.
  • Includes options for conducting mobile keyword rank tracking and comparison with competitor sites.

Track your desktop and mobile ranking separately

Your tracked keywords will rank differently across desktop and mobile search, and you’re following different keyword selection processes for each. Therefore, it’s useful to practice separate keyword rank tracking as well.

Look for a rank checker that provides insight into both desktop and mobile ranking. This way, you can conduct side-by-side comparisons and find opportunities to refine your keyword selection strategies.

Set up mobile keyword rank tracking for your site

Getting set up in your chosen rank tracker is fairly straightforward. While the step-by-step process will vary depending on the tool you choose, essentially, you will:

  • Enter your website’s domain name as the URL you want to track.
  • Set the default country and geographic markets where you want to track your mobile rank.
  • Select which search engines you want to track your performance on.
  • Input the target keywords you want to track.
  • Adjust the settings for mobile rank tracking, as opposed to the desktop tracking.
  • Tag keywords to associate them with a certain page or product, if desired.
  • Input competitor URLs to start comparing your keyword ownership.

10 ways to optimize your mobile site to improve your ranking

Knowing where your mobile search performance stacks up to competitors and your own history can help you find opportunities to improve your mobile SEO strategy.

Let’s close out with a roundup of ideas for ways to help improve your rankings with mobile optimization:

  1. Target keywords that align with user intent on mobile search, including those that align with voice queries and location-based searches.
  2. Write content that’s skimmable, using short paragraphs, subheads and bulleted lists to break up blocks of text.
  3. Optimize your copy with the aim of taking over a SERP feature, like a list or another type of Featured Snippet.
  4. Choose a font and size that makes your content easy to read on a small screen.
  5. Include your business name, address and phone number across all pages and implement other local SEO best practices.
  6. Use a responsive site design that makes the most of mobile real estate — including the limited width and near-infinite scrollability of a vertical screen.
  7. Check Google’s PageSpeed Insights for your speed score, and work to prioritize a fast site speed over frills that will slow every page down.
  8. Reduce the number of nonessential popups, redirects and plugins used on your site.
  9. Compress images and text for faster load times.
  10. Add alt text to images across your site.

These mobile search best practices are all about creating the best possible experience for mobile users — and showing search engines your content is worth delivering to users who want immediate answers, ease and convenience.