In the past six years I have listened to a number of SEOs who I otherwise respect claim that the smartphone listings in Google and desktop Web listings are the same. Rand Fishkin is really just the latest in a long line with his 2011 predictions. Most of the people who claim this, however, usually just eyeball the results and assume they’re the same, which isn’t the most scientific way to arrive at the truth.

To try to get at a better understanding of whether or not the desktop web results are the same for the smartphone results, I’ve analyzed Google webmaster tools data, which includes both smartphone and Web rankings. If the results are actually the same, average ranking for mobile smartphone results and Web results should theoretically be the same as well. To test this hypothesis, I analyzed Google Webmaster Tools data for a month across several clients.

Details on the data analyzed
Source: Google Webmaster Tools
Mobile (smartphone) and Web Queries in the United States between 11/21/10 and 12/21/10
Random sampling of clients from various industries and with varied traffic levels: b2c non retail, b2b, local retailer, online retailer, local non-retail
No clients with mobile sites or mobile specific content
List of 25,582 total queries, contain 24,061 unique keywords across 5 domains
1,118 of these unique keywords contain position data for both mobile and desktop, and were analyzed for the study.

What I discovered is that while 13.42% of the queries have the same ranking in desktop results that they do in smartphone results, the great majority of the queries do vary slightly. Nearly a quarter of the listings vary by two positions or more, which in the limited real estate of smartphone screens might as well be page ten. And for a small percentage of the listings, the difference in ranking can be as much as ten positions or more.

smartphone search result comparison

The next time you hear someone claiming that smartphone results and desktop results are the same, please correct them, as appearances can be deceiving. In fact, there are variations in ranking for the majority (86.58%) of smartphone queries.

There are a few factors that are responsible for the variations in ranking, and without getting into the predicted “negligible” effect of mobile on SEO, I will say that SEOs who want to do well in mobile search results need to understand how these factors might affect their listings in Google smartphone search results:

  • Local results more likely in mobile, so Google Places listings sometimes appear higher in results than they do in desktop, and domains with local intent more likely to appear
  • Positions of vertical results likely different in smartphone results
  • Blended mobile ranking algorithm for mobile queries
  • Android Market or iTunes results for queries that include “download” or “app”
  • Brand and store filters don’t currently occur in mobile smartphone search
  • If CTR and bounce rate data is used to determine ranking in smartphone results, CTR and bounce rate more likely to vary in mobile smartphone listings, as listings in search suggest, abbreviated title line breaks and descriptions, unusable desktop sites in mobile results, increased engagement of mobile users and the variations in ranking mentioned above are all likely to change click through rates and bounce rates for smartphone searches

More to come in the New Year! See you in 2011 for more mobile SEO.