The Muddled World of Mobile Carrier Search Results

When I am thinking about mobile SEO, I pay specific attention to the order of the results and the inclusion of Universal Results. In their nature, Universal results are infinitely more clickable, as we know from traditional SEO. But in the mobile world, Universal Results are the fun results – because they are often have more potential for interaction with the phone than they would on a traditional computer. You can click on a phone number to place a phone call, click on a map to get walking directions, click on a song to buy it or play it, and you can even click on an app to download it directly to your phone from the search results.

Interactive and fun, but so far, it is hard to predict when you will get a certain type of Universal Result and when you won't, and there have been lots of major algorithm tweaks with little attention or fanfare. For example, I have screen shots taken in the past year comparing the search ‘Britney Spears' on an iPhone and a traditional computer. The traditional computer had music downloads near the very top of the page, but the iPhone didn't. Why? The results weren't iTunes results, so they wouldn't have worked on the phone – so there was no need to rank them. (Kind'a cool!)

Last week, the Verizon/Google coalition got lots of press about a proposal that appears to fly in the face of basic Network Neutrality tenants that Google has supported for a long time. Believe it or not, this has been something on my mind for a long time, because the carriers are in-fact impacting search results, and have been for a long time (2008 interview about Mobile Network Neutrality – starting at 3:30 m:s). All of the major mobile carriers have mobile portals that they use as ‘start' pages for web access on the phones that they sell. These ‘start' pages of-course, include a search box, and it usually includes a logo of one of the top 3 search engines: Google, Yahoo or Bing. It is definitely much smaller in scale, but to me, this has always seemed a bit … less than neutral, and possibly even … ‘evil.' Search engines broker deals directly with carriers and handset manufacturers to secure pre-loaded placement on phones.

Carriers Universal Search Results:

T-Mobile Universal Result

I like to say that the Universal Triggers in mobile search seem to be more erratic, and sometimes on a hair-trigger. It is rare that there will be just one type of Universal Result in a mobile SERP – it appears to usually be an all or nothing proposition.

But, speaking of propositions, did you know that Google is doing deals with carriers to provide their on-deck search? It is true that there are financial agreements between search engines (not just Google) and both mobile phone carrier companies (ex: T-Mobile, Verizon, etc.) and handset manufacturers (ex: Samsung , LG, iPhone, etc.) The search engine agrees to providea search engine for the default web home page included on the phone. These are generally branded with the name & logo of the search engine, so most people would think that they provide the same results as if they were searching from or but THEY DON'T. While the results appear to be based on the existing algorithm, searches performed from these start-pages will give different results that appear to preference content from the carrier or handset manufacturer.

To see how this works, go to T-mobile's start page – and search for ‘poker.' This is a very competitive search in the traditional and mobile SEO space, but you will find that, instead of the gaming websites and news sites, one of the top ranking results Lady Gaga ring tones for the song ‘PokerFace from T-mobile. (This test works on an iPhone too, as long as you start from the web2go home page). Other than that, the results are largely the same as normal mobile web search that starts from or (This has been happening with the carriers for a long time – you just might have missed it!)

If you knew that, (I'm guessing you didn't), here is something you probably didn't know: T-mobile sets a cookie, SO now that you have done a search that started from, any time T-Mobile has a universal result that they would like included in your SERP, it will be, unless you clear your cookies, even if you just start from or (Those jerks!) You can see this passed in the search string.

When the cookie is there, it looks like this:

When the cookie is not there, it looks like this:

Carriers Impacting Mobile SEO

In reality, many people will assign new home pages on their phones, and eventually clear their cookies, but not everyone. Many people are still not web-savvy enough to change their ‘start' page on a computer, much less a mobile phone. The carrier and Carrier Universal Search Results are a new variable that most SEO's have never had to deal with. But they have the same impact as any other type of Universal search result; pushing other listings down below the fold. It will be hard to anticipate how many people are getting the carrier-specific Universal results in their search results, and how much mobile traffic those results will take from our listings.

This, like personalization and localization, makes predicting mobile search results accurately almost impossible. None of the search engines have been particularly open about the carrier-deals that they have established, and the carriers are rarely clear or opened about how to get content indexed on their portals. The one thing you can be sure about though, is that these deals were not made for free, and the carriers are paying to have their content indexed and included differently than other organic results.

Originally published here

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