Galapagos Goes Mainstream – A Perspective on Mobile SEO in Japan

For years now Japan has been tagged for what is known here as having “the Galapagos effect” – of evolving in isolation in a way that stymies attempts to sell its expertise abroad, when it came to anything mobile. And rightly so, as the country was really at the forefront of mobile technology and development as early as the mid-to-late 90’s, with the launch of the famed i-mode system. This instantly allowed Japanese consumers to access Japan’s version of the web, check email, weather, and sports services, and transact for ticket booking as well as some other basic m-commerce activities. All this, in 1999 was lightyears ahead of the rest of the world. So far ahead, in fact, it effectively prevented Japan to export this technology, resulting in a continual domestic-only innovation spiral, where the phrase ‘Galapagos’ came to be.

Fast forward to 2007, amid the launch of the much awaited iPhone into the Japanese market, and the mood slowly begins to change. From this point onwards, the ‘Galapagos effect’ starts to deteriorate and we see market share shifts in favour of a global-led movement of smartphone dominance and preference.

At the close of last year, almost half of all new mobile phones sold in Japan were smartphones. And as I write this column, the current estimated share of smartphones compared to the total phone market is around 12 percent. Google proposes that by the end of this year, the market for smartphones in Japan will reach around 24 percent and over 50 percent in 2013.

This massive (and continual) shift of smartphone-led experiences presents a huge opportunity for the SEO channel as brands in Japan will be forced (if they are to survive) to create a smartphone-enabled site, optimised with a backing of solid SEO practices. To put it in perspective, on HED (high-end devices), the average annual growth rate for search queries grew 820 percent from 2008 to 2010, versus only 65 percent on WAP-based devices. Clearly the future is in HED.

So below, I’ve explored some basic quick tips of mobile SEO that brands in Japan will need to consider when developing any smartphone-enabled site.

Quick Tip 1: Nail the Fundamentals

As with your PC site, ensure that all your title tags are optimised for relevant keywords that are used by your mobile audience. You will need to use keyword tools that specifically track mobile behaviour.

Quick Tip 2: Less Is More

Your mobile pages need to be properly optimised for mobile usability. Meaningless page content with larger font sizes, fewer images and navigation choices, and all designed with specific user-tasks in mind will be critical.

Quick Tip 3: Click to Call

Make your contact information visible and clickable. It’s critical that you link your phone numbers so users can effectively ‘click to call’ while they’re on the go. Users will be able to click to call directly from the SERPs.

Quick Tip 4: Create a Mobile Sitemap

It’s important to include a mobile sitemap letting Google know that you are targeting a mobile audience. This will allow Google to effectively index your web page on different handsets accordingly, and ensure that the mobile crawlers don’t pick up your PC pages.

Mobile search engines are specifically looking for mobile pages to index. If you don’t have a mobile site, then you leave it up to the fate of the engines to render your PC site for the mobile environment.

The mobile web is growing at such lightning speeds, and the way in which people browse on the mobile is very different to traditional desktop browsers. Brands in Japan who quickly get on board in smartphone site development and optimisation, particularly with SEO, should be putting themselves in a good position to do well as the channel starts to mature and morph from this Galapagos-driven environment to something a bit, well, less unique.

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