I'm at CTIA WIRELESS I.T. & Entertainment, the big, carrier centric trade show this week. Today was the pre-show conference day with multiple tracks on different areas of mobile. I attended most of the "Mobile Web Strategies" track sessions. There were a number of interesting panels and presentations but the one that most impressed me was by Bena Roberts, of Gomo News and Michael "Luni" Libes from Medio systems who announced a new meta data format designed to increase the visibility of mobile web sites by search engines.
Discovery is one biggest problems for mobile web sites. A user wants to visit a site on her mobile phone. Let's say the site is example.com. Does she go to example.com and hope the example.com designers are sharp enough to identify her browser and redirect to suitable mobile content? Or does she try example.mobi, m.example.com, mobile.example.com, wap.example.com or example.com/mobile? Not only do users have trouble with this but so do search engines. When I search Google or Yahoo for content I often find mobile pages in the web results and PC web pages in the mobile results.
There have been several efforts to solve the mobile web search discovery problem problem. There's dotMobi, but a lot of mobile sites still don't have .mobi domains. Google has suggested using a link rel microformat to identify mobile versions of sites:
<link rel="alternate" type="text/html" media="handheld" href="http://example.mobi/" title="Mobile/PDA">
More recently Google has been pushing mobile sitemaps. I use both link rel and mobile sitemaps at WapReview but Google still gets it wrong and includes some of my mobile pages high in non-mobile search results.
Bena and Michael are proposing a new way of identifying mobile and non mobile sites to search engines. They call it "Metatxt" and comes out of research done at Waterford Institute of Technology, an Irish University. Metatxt is a simple, extensible text format based on robots.txt. It lists your site's description, keywords, title, PC and mobile URLs, feeds, mobile and PC sitemaps and geolocation. You put the formatted meta data in a file named meta.txt and place it in your site's root directory. Search engines that are meta.txt aware will read the file and hopefully do the right thing in directing mobile and PC visitors to the correct version of your site. Meta.txt looks like this:
name:example.com description: example.com is a widely used example website keywords: example, demo, demonstration pc: http://www.example.com mobile:http://m.example.com rss:http://rss.example.com/rss/topstoriesoftheday.xml rss:http://rss.example.com/rss/toppoliticalstory.xml rss:http://rss.example.com/rss/topsportstory.xml podcast:http://rss.example.com/podcasting/news.xml video:http://rss.example.com/rss/tutorial.xml longitude:12.3456789 latitude:98.7654321 region:MM
Bena Robert's new mobile SEO consulting company, Visibilty Mobile is hosting a form-based online generator for creating meta.txt files at www.gomobileseo.com. The generator is free to use or you can create your meta.txt by hand based on the specification documented in a whitepaper (PDF) on the Visibility mobile site.
On course, meta.txt won't do any good if search engines don't use it. So far only Medio has commited to meta.txt but they are at major provider of white label mobile search to carriers including T-Mobile, Sprint, Telus and Verizon.
I caught up with Bena and Paul Savage, Visibility Mobile CEO, after the presentation and pumped them for details about adoption. According to Bena, meta.txt has been presented to the major search engines and the response is has been very positive. The two hinted that a couple of very big mobile search services could announce adoption very soon. On the publisher side, Zinadoo.com, a large online mobile site creator which hosts hundreds of thousands of mobile sites will be adding meta.txt to all the sites.
Meta.txt is being proposed as web standard by the Waterford Institute. Visibility Mobile is sponsoring the standard by providing hosting for the generator and the documentation but has no financial interest in meta.txt. The standard is controlled by an independent working group affiliated with the University.
Will meta.txt help mobile site visibility? It will if search engines support it and I hope they do. I'm adding meta.txt to my sites. it's easy and you have nothing to lose.