Posted to Ben Finklea's blog on September 29th, 2010

Why You Should Care About Mobile Advertising 'Transcoding'

In the emerging marketing realm of mobile advertising, businesses and brand are dropping their brands into the hands of their target audience with immediacy, relevancy, and savvy. But little do most people know, the search engines may be playing favorites. Wha-wha-what!?!

It’s true. And it’s not just Mr. and Mrs. Google. No, all the search engines are doing it with mobile search results and it’s not considered ‘playing favorites’, it’s considered transcoding.

In certain situations, the search engines will want to rank a particular page in mobile results (because of its ranking in regular results), but they know they shouldn’t because the site has a poor mobile experience–usually due to the site’s file size being too large, the site uses mobile-unfriendly code like Flash or trucks full of JavaScript.

What is Transcoding?

When the situation described above occurs, the guilty search engine will show the full listing for mobile-unfriendly pages, but when you click on it, they will redirect you to a temporary URL that is representative of a “transcoded” version of the page or site you requested. This temporary “transcode” page or site lives on a subdomain hosted by the search engine, and shows a scraped version of the actual page or site you wanted to visit.

The search engine scrape of the site usually just shows text and the small images from the page, but doesn’t deliver anything that may cause problems for a mobile browser–i.e. background images, animations, videos, iFrames, and heavy or complex coding.

To Transcode or Not To Transcode

If you have completely ignored getting your mobile website launched, transcoding is great for you because it allows your site to rank in mobile results when you would otherwise disappear. Unfortunately, for those mobile-savvy sites, search engines don’t really do a great job with transcoding. And in some cases, transcoding can royally screw up a page with missing or broken navigation, unusual and unnecessary page breaks, or cutting out important sections of the site altogether.

Transcoded pages also differ depending on the phone it is being viewed on, so just because your site isn’t transcoded on your phone doesn’t mean that it isn’t being transcoded by mobile search engines on other types of smart phones. The less sophisticated a mobile browser is, the more likely it will transcode your page - as being experienced most frequently on Blackberry and WindowsMobile devices.

How to View Transcoded Pages

If you want to see what a page looks like when Google transcodes it, there are two main options:

1) Perform a search on your phone, click the ‘options’ button to the right of the SERP result, and select ‘mobile formatted’.

Here is a screenshot from my iPhone showing the results of a search for 'jazz club':

2) Go to and enter your URL from either your computer or mobile phone into the Google URL box.

Here is what a transcoded mobile site looks like:

The image above, courtesy of, shows what the mobile website looks like when it is transcoded by Google. In the example provided shows two header images missing, including the company’s logo, the navigation is squished together, and an error message has been served up a la JavaScript. Yikes!

How to Prevent Transcoding of Your Mobile Site

What is the point of letting your transcoded site appear in the mobile ranks if it looks like the example above? If anything, it will turn off any type of transcode-viewed visitor from navigating to your site on a regular computer. Don’t want this to happen to you?

Thought not. If you are confident in your mobile site’s rendering, you can include the ‘no-transform’ cache control into the headers of your template. This move can prevent your pages from being transcoded by mobile search engines, but this is not a 100% guarantee.

The good news in all of this is that mobile search browsers are quickly improving so, with faster network connections from mobile providers, transcoding is becoming less common. It is highly recommended, however, to test out your website and/or landing pages on a mobile browser to see if or when they are being transcoded.

If you are being transcoded, in most cases you can perform a few on-page code tweaks that will make the transcoded experience much more enjoyable and user-friendly, improving your ability to reach a growing audience of smart phone users with a functional website.

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