Mobile SEO: The 3 areas that really matter for SEO performance

With the upcoming launch of Google’s mobile-first index, digital marketers are preparing for a proliferation of “micro-moments”.

There has been a lot of noise around this seemingly seismic shift, but this trend was set in motion years ago and we have plenty of data to hand on what makes or breaks a mobile SEO campaign.

Undoubtedly, mobile SEO is distinct from its desktop counterpart in significant – sometimes very subtle – ways. As mobile usage continues to grow, user behaviors and expectations change too. Simply resizing the desktop site for a smaller screen won’t do.

Moreover, the evidence that the desktop and mobile algorithms must function based on different factors is right in front of us.

We can see from these screenshots of mobile results (above) and desktop results (below) for the query [credit card], taken from a collocated laptop and smartphone, that there are many differences across the two devices:

Looking at this from the cold austerity of a rank tracking dashboard might not highlight just how different these experiences are. The order of the listings is very similar across devices, but they way a user experiences and interacts with them will vary.

This example is purposefully taken from a finance search query, less prone to location-based variations that we would see for a term like [coffee shop near me]. And yet, the mobile results page contains enough embellishments to distinguish it from the desktop version.

Rather than try to break down Google’s algorithms into the comforting-but-illusory format of a list of ranking factors, we should focus our efforts on what actually helps websites get more mobile traffic.

Based on experience of what a successful mobile SEO campaign entails in 2017, we can distil this into three categories: Context; Speed and Accessibility; and User Engagement Signals.

Within this article, we will first assess the reasons that mobile SEO stands apart, before delving into some practical tips in each category that can help all marketers drive improved performance via organic search.

1. Context

Smartphones contain an array of sensors that allow them to understand our environment. Everything from an accelerometer to a magnetometer to a proximity sensor is contained within the average mobile device nowadays.

Mobile phones create a huge amount of data and smartphone companies aren’t afraid to capture and use it. We shouldn’t be surprised; even our vacuum cleaners are mapping out our homes, hoovering up data along with dust.

The below is a very much redacted list of factors Google uses to shape mobile search results (taken from a patent approved way back in 2013):

  • Current time,
  • Current date,
  • Current day of the week,
  • Current month,
  • Current season,
  • A current, future, and/or past weather forecast at or near a location of a previous event in which a user and/or a user’s friends participated,
  • Information on user’s calendar, such as information regarding events or statuses of a user or a user’s friends,
  • Information accessible via a user’s social networking account,
  • Noise level or any recognizable sounds detected by the mobile platform and/or a monitoring device,
  • Health statistics or characterizations of a user’s current health

Even without reviewing the unabridged Ulysses-length list, we can get a clear sense of what’s going on here. Tech companies know a lot more about us than ever before, and they get a lot of this information from our phones.

Changes to how Google designates the centroid for a search have made a difference, too. The user’s phone now acts as the centroid, fundamentally shifting the notion of local search to a hyper-personalized level.

This applies to the local listings within Google Maps, but can also affect the content shown in ‘traditional’ SEO listings.

Combined with advances in semantic search, it is now essential for marketers to understand a user’s context if we are to satisfy their search query.

In spite of the absence of clear rules to follow across the board, there are still some practical ways that we can use context to improve SEO performance.

  • Split out search volume by device type. This will help you understand which queries tend to occur predominantly on either mobile or desktop. Knowing this will allow you to create content that caters for the preferred user experience. Desktop content is typically one-third longer than mobile content, for example.
  • Download a user agent switcher to view your content as it looks on a variety of different devices. You can get the extension for Chrome here, or for Firefox here. If you need to get really specific about the phone dimensions or location, try Mobile Phone Emulator.
  • Create content that responds to user needs, rather than just matching their search query. That may mean using image-heavy content, for example, rather than sticking with strictly text-based pages. Tracking universal search results will allow you to pinpoint these queries.
  • Track ranking performance across devices, territories, and media formats. This will give a truer picture of how frequently your domain is showing up in search results. You can achieve this through Google’s Search Console and Data Studio, combined with your rank tracking software.

2. Speed & Accessibility

SEO isn’t just about having the most relevant, thorough answer anymore. You also need to be the quickest site to provide it, or run the risk that users will simply go elsewhere.

Source: Google

This is more important than ever, with Google’s quick answers pulling responses into the search results pages directly, and its Android Instant Apps project allowing consumers to use an app without installing it.

Google has given significant backing to its Accelerated Mobile Pages initiative too, and the evidence so far suggests it is paying off. AMP pages were introduced in early 2016 and run on a stripped-back version of HTML that very significantly decreases page load times. They also use a lot less data to load, so the benefits for users on the go are plentiful. A recent survey corroborated this, with over 60% of respondents saying that they would seek out AMP results due to the faster, lighter experience they provide.

AMP pages were initially seen as a boon for publishers (about 70% of Google News stories are AMP-enabled now), but retailers like eBay have started to adopt this standard too. In fact, publishers have had challenges in monetizing these light-touch formats, while ecommerce sites look likely to be the long-term beneficiaries. With AdWords and AdSense support for AMP continuing to increase, there is really no option other than to get on board with AMP if you want to maximize your content’s mobile opportunity.

Add in Facebook’s Instant Articles or Twitter Moments and the picture is clear: speed is of the essence.

This is not just a matter of removing assets to strip down individual pages, however. Websites are more than just the sum of their parts, so we need to ensure that our site structure is sound and, of course, that our content is accessible by Google, Facebook, Apple, et al.

  • Mercifully, Google has upgraded the Mobile Site Testing Tool, which now generates reports with recommendations you can send to your development team.
  • Remove any interstitial pages that stand between a user and access to the page they want to see. Google’s position on this has grown more severe over time; from mildly humorous posts through to an algorithmic penalty to dissuade sites from using interstitials in early 2017.
  • Android Instant Apps is a clear indication of the direction the industry is going in. People don’t want to install and load separate apps; this initiative allows them to enjoy the benefits of apps without the drawbacks they typically bring. It is open to all developers now, so it is worth getting started if you haven’t done so already.
  • The AMP Project website contains a host of useful tutorials that will get developers up to speed in no time. There are also plug-ins available for content management systems like WordPress, so you don’t even necessarily need to know AMP code in order to use it.
  • Use AMP for AdWords landing pages. Google provides plenty of handy advice on this and it is essential to adopt this practice early.
  • Google lists its mobile SEO best practices, in a rare example of olive branch extension to organic search marketers. However, these are quite basic tips that will get your site indexed. They won’t make a huge difference is such a competitive market.
  • Consider what you are willing to sacrifice in the name of faster loading times. AMP HTML provides a great solution, but there is a further temptation to minimize JavaScript to improve loading times further. This can come at the cost of user experience, so be sure to weigh up the pros and cons of removing each element before you do so.
  • Don’t just think of accessibility in technical terms. Your content needs to be accessible for the right audience once it loads; tools like Readable.io can help ensure that you are writing with an appropriate level of complexity.

3. User engagement signals

The shift to mobile devices has caused Google to change the methodology behind how it indexes and ranks websites. This has proven to be a much more complex task than many expected. As a result, Google has delayed the launch of the mobile-first index and is now prepared to launch on a website-by-website basis.

Google’s Gary Ilyes said of the mobile-first index at SMX West earlier this year:

“Mobile sites don’t have a lot of the metadata that desktop sites have. We’re aiming for a quality-neutral launch. We don’t want users to experience a loss in quality of search results. We need to replace the signals that are missing in the mobile web.”

This is a significant statement for SEO practitioners. Google wants a quality-neutral launch, but it has to do so by replacing some signals it has traditionally used to rank results. No wonder the mobile-first index is taking some time to get right.

Aside from the reduction in the quantity of metadata that mobile sites have versus desktop sites, we also need to bear in mind that links become less important on mobile. People share content via messaging apps much more frequently, which poses a problem for a search engine that has typically relied on links to navigate the web.

Other reinforcement signals for Google’s algorithms are harder to pin down in the mobile age too. One of Google’s most celebrated engineers, Jeff Dean, said in an interview with Fortune last year:

“If a user looks at a search result and likes it or doesn’t like it, that’s not that obvious.”

The advent of RankBrain in late 2015 was driven by a desire to do exactly this; to understand whether a user is satisfied with search results or not. Google now assesses whether a user stays on a website (known as a ‘long click’) or if they return to the search results page to find a more suitable result (a ‘short click’). A high click-through rate alone won’t suffice – we need to focus on what users do once they’ve landed on the site.

A SearchMetrics study last year summed this up quite nicely:

“User experience factors that improve mobile sites are related to better SEO rankings; external links continue to decline in importance.”

Links do still matter on mobile, of course; just not to the same extent. That’s a good thing – links can be manipulated (even bought), but it’s harder to falsify user engagement factors over a long period of time.

This leads us to a few valuable points to bear in mind when optimizing for user satisfaction:

  • Data analysis should be the cornerstone of your SEO efforts. Assess how customers access your site, what they do when they get there, and where the primary exit points are. This should all be built into your analytics dashboard to give you real-time access to invaluable user information. You can be pretty sure that Google is utilizing similar metrics to see if your site satisfies a user’s request.
  • Look at how your landing pages have performed since the launch of RankBrain to see if there are any correlations between user engagement metrics (such as time on page, bounce rate, and so on) and your SEO rankings. Often, you will notice that your best performing pages from a UX perspective have seen a  notable SEO boost too.
  • Links still matter. We should just think of them differently. Consider whether the links you attract will actually drive qualified traffic to your site, rather than just adding to antiquated metrics like external link volume.
  • Encompass UX and CRO within your SEO campaigns. Without improving your site experience, any SEO rankings improvements you achieve may lack staying power.

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