Not so long ago, mobile search was treated almost like it’s own channel, or at most a subset of SEO. Since then mobile search has grown massively. SEO and mobile marketing expert Bryson Meunier shares his thoughts on why these days, it’s desktop SEO that is a subset of SEO as a whole.
Do you think there is a perception in the industry that mobile SEO differs from that of desktop SEO? If so, why is that?
To some extent, yes. When the industry first started talking about how mobile impacts SEO, back around 2005, it was basically irrelevant to SEO. Just seven years ago total global internet traffic from mobile devices was just 0.7% according to Statcounter.
There were a few people then, such as myself and Cindy Krum who were looking towards the future, but it took the better part of ten years for mobile searches to exceed desktop and for mobile to be widely accepted as an important part of SEO. Up to that point mobile SEO was a subset of SEO — and often it was a case of keeping track of the changes that Google was making to accommodate mobile searchers (who often had and sought a different user experience from desktop searchers).
Many people in SEO didn’t appreciate the speed and scale at which mobile would grow, as at the time it was still a small subset of search traffic, and Rand Fishkin stated in 2011 that mobile and desktop search results would converge into a single set of results, eliminating the need for mobile-friendly sites and mobile-specific SEO.
He’s a great speaker and a nice guy who is right about a lot of things but he wasn’t right about that. Today mobile is 45% of the total traffic (Statcounter), and more than 50% of search traffic from Google in the US. In 2015 Google introduced the mobile-friendly update (aka “Mobilegeddon”) and the number of mobile friendly sites jumped from about 40% of the top 25,000 sites back in April of 2015, to 85% of all pages in search results in August 2016.
Because mobile is such an important audience to get search results right for, Google is now going even further than the measures they took for Mobilegeddon, and are launching the separate mobile index that will be its primary index going forward.
This means that mobile SEO is no longer a subset of SEO. Today desktop-focused SEO is a subset of SEO. All SEOs now need to understand how mobile users search, and how and when it differs from desktop and tablet search.
They also need to know about app indexing, AMP, app store optimization, and fixing mobile-friendly errors. These are all unique elements of mobile SEO, none of which apply to desktop search. In short, mobile SEO has come of age.
There is a belief that increasingly paid search is necessary for mobile visibility. Is mobile SEO still a good opportunity with strong potential for ROI?
Proponents of the argument that paid search is necessary for mobile visibility usually point to declining organic search traffic in mobile for their client base. However, I find these numbers can be misleading. It could be that their client base is spending more on paid search, for example, which could cannibalize organic traffic slightly, or their clients could have penalties that decrease organic traffic but aren’t disclosed. Alternatively, they could be including organic search for clients who are only doing paid search and not SEO.
But even if organic search on mobile were declining and paid search increasing there are some differences in paid and organic search traffic according to recent research that makes SEO still worth investing in. For example, the first organic listing in mobile still gets 73% more clicks than the first and second sponsored listings combined, according to recent mobile click-tracking data from Mediative. So you have a better chance of getting more traffic with a number one listing in organic than paid. What’s more, that traffic can be more valuable to businesses, as most non-brand searchers click on the first organic listing (56%) and less than 10% click on a paid search ad. Even if you do get more traffic from paid search, it’s likely mostly brand traffic. This traffic is valuable, but it’s more expensive to bid on non-brand keywords generally because they’re relevant to everyone and more competitive.
Investment in SEO has a great chance at increasing traffic from the most valuable query class without increasing your cost per click, which is almost always ROI positive.
How much of mobile SEO best practice is still driven by Google updates? Is best practice still quite ‘reactive’? (perhaps a recent example of reactive SEO would be the AMP project)
Because Google is constantly testing their result set and getting live feedback from real people, the most reliable way to perform consistently well is to build your site as though users matter, or you won’t rank well in Google search for long. There are some unscrupulous characters who are still chasing loopholes in Google’s algorithms to make a quick buck, but as the SEO industry matures and Google’s algorithms get smarter I think (and hope) that their number is diminishing.
At the same time there are best practice techniques that SEOs wouldn’t do if search engines didn’t exist (e.g. canonical tags, bidirectional annotations, sitemaps, etc.) so there is an element of mobile SEO best practice being driven by the algorithms, but I think most of it is done to help create a better user experience for searchers.
What are some underutilized opportunities in mobile search?
App indexing, currently, appears to be underutilized. We haven’t seen it generate a lot of traffic relative to web search, but only 30% of sites apparently are using it at the moment. This means that if you have an app but it’s not indexed, you could make immediate gains by indexing. Though the traffic hasn’t been great relative to web search, we do get about 2% of our app installs from search now, which is an additional source of free traffic.
Have you seen any indication that the incorporation of Penguin into Google’s core algorithm has made an impact on mobile SEO in particular?
It does in the sense that it affects core ranking, which at this point affects both mobile and desktop searches. However, I haven’t seen any difference personally between the impact of Penguin on mobile and desktop search results.
As the mobile index is introduced and becomes the primary index this may change, as links to mobile sites and desktop sites can be different (assuming two sites still exist rather than one that’s adaptive or responsive).
Can you share a few thoughts on ‘other factors’ making an impact on mobile experiences:
Ad-blocking: The PageFair report that Mary Meeker referenced in her deck earlier this year said that ad blocking is more common on mobile than desktop. This means that activities such as mobile SEO that don’t require traditional advertising can still get a brand’s message across to searchers, even with Ad-blocking enabled.
Voice search: Voice search has grown to 20% of Google smartphone queries, and as speech recognition improves through machine learning it will continue to grow. For SEOs it’s important to understand that natural language queries have likely grown and will continue to as a result of voice search.
Voice search means people are beginning to interact with Google the way they would with a human, which means that we will see new types of queries. As SEOs, we have to know which ones are qualified queries. For example, if a searcher is just looking for an answer and not a web page and you’re looking to sell blue widgets on a web page, you may want to stick to queries from searchers who are looking for blue widgets if you want to stay in business.
IoT / Personal Assistance / Hubs: In 2012 I did a presentation at SMX called “Meet Siri: Apple’s Google Killer?” in which I compared Siri’s output to Google’s and found that, in fact, Siri is a lousy search engine. Someone put together a much larger test that year that said basically the same thing.
Since then Amazon’s Alexa, Siri and Google’s Assistant have all aspired to be essentially what Ask Jeeves was supposed to be years ago. At some point, it is possible that people will converse with machines the way Joaquin Phoenix talked to Scarlett Johansson in Her — if this happens it will mean not as many people will go to a website optimized for a mesothelioma lawyer. Today… we’re not there quite yet.
When we do get there I have no doubt that SEOs will be trying to help businesses become more visible in personal assistants, as they’re doing today by helping people to optimize for featured snippets. SEO won’t die, it will just change (as it does).
And perhaps looking even further ahead, Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) have been hailed as being the next game-changer for mobile — bringing app like experiences “in-tab” and allowing “mobile web app users to experience native-like mobile experiences along with web advantages”…
Anything we can do to make the user experience better on mobile is going to increase usage and engagement, and might have tangential effects on SEO. PWAs can help reduce load time, which will have a direct effect on SEO, however small. They also allow developers to do really cool stuff on the web that they could previously only make in apps, like an air horn or a voice recorder, and clever SEOs and content marketers will use this new technology to help them get more links to their web content. As an SEO I think these things about Progressive Web Apps are great, and I hope more people start using them. As a user I delete so many apps that I download for a single use that progressive web apps make sense, and I hope more people start using them.
That said, as an SEO you have to know what you’re getting into. If you’re a traditional publisher it is possible to make a progressive web app that is beautiful and crawlable, but it’s not easy. Just looking at the examples listed on pwa.rocks you can see that these sites don’t optimize themselves.
For example, make sure your URLs don’t use hashbangs, as doing so can prevent your site from being indexed, like the Billings Gazette web app, which has only one page indexed. You also have to make sure you use canonical tags if you publish on a different URL, as the Financial Times does at their PWA: app.ft.com.
And though Progressive Web Apps can be fast, it’s not a given, as is demonstrated by the Washington Post’s otherwise excellent offering, which gets a 51/100 on mobile according to Google’s Page Speed tool.
The bottom line is that Progressive Web Apps have their place and they allow us to do things on the web that we could previously only do in apps, which is great. But best practices for crawling and indexing still apply, even though it’s a new technology.
How can brands keep up with all the developments and changes to mobile SEO?
At large organizations the planning process could happen years in advance and given how quickly the mobile search space is changing larger organizations might not be able to get the resources to make an impact in time.
Ultimately, most large organizations should hopefully have some sort of innovation budget that they can use to keep up with the changes in mobile SEO.
Bryson Meunier is the SEO Director at Vivid Seats, an SEO veteran with more than 16 years experience both agency and in-house, and a thought leader in permission marketing as a columnist for Search Engine Land, Marketing Land and .Net Magazine and a frequent speaker on SEO and mobile marketing. You can connect with him on LinkedIn and Twitter.