Optimizing for Mobile and The Future of Search

Matt Crowley - November 11, 2016

Within this post, you will learn about key considerations and actionable tips to help your organization prepare for mobile and the future of search, along with insights from a recent presentation that I gave for the DMA here – Optimizing for Mobile & the Future of Organic Search (requires a login or registration).

The pace at which the mobile landscape is shifting cannot be overstated. There are new changes every month that may require your organization to assess its current strategy. Many organizations are well aware of the need to focus on an increasingly large mobile audience. However, many are still focusing on step #1 – ensuring that your website is readable on the latest iPhone or Android device. This is only the tip of the iceberg, with many other considerations that need to be accounted for, both strategic and tactical.

Ways to Reach a Mobile Audience

Before defining the path and strategy that your organization should take to be well positioned for a mobile audience, it’s important to know what methods are currently available. Although there are many different ways to reach a mobile audience, these are the most widely applicable methods below. However, there are unique cases that may require a more custom approach.

  • Responsive web design: This is the recommended method for maintaining a website that is mobile-friendly. It allows for users to see the same exact page across any device, sized appropriately for the device they are using. Read more about responsive web design on our blog or request a complimentary consultation.
  • Mobile App Design: There are only a small percentage of organizations that can rely on a “mobile app only” approach. For most companies, mobile apps provide a unique solution to a specific use-case for their audience or act as a secondary touch point beyond their website. Regardless, the current market of mobile apps is highly competitive and the ability for users to search and find your app is much more limited than what is available via traditional mobile & web search for websites. Therefore, it’s important that you have a strong marketing plan in place for promoting your app and making it easy to find.
  • App indexing: If you have an iPhone or Android app that corresponds with page(s) on your website, Google can return a link to the appropriate page in your app to mobile search engine users. More information on App indexing can be found on our SEO blog and from Google.
  • Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP): This is a new framework spearheaded by Google to build web pages for static content that loads very quickly and are exclusively designed for mobile devices. There are a lot of limitations to this framework currently and certainly a lot of pros and cons that should be analyzed before a business implements the technology. Google’s goal is to return an AMP version of a page (that is a streamlined version of a regular web page) to users who are performing searches on Google from their mobile device. More information on AMP pages can be found at: https://www.ampproject.org/learn/about-amp/.
  • App Streaming: Google has been making a lot of progress since 2015 on an initiative to allow users to stream mobile apps directly from search results, without requiring the user to download the app to their device. This has not been fully released to all developers yet, but will be an important area to watch in the coming months as it removes a large barrier to interaction (downloading the app).
  • Google Now Integration: Google Now is the predictive and “intelligent” assistant and search system created by Google in 2012. It uses data provided by websites, apps, and emails, among many other data sources to return predictive results to users. For example, hotel & restaurant reservation and flight confirmation emails can contain embedded markup that allows Google to present rich confirmation cards at the right time. More information on Google Now integration can be found at: http://www.google.com/landing/now/integrations.html.

The Mobile Audience of the Future

The future also holds a treasure trove of new methods for how users will find content that you create as well as products and services that you offer. Beyond the methods listed above, there remains further work to be done with avenues including:

  • Voice search: I personally own and use an Amazon Echo. Although it’s somewhat “clunky” to use now, I can see how voice search will only become a more integral part of our daily lives. Beyond Amazon’s Echo there is also Google Home, Google Now, Google Assistant, and Siri. The key to optimizing towards these currently appears to reside in the use of structured data markup within your website and app pages.
  • Wearables: Although the market has yet to fully prove itself, there are a litany of devices that can be worn. These include smart watches like the Apple Watch and even higher end devices like the Tag Heuer Connected Watch. Beyond watches, advances are coming in Virtual Reality devices from companies like Oculus, as well as Augmented Reality devices from companies such as Microsoft and Magic Leap. The future with this technology looks promising.

Recent Announcements

When considering the right combination of methods to choose from above, it’s also important to be aware of recent announcements made by Google regarding how they will handle some of these implementations. Here are two major announcements:

  • Mobile-first Index: Google announced on 11/4/16 that they will begin using a mobile-first index in the near future, beginning with several tests over the coming months. To start, this shouldn’t have a big impact on the visibility of your website, especially if it is responsive. This change primarily involves Google’s indexing of pages as if it were a user on a mobile phone rather than on a desktop computer. Currently, Google analyzes your pages as if they were a user on a desktop computer. With this latest change, they will analyze your pages as if they were a user on a mobile phone. Long-term, this is likely to position Google to make algorithmic changes that may have a larger impact on how pages are ranked. For now, it’s a sign that should accelerate the execution of your company’s mobile strategy.
  • AMP Pages to Replace App Indexing When Available: Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP Pages) have come on full-force and are now being shown in standard web results (previously they were only shown in Google News results). Additionally, Google quietly announced that as of 9/20/16, preference (rankings and traffic) would be directed to AMP pages rather than Apps for websites that have enabled App indexing for a particular page.

What You Should be Focusing On

As a business, it’s important to not lose sight of the forest for the trees. There will continue to be an acceleration of new technologies and innovations that improve your ability to reach a mobile audience. However, there are a few core tenets that should be a part of the foundation of your strategy, regardless of the path you take or methods you use. These include focusing on:

  • Content & Context: The content you create should provide users with the information they want in the format they need.
  • User Experience: The platform (website, app, etc.) that you use to distribute your content should be extremely easy to navigate for your target audience and provide your users with a clear path to conversion.
  • Strong Technical Foundation: Regardless of the platform (website, app, etc.) that you choose to reach your mobile audience, it should be configured in a way that makes it easy for search engines to navigate and understand your content.

As you move forward with your mobile strategy, here are a few actionable tips for each of these three tenets:

Actionable Tips for Content & Context

  • Define user intent for important pages by leveraging analytics, user & persona research, keyword data, and keyword research.
  • Answer user queries directly and provide the right type & format of information they are looking for.
  • Consider the length of time it takes to consume your content and ensure that this aligns with your mobile audience.
  • Avoid hiding important content behind a tab or second click.
  • Use contextual links within your content to “tie” relevant pages together.
  • Analyze if the length of your meta data is optimized for display in mobile search results. Mobile search engine results have limited space and may show fewer characters for Title and Description meta tags than desktop results.

Actionable Tips for User Experience

  • Use a mobile friendly design (such as responsive design).
  • Make sure that your pages load quickly – you can identify opportunities for improvement with Google’s Page Speed Tool. (developers.google.com/speed/pagespeed/)
  • Define a clear next step for your users / personas when optimizing a page based upon the user’s intent.
  • Ensure that your content is easily digestible, and can be scanned, by breaking it into smaller segments.

Actionable Tips for Ensuring a Strong Technical Foundation

  • Don’t block search engines from accessing CSS or JavaScript files that impact how users interact with a core page.
  • If your content is available in a mobile friendly format, tell search engines by using the “viewport” meta tag (responsive), rel=“alternate” elements (separate mobile URLs), or the vary HTTP header (dynamic serving).
  • Keep URLs concise but descriptive.
  • Implement optimization best practices and avoid too many HTTP requests.
  • Involve a knowledgeable developer and SEO specialist when considering new technologies like Push State Design, AMP Pages, Progressive Web Apps, and others.

Tools to Help

Here are a few tools from Google that may help you analyze your site’s current mobile friendliness.

Where to Start

Considering the amount of information available on the future of mobile and search, it can be dizzying to know where to start. We recommend starting with a strategy, often very similar to a foundational strategy for any marketing channel that involves:

  1. Identifying the target audience you want to reach and the key personas that make up the audience.
  2. Identifying where those personas consume information now and where they will do that in the future.
  3. Developing a technical plan for creating, migrating, or optimizing for your presence on the platforms that best reach your target audience.
  4. Validating that your technical infrastructure is as connected as possible. If you are creating content across platforms, they need to be tied into a comprehensive “universe” as much as possible.
  5. Creating a content strategy that puts your users first and results content that is tailored to the platform it’s published on and in the format/context that your users need.
  6. Measuring the performance of your progress and strategies. This is likely new territory and you are going to need to analyze data on what is working and what is not, so that you can refine your strategy and grow your business.

If your company could use help on its journey, don’t hesitate to contact us or request a complimentary consultation.

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