Google updates its search algorithm frequently throughout the year, although just a few of those changes are substantial enough to affect the rank of major websites globally. Knowing the general direction toward which Google developers are moving is critical for SEO professionals to stay up-to-date and tune their ranking strategies accordingly. (This isn’t the first time that Google has shaken up its SEO strategy – for an earlier example, see SEO’s Not Dead, It’s Just Changing.)
In the first few months of 2017, a cluster of relatively frequent algorithm changes shook the ground below the feet of many SEO experts, causing significant rank fluctuations on both the mobile and desktop indexes. However, other than just relying on evaluating classic parameters such as content quality, backlinks structure or loading speed, Google’s new trend seems to be mostly focused on the importance of having a mobile-responsive website. Will user interface and mobile design eventually take over the traditional desktop-oriented website design that characterized the last decade? Let’s give a look to some of the most important signs that mobile could be the new key to winning at SEO.
Mobile technologies are advancing every day, and since their first appearance on the web scenario, they profoundly affected its evolution over the course of the last few years. They are not the future of information technology anymore: they quickly grew to be the present since they’re now more affordable and easy to use as ever. A smartphone is now more than simply a phone with an integrated mini-browser – it is an ever-evolving device that allows us to shop, eat, rent our transports and even check our vitals with just a click. The rapid development of device integration also meant that our entire society is literally becoming mobile. As an obvious consequence, all future websites and landing pages are going to be built with a design that focuses on the capabilities of modern smartphones.
Mobile Users Surpassed Desktop Users
The overall shift of end users toward digital technologies means that the number of desktop users is rapidly decreasing in favor of mobile and tablet users. For the first time in history, in October 2016 mobile and tablet devices surpassed the 50 percent mark of internet usage worldwide. Interestingly enough, in some countries such as India this percentage may reach up to 75 percent. Global internet usage through mobile devices was just slightly above 25 percent in 2013, meaning that it actually doubled in less than three years. As Google developers acknowledged, 77 percent of mobile searches occur at home or work, meaning that users are currently favoring their smartphone over a desktop computer even when the latter one can be easily reached. It was then just a matter of time before the giant search engine had to address this change and shift its new ranking system accordingly. (For more on mobile, see The Top 10 Trends in Mobile Computing.)
The Introduction of the Mobile-First Index
In May 2016, Google officially announced that websites that were not mobile-friendly were going to take a ranking penalty. Although the quest began initially in 2014 with the “mobile-friendly” badge, it took another two years before Google developers would set their first foothold on the importance of site responsiveness. On November 4, 2016, they announced that the search engine index is going to become mobile-first, meaning that the algorithm will eventually use the mobile version of a site to rank its pages, including the snippets shown in the search results. This is a great change that is going to significantly affect SEO, especially since it incorporates the constantly increasing number of voice queries that now constitute up to 20 percent of all searches. Natural language queries spoken into smartphones are, in fact, significantly longer and often completely different than typed ones, and that could also be the reason why Google increased the length of its titles on mobile SERPs.
An Emphasis on Testing Mobile-Friendliness
Over 2016 and 2017, Google seemingly improved its ability to determine a page’s responsiveness. However, it is also giving new opportunities to webmasters to check whether their content is mobile-friendly enough according to the search engine’s new standards. In 2016, a new Mobile-Friendly Test was released to check how easily a visitor can use a website on a mobile device. On January 31st, 2017 the testing tool was released as an API to allow developers to build their own automated tools to test their website’s URLs. Together with the “mobile usability errors” section on Webmaster Tools, the new analyzer clearly indicates the emphasis that Google has put on fully mobile-oriented content over traditional desktop content.
The Importance of Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMPs)
2016 also saw the introduction of the Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMPs), which are lightweight web pages that are designed to load more swiftly when viewed from mobile devices. Speed has always been one of Google’s highest priorities, and the whole idea of having a page that is able to load instantly on a smartphone fits in perfectly with this concept. Although AMPs have not been used as a ranking signal so far, they have been featured so prominently that it is reasonable to assume that it is just a matter of time before they will. Regardless of whether AMPs actively affect the ranks, the introduction of the new AMP icon is still useful for SEOs to increase their CTRs and drive more traffic to the websites they manage. Lately, AMP pages’ importance also significantly grew since they can now also appear in normal web searches instead of being just listed on news articles.
Greater Focus on User Experience and User Interface Designs
Many software houses already started moving toward the development of apps and mobile-friendly products, knowing that the average smartphone user is much more task-oriented than the traditional web surfer. Google is moving forward to user-driven design and UX, and is already favoring content that will let the user accomplish his specific task in the simplest and shortest way possible. New pages must favor finger-level design with clickable, semantic content that is easily accessible to reduce bounce rate. For example, on January 10, 2017, Google released a new intrusive interstitial penalty that penalizes pages that include overlays that cover any part of the content such as ads, popups and even language selectors.