Mobile search: how it affects SEO

Fernando Maciá

Written by Fernando Maciá

Around 60% of all search queries are made from mobile devices, and more than 85% of results are mobile-friendly. For that reason, Google has decided to build a mobile-specific index of results, and step towards a new reality that could hugely impact the world of SEO: to use this index as the primary repository for its results, leaving the desktop results as a secondary index. In this post, we are going to analyse the consequences that this will bring on all levels.

Google has announced that it is building a mobile-only index, which is soon to be the primary index the search engine will use to return results.

This means that all websites, which are not mobile-ready in some way will be in serious disadvantage with regard to those which are actively mobile-friendly.

An app is not a valid solution to replace a mobile-friendly version of a website, because for the most part, only users who are already loyal to a brand are the ones that usually download and keep on their devices an application, but for the discovery of new users an app is not useful.

In terms of SEO, now it’s become a maximum priority to implement some of the available options that’ll make your website mobile-friendly.

The mobile search scenario involves other important aspects: geolocated searches, voice search, direct answers, less reading, usability, more likely content…

Mobile search

From mobile-first to mobile-only.

Google has announced that soon the mobile index will become its primary index of results, replacing the currently default desktop index. For that reason, not having our content adapted to the mobile environment will become an even bigger disadvantage as opposed to competitors who are mobile-friendly.

If your website doesn’t look good on a mobile device, hurry up

Responsive designIf you haven’t adapted your website to being accessed from mobile devices yet, our recommendation for you is to analyse the various options provided by your CMS to evaluate the possibility of making your domain mobile-friendly.

The most-used ways to adapt a website to be comfortably browsed on mobile devices are as follows:

Responsive design

It’s the solution recommended by Google, because each piece of content will only have one single URL to be crawled, saving on resources and reducing the risk in terms of duplicate content, as a result of detecting the same content on two different URLs.

Dynamic HTML

Using a specific server or CMS configuration, it can be the only way to adapt the content to all types of devices. Basically, it consists in generating a different HTML code for each type of device. The URLs of the website, however, remain unchanged. It is the server, which, depending on the devices attempting to access a website, will return the correct HTML code and style sheet for each.

Specific mobile version

Basically, it means to develop, provide and manage two different websites: one for desktop computers and another one for mobile devices, which is usually hosted on a subdomain.

Whichever solution we choose, it’s important to check the guidelines to successfully roll out the mobile version in terms of SEO, reviewing things like:

  • Mobile usability of the new version and it being approved by Google, in the case of choosing the option of responsive design.
  • The correct implementation of canonical/alternate link elements, if there’s a mobile-specific website version.
  • The correct implementation of http headers, in the case of choosing the option of dynamic HTML.
  • The correct configuration for the detection of device types server-side, and the configuration of redirects to the correct version, in each case.
  • WPO-related aspects, such as download times for each device type, and recommendations for their optimisation.
  • Remember to review the most frequent errors in the implementation of a mobile marketing strategy.

Accelerated Mobile Pages

AMP is an open-source initiative promoted by Google, in conjunction with a great number of media outlets worldwide, as well as other technological partners. AMP was born with the goal of improving download times of mobile pages. It basically consists in generating an alternative version of each piece of content with a limited subset of HTML tags and JavaScript code, making the code of the page considerably lighter. Additionally, Google crawls these pages and caches them on its own servers, which allows to speed-up the download even more.

For the time being, media outlets are the ones who benefit the most from AMP, many of which have already implemented this new standard. You can read more information on this type of code on this comprehensive post about AMP and what it means for your website’s SEO.

An app is not the same thing as a mobile website

Attention: if at some point you’ve chosen to use an app as the solution for mobile users, know that apps are effective as a means of access for already loyal customers of a company, but they’re not useful for getting new users who could be our prospective customers, to discover us.

In any case, we cannot ignore that apps have become an important part of online marketing for companies in the mobile world. For that reason, having a well-ranking app for related searches is important in terms of brand recognition for the fans of our brand, so that they can easily identify and download our app. These searches can be made at a web level (via search engines like Google), or via app stores.

The following aspects influence rankings and visibility of an app on the Internet:

  • User profile analysis: related searches, perks they look for, and our app’s competitors.
  • Visibility of pages, where the app download is promoted, as well as optimisation possibilities.
  • App name review, focussing it on related searches.
  • Keywords and description used when uploading the app to the app stores.
  • Optimisation of the icon design, screenshots and videos related to the app’s description.
  • Analysis of the download promotion policy (redirects, Google AdWords campaigns, Facebook Ads, etc.)
  • Update frequency.
  • Analysis of the comments and reviews, and the design of actions to encourage them.

Nevertheless, and even if the app has already been appropriately promoted, having a website adapted to mobile devices is important, both from the user experience point of view, as well as from an SEO point of view, because after the recent Google announcement, it’s a first-order visibility factor. Nowadays, HTML5 allows a degree of functionality and user interaction almost as good as that of an app.

In what other ways will mobile search affect your website?

More geolocated searches

Mobile locationThe use of mobile devices implies that many users will have their geolocation settings active. When they allow access to their location to the various apps, amongst which is the search engine, Google is better capable of interpreting the search context and adapting the results to the search intent and user’s implicit needs.

This creates a great opportunity for local businesses to compete, as they will be able to rank in local results, with an advantage over large international domains. It is something we’ve already been seeing in news search, for which now media outlets in the proximity of the search origin now appear.

More local SEO weight

The more search queries are made from mobile devices, the more results will be affected by the user’s location data at the time of searching for something. The influence of these relevance factors on geolocated results has been analysed in various posts and presentations.

For that reason, we recommend to review all the aspects related to your website’s ranking for local search, or even, to request a specialist company for a local SEO campaign.

Personalised and location-sensitive results

People also use their mobile devices to solve many day-to-day needs: finding a location on a map, online shopping, checking the e-mail and looking something up on the Internet. We can say that our mobile phone knows more about us than we do ourselves. That’s why when carrying out a search from our device, search engines can return personalised results, specifically adapted to our needs.

For that reason, if two individuals make the same search at the same time from two different devices, it is likely that Google will return the results in a different order, or even results belonging to different websites. The country from which the search query is made, the exact location, browsing history, search history, social media logins and search engine preferences – all of these factors make up different search results.

Voice search from mobile devices

Another big, looming change is the broadening use of voice interfaces on mobile devices. This will have an enormous impact on the type of search queries we, as users, are going to make. If the difficulty of typing on a touch screen has made our search queries shorter, or has made us use the search engine’s suggestions more, the voice interface will allow the user to make very specific queries in a comfortable and easy way. Google Hummingbird specifically focusses on evolving the algorithm towards a more semantic search, where the search engine is capable of understanding better the user’s search intent, as well as content that can better cater to their needs.

The expected effect from the use of voice interface is an increase in long tail search, because users will not feel as lazy in specifying better what they want. We think this will favour the rankings of niche websites. While they don’t enjoy such a high domain authority or popularity, such as that of more consolidated domains who lead in rankings for large search categories, they will be able to rank for very specific queries if their content really responds to the user’s need.

Need for fast download speed on mobile websites

mobile internet browsing

When we browse the Internet from our mobile phone, we aren’t always connected to Wi-Fi. Also, depending on our location and distance from the network tower that we are connected to, our bandwidth will be either 4G, 3G or lower. For that reason, the download speediness when browsing from mobile devices becomes an important factor that greatly affects user experience.

User experience will be more satisfactory the faster our website downloads. That’s why all aspects related to Web Performance Optimisation (WPO) should be optimised, such as:

  • Image size optimisation, so that they look good on mobile screens, adjusting to the necessary size and the lowest resolution possible, so that the file weighs less and the download is faster. If you want to know how to do this, here’s a post on image optimisation.
  • Use Gzip compression on your server. This way, the server will compress the requested content before sending them, and the user’s browser will decompress them upon receiving them. The volume of the transferred information will be much lower, so the browsing is faster and the data consumption is lower. If you want to know more about this, here is a comprehensive post on how Gzip compression works, and how to implement it to improve your website’s download.
  • Database optimisation. Queries to the database and the way in which it resolves them and returns the results are a common cause for lack of performance on dynamic websites, and nowadays most websites are dynamic. For that reason, optimising our database is usually a good first step to improve performance. We know that it will benefit both our browsing from desktop computers, as well as from mobile devices (for the latter, evidently the benefits will be more notable).
  • Use cache schemes. Caching content simply consists in storing it in some sort of storage bases or intermediate memories (they can be stored on the user’s browser or the server itself), in a way that the most frequently displayed content does not need to be generated or transferred again every time. A correct configuration of each of these caches can strongly impact the perceived response speed of a website. Some of the most popular content management systems, such as WordPress, have cache plug-ins, which are fairly easy to install and set up.

Mobile Googlebot

In December 2011, Google introduced mobile-specific crawling bots, which servers will identify as the resident browser on mobile devices. It was the first step it took to be able to anticipate whether a specific piece of content should be presented to a user when they make a request from a mobile device. This way, if a website was not correctly displayed on a mobile device because the website has not been adapted, and Google detects other similar content which provides a better user experience, they would appear on higher rankings for mobile searches.

Similarly, and to also improve user experience, Google has used URLs discovered by these crawlers to direct mobile users directly to mobile-specific URLs (if they exist and are different from those of the desktop version). This helps to prevent the delay that the use of the desktop version would create, and the subsequent server redirection of the user to the correct URL once it detected that the website has been accessed from a mobile device.

If now Google uses the mobile index as the main result repository, we can expect for it to be the most updated one, and for Google to use the desktop version links to direct users to the correct version, preventing, all the same, the server redirection. In any case, if Google finally implements two entirely separate indices, each of these indices will display the final correct URLs, regardless of the technology used on the mobile version.

In the case of dynamic HTML or responsive design, there won’t be any issues, because the website has only one URL for each piece of content, regardless of the device in use.

As for mobile-specific versions (the URLs of which are hosted on m.domain.com subdomains, for example), then Google will have to present different URLs on desktop results and mobile results.

Mobile version on the cache

For years now Google has stored on its own servers versions of pages visited by its bot or crawler. Googlebot is usually identified by the following User-agent: Mozilla/5.0 (compatible; Googlebot/2.1; +http://www.google.com/bot.html). This so-called “cache view of the page” has traditionally matched the version of the website as if it was visited by the desktop Googlebot.

Now that this has changed and mobile index is given a higher priority, we might soon find that the cache view matches the version crawled by mobile Googlebot, identified by the following User-agents:

  • Smartphone: Mozilla/5.0 (Linux; Android 6.0.1; Nexus 5X Build/MMB29P) AppleWebKit/537.36 (KHTML, like Gecko) Chrome/41.0.2272.96 Mobile Safari/537.36 (compatible; Googlebot/2.1; +http://www.google.com/bot.html)
  • Low-range mobile phone: SAMSUNG-SGH-E250/1.0 Profile/MIDP-2.0 Configuration/CLDC-1.1 UP.Browser/6.2.3.3.c.1.101 (GUI) MMP/2.0 (compatible; Googlebot-Mobile/2.1; +http://www.google.com/bot.html)

If you would like to get comprehensive information of all User-agents used by Google crawlers, visit this link.

Canonical/alternate

One of the recommendations for mobile-specific websites was to include reciprocal canonical and alternate link tags, to reference the mobile version from the desktop URL and viceversa. The goal of this practice was to prevent these pages from being detected as duplicate content, as well as to ensure that the correct URL was indexed (the desktop one), even if Google stored the alternate reference to the mobile URL, to directly take searchers from mobile results to it, circumventing the redirect and saving the user some additional loading time.

Will this recommendation continue to be valid, or will it, on the contrary, stop making sense? We would be willing to bet that it will stop being necessary, or even that these elements will have to be removed, because the canonical tag would be in the way of mobile-specific URLs indexing.

Error report for default mobile version in GSC

Another possible change we may see soon is for Google Search Console to begin displaying its reports for mobile versions by default, instead of desktop. For example, the crawl errors report, and other sections of the tool.

Mobile Googlebot crawling by default in GSC

Similarly, in “Crawl as Googlebot” we could see it change to the mobile crawler, instead of the desktop one, which has traditionally been used up until now. For that reason, we must ensure that our website’s mobile usability acquires a bigger role. We can verify this usability with tools like Google Search Console. If our website is an e-commerce or it includes features which require a user to interact with forms, it will be interesting to check that our forms are usable on different types of mobile phones.

Content rendering of the default mobile version in GSC

Following the same path, we could see that the default content rendering after crawling as Googlebot, we get displayed the mobile version, instead of the desktop one. After Google implemented this feature, we’ve found that text areas, which are not directly visible on the page, and more importantly, inside the above-the-fold, no longer play such an important role in terms of page relevance as they used to. It doesn’t matter whether we see that these texts can be crawled on the cache view of the page.

This could bring about the following consequences:

  • Careful with the content that could become hidden when the content adjusts to the mobile format: if there are important portions of the content, as well as menus, etc. that become hidden during rendering, they could stop being taken into account in terms of relevance, because the desktop version won’t be a priority any more.
  • If we take advantage of this possibility and use it to include a large piece of content on the desktop version, to then hide it for the mobile version –as cloaking of sorts–, we could lose the relevance these blocks were giving us because now they are hidden.

References, technical directives and other related content

Videos about Google Mobile

Interview between Gary Illyes and Eric Enge at Pubcon 2016 in Las Vegas. At 33:23, Gary Illyes talks about websites that do not yet have a mobile version, and asks: “why don’t you have a mobile site yet?”

Docs regarding mobile search on the Google Webmaster blog

Google’s technical guidelines for mobile sites

The effect of mobile usage on the Internet, according to Google

Other references on mobiles websites

Conclusion

The announcement of the change in Google index to prioritise mobile results simply adapts the search engine to the users’ habits, who now mostly browse from their mobile devices.

Depending on whether you’ve adapted your website to mobile devices or you haven’t, this change could have a bigger or smaller impact on the rankings and organic traffic you get from Google.

If you haven’t adapted your website to being accessed from mobile devices, our recommendation is to analyse the different options your CMS has, to evaluate the possibility of making your domain mobile-friendly with:

  • Responsive design.
  • Dynamic HTML.
  • Mobile-specific website version.
  • Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP).

At Human Level we can help you by verifying whether your site has been validated by Google as mobile-friendly or not, and tell you how to proceed otherwise. Talk to us.

Fernando Maciá
Autor: Fernando Maciá
CEO of Human Level. He's an expert in SEO, online marketing plans and web internationalisation. He's also a digital marketing teacher and an accomplished writer, having published several books on web positioning, social media marketing, and strategies to earn customers on the Internet.

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