Usually, big SEO changes barely get attention beyond web geeks. Not this time. No one, not even CMOs, can remain ignorant of the SEO changes because it changes a lot marketing strategies and tactics – all at once.
In the world of marketing, SEO usually flies under the radar even though everyone acknowledges its importance. Once you get past the eye roll, (go ahead – get it out of your system), you come to grips with what Google is doing.
In quintessential Google fashion, by changing the SEO rules of the road to favor mobile, they are changing lots of marketing strategies and activities – all at once.
No one, not even CMOs, can remain ignorant anymore. Here’s what you need to know.
The back story.
In 2019, Google announced its “mobile first” strategy which meant, among other things, a change to how it will classify sites within its SEARCH platform. The announced change had different stages and we have reached the stage with the most business impact – Google is swapping out its historical desktop-centric SEARCH site rankings architecture in favor of using a brand’s mobile site to determine how high a site shows up in a SEARCH based on a user’s query. Till now, mobile sites were a stripped down content version of their desktop site. No more. The new SEO game means you focus on creating your mobile site first, then translate that to a desktop site.
In effect, since Google believes the majority of users now access Google Search with a mobile device, Google is elevating the mobile site for indexing purposes which changes, uh, everything.
Prepared or not, the impact of this is painfully simple – unless you play by Google mobile-first rules you can become less discoverable and that almost always means less traffic. Less traffic means less sales.
Hopefully, that got your attention because this shift, while not a surprise, comes at about the same time as Google’s move to eliminate 3rd party cookies (explained in more detail here – Google’s Great Cookie Kerfuffle). These two Google “initiatives” feel like a dizzying ride in Disneyland; looks like innocuous fun but after a few minutes you feel kinda sick from all the spin.
So hang on and lets dive in enough to know what needs to be done.
The technical unpacking.
Starting now and through May, Google is rolling out this latest change.
At the most fundamental levels it means one must think about mobile sites as the main vehicle to drive discovery in Google; an important departure from the past. This affects virtually every aspect of your site from UX and SEO to tracking practices.
Google will reward mobile sites that behave nicely by ranking them higher in SEARCH results but there are hefty technical considerations to accommodate.
First, many mobile sites are still ‘M-dot’ sites – they are not responsive. It is clear they were built as a mobile version of a desktop site. Unfortunately, M-dot sites will be used by Google for indexing and given the inferior user experience, your ranking is likely to suffer. Obviously, this is counter-productive.
Second, mobile sites tend to have fewer internal links than desktop sites which results in different user journeys depending on device. This detail is significant because with less links in mobile, user engagement goes down and so does your UX score. Some recent studies assessing the rankings impact suggest that if there are different URLs served between mobile and desktop sites, only 17% of websites retained their positions across both mobile and desktop web assets. This is a big deal that needs to be dealt with.
Third, Google is swapping out its well understood AMP fast loading page preferences (Accelerated Mobile Pages) for “great user experiences” which is vaguely defined. The irony is thick that Google’s algorithms will evaluate what a “great user (aka human) experience” looks like. It can’t go unstated that this shines a light on the lack of transparency from Google in how this new indexing schema is going to work – in the real world.
Finally, and most alarming, some desktop URLs may disappear in this new SEO world. A whopping 31% of URLs and 8% of domains completely disappeared from Google’s search results when accessed from mobile. Ya. You read that right. This statistic should send a shiver down your spine.
(Source: SEMRush, March 2021)
The upshot? If you stick to a desktop-centric SEO strategy, your site visibility will be severely limited in Google SEARCH. This means rethinking images, videos, CTAs and other assets that were present on the desktop version. This sucks given how hard won the SEO battles are in normal times. Unfortunately, there is no sweeping this under the SEO rug.
What to do.
Before I launch into all technical details to be considered, one thing is clear. Google’s gonna do what Google is gonna do, so the winning strategy here is to “forget” about Google and create digital properties that genuinely serve the market you are addressing. Once you have a vision for that, then the technical stuff falls into place.
With that perspective, here are some important technical “to do’s:”
- Focus on Page Speed: This metrics has been slowly rising in importance because website visitors won’t wait around for more than a few seconds for your page to load. There are many tactics for reducing file sizes without compromising quality (yes, it’s possible). Pay particular attention to the Load Speed of Largest Contentful Paint (LCP). LCP is a measurement of how long it takes for the main content of a page to download, like background images and video.
- UX and mobile design: Designing a mobile site is different than designing a desktop site because people use mobile sites very differently. Scrolling, scanning, clicking, reading, engagement are all different on mobile so your UE design should be simple with easy to click buttons and clear user navigations.
- Be mindful of multi-device usage: Users will engage with you on multiple devices so bake that into your overall site architecture – especially if you are an eCommerce site. Ideally the mobile and desktop sites will be used interchangeably so make it easy for people to switch to desktop with features that transcend the specific device like “wish lists” and “shopping carts.”
- Google’s quality score is multi-dimensional: Google continues to refine its mysterious recipe for its site quality score, (I hear it is buried in an iron mountain under the sea), so pay attention to their “Core Web Vitals” which they describe as: “…reporting on how your pages perform, based on real world usage data (sometimes called field data).” This is Google short hand for, “We know what’s going on in your site better than you so we will tell you why your site sucks.” Since Google is writing the “great user experience” rules, this means you have to clean up the elements Google finds particularly distasteful;
- Speed of First Input Delay (FID): This is the time between a discrete user input, ie – clicks a link, and when a browser responds to that input. Sluggish responses will reduce the score
- Minimize Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) elements: This refers to unexpected shifting of page elements while the page is still downloading. The kinds of elements that tend to “shift” are fonts, ad images, videos, contact forms, buttons. A lot of shifting is a poor user experience and will contribute to a reduced quality score
- Be safe and be secure: Google’s assessment of site quality is frankly impenetrable but sites that feel spammy or unresponsive are Google red flags. Sites that don’t have an SSL fall into this category too. Ensure you are squeaky clean – no funky defaults, spyware or malicious scripts on the site. Also be on the alert for ads or content that may deceive or mislead users toward harmful sites.
- Minimize interstitials. People barely tolerate pop-ups. They don’t tolerate interstitials that obscure functionality or content. Google’s calibrates the “user annoyance” factor and demotes a site if the content a user wants to consume is obstructed and/or disrupted. The more you interrupt the user’s experience – the more likely Google will penalize you.
Google has been busy keeping everyone twitchy. Google decides what a great experience is for users and Google is pulling all the data strings with advertisers. TBH – Google’s endgame is unclear to me. Maybe they want to discourage any competitors by keeping everything fluid or maybe they want to force marketing C suite to pay attention to them to get a shot at even more ad budgets. I don’t know but what is clear is that Google wants to protect its market position and to do so they want to keep everyone guessing. All we can do is keep our technical wits about us as we learn to play the Google’s new game.