Tag Archives: Mobile First Index

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Who were the “winners” and “losers” of organic search in 2017?

Earlier this week, Searchmetrics published its fourth annual Winners and Losers Report, which reveals how certain sites fared in organic search visibility on Google.com during 2017.

Searchmetrics bases its analysis on a unique indicator known as ‘SEO visibility’, which it uses to measure a webpage’s performance in organic search.

This is not the same as organic search ranking, but aims to give an overview of how often a website shows up in search results, based on “search volume and the position of ranking keywords” (as explained in the Searchmetrics FAQ).

Using this metric, Searchmetrics calculates the change in websites’ SEO visibility over the course of the year, and sorts the top 100 winners and losers by absolute change in visibility.

Last year, we examined the winners and losers in organic search during 2016, and concluded that social media and shopping were the overall “winners”, while online encyclopedias, reference websites and lyrics websites all lost out.

How do the results from this year stack up against last year, and what can we learn from the trends highlighted?

Encyclopedias and dictionaries are back on top

In a surprising reversal of 2016’s fortunes, online encyclopedias and dictionaries were among some of the biggest “winners” in 2017.

Encyclopedias made up 9% of the overall winners by industry, with websites like britannica.com, thesaurus.com and collinsdictionary.com enjoying triple-digit percentage gains in SEO visibility. Of the top five domains ranked by gain in absolute SEO visibility, four were dictionary or encyclopedia websites: Merriam Webster, Wikia, Dictionary.com and Wiktionary.

This is a huge change from last year, when social networking websites dominated the top five; out of last year’s top five “winners”, only YouTube is still on top, rising up the ranks from fourth to first place.

Who were the “winners” and “losers” of organic search in 2017?

Searchmetrics attributes this miraculous change in fortune to an algorithm update in June 2017 dubbed the “dictionary update”. Dictionary websites had been slowly gaining in visibility since the beginning of the year, but over the three-week period between 25th June and 16th July, they saw an even more notable uptick:

Who were the “winners” and “losers” of organic search in 2017?

Dictionary websites saw a boost from Google’s “Dictionary update” in June and July 2017

Searchmetrics noted that dictionary URLs particularly improved their ranking for short-tail keywords with ambiguous user intent – suggesting that Google might be examining whether the users searching these terms could be looking for definitions.

I would speculate that Google could also be promoting fact-based reference websites as part of its ongoing efforts to battle fake news and dubious search results – but this is purely speculation on my part.

The trend is also not borne out by Wikipedia, which continues to see its SEO visibility drop as more Knowledge Graph integrations appear for its top keywords, allowing users to see key information from Wikipedia without bothering to click through to the site – and possibly preventing those pages in Wikipedia from ranking.

Who were the “winners” and “losers” of organic search in 2017?

The losers lost out more on mobile

One very interesting trend highlighted in Searchmetrics’ findings is the fact that domains which lost out in 2017 saw even bigger drops on mobile than on desktop.

Domains which started out the year with roughly equal desktop and mobile visibility closed out the year with their mobile visibility far below that of desktop. For example, TV.com’s mobile visibility was 41% below its desktop visibility by the end of 2017, while perezhilton.com’s mobile visibility was 42% lower than desktop, and allmusic.com was 43% lower.

Without going behind the scenes at Google’s search index, it’s hard to know exactly what the cause could be. TV.com decidedly fails Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test, but perezhilton.com and allmusic.com both pass. Because Searchmetrics is measuring organic search visibility, these drops may not be due to a lower SERP ranking, but could be due to the websites not appearing for as many search queries on mobile.

Who were the “winners” and “losers” of organic search in 2017?

What isn’t surprising is that in 2017, we began to see much bigger differences between the way search behaves on mobile and the way it behaves on desktop. Back in August, we looked at the results of a BrightEdge study which found that 79% of all keywords ranked differently in mobile search compared to desktop.

At the time, we speculated that this was due to tests on Google’s part to prepare for the upcoming mobile-first index. Just two months later, Google’s Gary Illyes announced at SMX East that the mobile-first index had in fact already begun rolling out, albeit very slowly.

2017 was the year that we truly started to see mobile search on Google diverge from desktop, and in 2018 we’ve already had confirmation of a major upcoming change to Google’s mobile algorithm in July, after which point page speed will officially be a ranking factor on mobile. So to say that mobile and desktop search results will continue to diverge further in 2018 seems like a very safe prediction to make.

So long, social media?

Possibly the most curious change in fortune between 2016 and 2017 was seen with social media websites, which were among some of the biggest winners in 2016 and some of the biggest losers in 2017.

Visual social network Pinterest went from being the second-biggest ‘winner’ in terms of absolute search visibility in 2016 to suffering a 23% visibility loss in 2017. Similarly, discussion forum Reddit saw a 54% drop in visibility in 2017 after having been the 8th biggest ‘winner’ in 2016.

Tumblr and Myspace also experienced significant losses, and while Facebook and Twitter (#3 and #6 in 2016, respectively) weren’t among the “losers” highlighted by Searchmetrics in 2017, they also appeared nowhere in the list of “winners”.

It’s hard to say exactly why this would be. In last year’s study, Searchmetrics attributed Pinterest’s huge gains in visibility to its “application of deep-learning techniques” to understand user intent, “thereby generating more loyalty and stickiness online”. Whether Pinterest has slowed its progress on this front, or whether other shifts in Google’s index have caused its visibility to suffer, is unknown.

Reddit, meanwhile, appears to have suffered at the hands of Google’s “Phantom V” update, with visibility dropping off sharply at the beginning of 2017. Its mobile visibility was particularly low going in to 2017, which Searchmetrics tentatively attributes to technical issues with the mobile version of its website.

Who were the “winners” and “losers” of organic search in 2017?

Reddit’s visibility drops off as Phantom V hits in February 2017

It could be that the losses in visibility suffered by social media websites in 2017 are due to differing circumstances and not part of a wider trend, but it’s an interesting coincidence nonetheless.

What can we learn from the “winners” and “losers” of 2017?

Many of the changes of fortune experienced by websites in 2017 were the result of a specific Google update. Phantom V was spotted in the SERPs in mid-February, sending a number of brands’ domains yo-yoing up and down. Google Fred hit not long afterwards, affecting ad-heavy websites with low-quality content and poor link profiles.

Another key change of note is the User Localization Update of October 2017, in which Google started showing search results based on users’ physical location regardless of the Top-Level Domain (.com, .co.uk, .fr) they might be using to search – a big development for local SEO.

Individual updates aside, however, there are a few key points that we can take away from 2017’s Winners and Losers Report:

  • High-quality content continues to be king, along with content that perfectly serves the user intent.
  • Brands continue to do well targeting a specific content niche – as exemplified by About.com, the old content network from the late 90s. It recently relaunched as “Dotdash”, an umbrella brand spanning six different niche verticals – several of which are already making great headway in search.

Who were the “winners” and “losers” of organic search in 2017?

About.com is reborn as five (now six) different niche websites, which quickly begin to climb in search

  • If you’re targeting short-tail keywords with ambiguous user intent (like “beauty”), be aware that your consumers might now be seeing reference websites appear much higher up in the search results than before – so you may have better chances of ranking for longer-tail, more specific keywords.

What does Google’s “Speed Update” mean for mobile?

Yesterday, Google announced a major upcoming change to its mobile ranking algorithm.

In a short blog post entitled ‘Using page speed in mobile search ranking’, it explained that starting in July 2018, page speed will officially be a ranking factor for mobile searches.

The catchily-named “Speed Update” (a feat of inventive naming on a par with “Assistant”) is set to only affect “pages that deliver the slowest experience to users” and, in Google’s words, will only impact a “small percentage of queries”.

However, given that Google processes around 3.5 billion search queries per day (per Internet Live Stats), a “small percentage” can still amount to a lot of websites.

So for any website owners and SEOs who might be concerned about how this affects them, let’s examine what we know about the update so far, and what it means for mobile SEO.

Speed as a ranking factor: coming to a mobile update near you

Google has used page speed as a ranking factor on desktop since April 2010, but although having a fast mobile site has always stood companies in good stead for ranking well in search, it hasn’t been an official ranking factor in Google’s algorithm until now.

However, this announcement is far from coming out of left field. As far back as June 2016, Google webmaster trends analyst Gary Illyes confirmed that the next mobile algorithm update from Google would use page speed as a ranking factor.

Google has also frequently emphasized the importance of speed in mobile user experience in its advice to webmasters, and Google initiatives like Accelerated Mobile Pages and Progressive Web Apps have aimed to furnish site owners with the tools to make their websites fast and streamlined on mobile.

The “Speed Update” announcement doesn’t give all that much new information about how website owners should improve their sites in order to rank well on Google, but here’s what we do know:

  • Speed Update will mainly impact the websites which deliver the “slowest experience” to users, although Google hasn’t given a benchmark by which webmasters can judge whether or not their site falls into this category.
  • It applies regardless of the technology used to build the page – so it would still apply to, say, AMP websites. If an AMP website for some reason delivers a slow experience, this would impact on its ranking.
  • Content relevance still trumps speed. In Google’s words, “The intent of the search query is still a very strong signal, so a slow page may still rank highly if it has great, relevant content.”
  • Google wants developers to “think broadly about how performance affects a user’s experience of their page and to consider a variety of user experience metrics.” This means user experience matters as well as speed – we’ll come back to that in a bit.
  • There is no tool or notification that will tell webmasters whether their site is being affected by the update, but Google recommends using Chrome User Experience Report, Lighthouse or PageSpeed Insights to evaluate a page’s performance.

Spotlight on mobile user experience

As highlighted earlier, the language used by Google in its blog post indicates that the search engine is looking at not just speed, but overall mobile user experience with this update.

Google went so far as to spell this out in a Q&A with Search Engine Land, saying that, “The intent of the signal is to improve the user experience on search.”

In other words, site owners who want to score highly here need to pay attention to more than just page load time. This is underscored by Google’s recommendation of the Chrome User Experience Report as a tool to evaluate webpage performance in light of the update.

A lot of improvements to mobile page speed also improve the wider user experience on mobile – for example, videos and audio set to autoplay are annoying and inaccessible to users, and also slow the page down by loading unnecessary content – meaning that site owners can kill two birds with one stone.

Other steps that site owners can take to improve mobile UX include disabling annoying full-page pop-ups and interstitials (which Google is liable to penalize anyway) and implementing a slimmed-down, task-based design that allows users to quickly navigate to the functionality they need.

Above all, a mobile website should enable users to efficiently accomplish what they came there to do, without being bogged down by unnecessary bells and whistles. If you achieve this, you should be able to stay on the right side of the Speed Update algorithm both in terms of page performance and in terms of mobile experience.

Here are some more guides we’ve published that will help you get to grips with mobile SEO, site speed and UX ahead of the July update:

Mobile SEO

Mobile site speed

Mobile UX

Mobile-first indexing in 2018: 3 things SEO professionals should do right now

As an SEO expert or agency, you’ve spent years attempting to navigate the murky waters of helping your clients find customers online using algorithms, link building hacks, on-page and off-page technique.

And when you thought you were finally making good progress, BOOM! Paradigm shift and the game changes.

The mobile revolution happens.

Google announces its interest in improving user experience and making search results more useful by making its index mobile-first.

According to the Google Webmasters Blog: 

To make our results more useful, we’ve begun experiments to make our index mobile-first. Although our search index will continue to be a single index of websites and apps, our algorithms will eventually primarily use the mobile version of a site’s content to rank pages from that site, to understand structured data, and to show snippets from those pages in our results. Of course, while our index will be built from mobile documents, we’re going to continue to build a great search experience for all users, whether they come from mobile or desktop devices.

What this big paragraph means is pretty simple:

Henceforth, Google will use the mobile version of your site to rank it on Google (for both mobile and desktop search).

That means if you have a site optimized for mobile, you’ll rank well on both mobile and desktop. But, if your site doesn’t perform well on mobile, it will tank your rankings on both mobile and desktop.

While a definite timeline for the roll-out of the mobile-first index has not been fixed, a lot has been said about its implementation happening early this year. At SMX Advanced last June, Google’s Gary Illyes pinpointed 2018 as the likely deployment year for the mobile-first index.

And seeing as 2018 is now upon us, there is a need to prepare for the upcoming update (if you have yet to do so). Here are three things you need to do immediately to prepare for a mobile-first index and help your site, or your clients’ sites, weather the storm.

1. Responsive design

This is one of the most important things you would need to do to rank well on the mobile-first index. Responsive websites that change based on the needs of the users and the device that they’re viewing it on are mandatory.

Responsive sites not only offer an optimized browsing experience, they are also offering a two-for-one value. They rank well on both mobile and desktop because the design changes to fit the size of the user’s screen.

Before I talk about some of the steps involved in turning a static website into a responsive one, let’s go over the basics of a responsive design which includes:

  • Fluid site grid with proportionate instead of fixed measures
  • Flexible texts and images
  • Implementing design changes to ensure usability for non-desktop devices
  • Using CSS media queries to define breakpoints for design changes

I’ll give some standard tips on how to turn a static website into a responsive masterpiece, but please note that while the principles stay the same, your theme might be built differently, so consider these only as broad strokes. You might have to do some custom work for your own site.

  • Define default zoom
  • Set fluid element widths and heights
  • Resize website images to make sure our images are automatically scaled according to screen size
  • Implement breakpoints that are more design (than device) specific
  • Create a mobile menu
  • Adapt font sizes and style

Now because responsive design is not about making things fit on a screen, it’s also about keeping your site usable. As a last step, it’s a good idea to test your site in terms of usability on different devices and also test in multiple browsers to make sure your content renders properly.

2: Invest in a mobile-optimized website builder

Think of it as investing in accessibility for your customers. Unless you live under a rock, it is common knowledge that digital screens are getting smaller and more mobile.

Isn’t it then wise to ensure your full website is enjoyed irrespective of the gadget being used? Ensuring your clients’ customers get the best experience is all you’re here for as an SEO practitioner.

A mobile optimized website builder makes your website responsive to mobile gadgets: i.e., it detects what your visitor is using (a smartphone or a tablet) and automatically adjusts the layout of your website to fit the size of the gadget being used.

Unsure of where to begin your search for a website builder? Consider using a Google Preferred website builder – website builders which adhere to Google’s best practices for creating lightning-fast web experiences. Specifically, I want to highlight one noteworthy option if you want to prioritize speed: Duda, which bills itself as the only Google Preferred builder fully optimized for PageSpeed.

Having a well-designed and responsive website isn’t the only goal of mobile optimization. Speed is also crucial – even on mobile, visitors expect pixel-perfect images coupled with split-second rendering time.

A fast website encourages more sessions online, more customer conversions, lower bounce rate, and higher engagement. Usefully, Duda’s widget builder also allows web developers to add elements that are not native to its platform.

Don’t be caught waiting till the algorithm updates to start making big moves. If your website isn’t optimized for mobile, take that step today.

3: Mobile-optimized content

Mobile devices follow you everywhere, which has made them a first-class cure for boredom. But it takes more than a responsive design to make your website mobile-ready.

To ensure your content is as responsive and mobile-friendly as the rest of your optimized website, you have to understand user behavior and preferences as well as available solutions.

Although most mobile users have a short attention span, if you serve valuable content, no matter the length, your visitors will consume it voraciously as long as your content is engaging.

Articles, movies, TV shows will be read and watched on mobile. Follow the following tips to ensure your content is optimized for mobile:

  • Take advantage of mobile applications to encourage engagement beyond your website. An interesting article or an amazing deal on an item will probably go far if your visitors share it on Facebook or Twitter. Use it!
  • Develop high-quality content that tells stories. As long as your content is great, mobile users are willing to spend long sessions on your website. How many times have you opened a link and spent longer time than you intended to on a website? Great content will do that to you.
  • There are various forms of contents; GIF, infographics, Meme’s, articles, high-quality images, videos, use them all. Your business/website caters to visitors of various interests, to avoid ostracizing any of them, ensure that you cover every angle.
  • Shorter headlines get users reading faster. Yes, a strong headline is important but you must also remember that you have only about 5 seconds to convince your visitor to keep reading. Do you really want to waste it on an overly long headline? Keep it strong and short.

Lastly, regardless of the amount of work you have put into your content, feedback is key. You need to know which of your content your visitors engage with the most. Stay on top of it all.

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