Tag Archives: MOBILE

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What is Google Stamp and what will it mean for marketers?

Google is set to launch a competitor to Snapchat Discover, known as Google Stamp. This new product will bring with it a host of opportunities for publishers and advertisers alike, but it brings with it some challenges too.

What do marketers need to know about this new service, and how successful will it be?

Early in August, news leaked via the Wall Street Journal that Google has been preparing a direct rival to one of Snapchat’s most popular and profitable features, Discover. This new product will be integrated with Google’s core services, and will be known as Google Stamp.

The name Stamp is a portmanteau created by uniting the abbreviation ‘St’ from the word ‘stories’ and the acronym AMP, from the Google-led Accelerated Mobile Pages initiative.  That quite succinctly sums up the purpose of Stamp: it will be a publishing platform that allow brands to tell stories in a new fashion, optimized for mobile.

It seems that after a reported bid of $30 billion dollars to buy Snapchat was rejected in 2016, Google has decided instead to mimic some of the functionality that has made Snapchat such a hit with younger audiences. This will be a further blow to Snap, after Facebook copied so many of their features to launch Instagram Stories last year – followed by additional imitators in Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp.

Although a firm launch date is still unknown, there has been plenty of noise around this latest Google product.

So, what do we know about Google Stamp so far?

The core platform is expected to function in a very similar manner to Snapchat Discover. Users will be able to swipe between different pieces of content and there will be a healthy mix of video, images, and text to keep readers engaged.

What is Google Stamp and what will it mean for marketers?

Of course, the Google ecosystem is very different to the social networks it will be competing with in this space. Users come to Google to make a search, with a topic or product in mind. That is a different mindset altogether to that of a user browsing a social network, a fact that Google is painfully aware of and it is a gap they have tried to bridge many times.

Google has made a play to take some of the ‘discovery phase’ market recently, through its new homepage experience and the use of visual search technology in Google Lens.

This is seen as a significant growth opportunity in the industry. If tech companies can start suggesting relevant products to consumers before the consumer even knows what they want, they can open up a range of new revenue streams.

What is Google Stamp and what will it mean for marketers?

Source: Pinterest

Advances in machine learning technologies and predictive analytics mean that this is now possible, and there is an ongoing battle between Google, Pinterest, Amazon, and many others to claim this fertile ground.

All of these technological developments open up novel ways of communicating with audiences, particularly when it comes to storytelling. This has never truly been Google’s home turf, however, and it will need to give significant backing to Stamp if it is to convince users to change their long-held behaviors.

It is therefore anticipated that Stamp articles will feature just below the search bar within the Google interface. Giving Stamp this level of prominence will bring publishers’ stories to the attention of billions of daily users.

If we factor in the full suite of software and hardware that Google owns, it is easy to see the scale that Stamp could have. All of this is integrated through Google’s sophisticated DoubleClick technology solutions, so there is reason to believe that Google could finally start to crack the content syndication market.

Who will be able to publish Stamp stories?

Some large publishers, including Time Inc. and CNN, have been approached as potential launch partners for Stamp. However, it will be interesting to see how quickly this is opened up to the next tier of content creators.

The exclusivity of Snapchat Discover in its early days was cited as a reason for a damaging exodus to Instagram from a range of content creators. Publishers wanted to get involved and had a message to communicate, but Snapchat was slow to open up access to the platform.

The relationship between large publishers and the AMP project has at times been fractious, with the main bone of contention being that these pages are hard to monetize. Advertising revenues are as important to publishers as they are to Google, of course, so this is a course that all involved would like to see corrected.

Stamp gives us clear insight into how Google would like to do this. In essence, Stamp allows for a much more customer-centric form of adverting than we have traditionally seen from the search giant. By inserting native ads within content, Google would be making a significant shift from its AdWords marketing model.

From a business perspective, all of this ties in with the recent updates to Google’s AdSense products. The investment in improving AdSense will see display ads appear in much more relevant contexts and they will be less disruptive to the user experience. Once more, we see customer-centricity come to the fore.

What is Google Stamp and what will it mean for marketers?

What will Google Stamp mean for advertisers?

Advertising via Google Stamp will mean engaging with and understanding a new form of storytelling. Advertisers should therefore no longer see this just as a traditional media buy, as there will need to be close collaboration between content creators and content promoters to ensure that ads are contextual.

Of course, this will be similar to launching a campaign on Instagram or Snapchat, but it will be interesting to see where responsibility for Google Stamp media buys sits, purely by dint of this being Google rather than a social network. The same teams who handle AdWords campaigns would need to integrate new skillsets to make the most of this opportunity.

The ability to think creatively and forge connections with consumers continues to grow in importance, rather than interrupting their experiences. Combined with the targeting technologies and data at Google’s disposal, this will be a potent mix for those that are equipped to take advantage. Advertisers expect good returns from Google campaigns and will still get them, but they will need to approach campaigns differently.

Some unanswered questions

Of course, much is still unknown about Google Stamp. We know it will be very similar to Snapchat Discover and we suspect it will be given a prime position just below the Google search bar. However, the following questions remain unanswered for the moment:

  • How frequently will Google Stamp be featured in search results?
  • Will Stamp be a fixed feature of Google’s new homepage experience?
  • Which types of queries will trigger Stamp results?
  • What options will be open to advertisers? Will Google introduce innovative new formats to maximize Stamp’s potential?
  • How will Google rank Stamp posts?
  • Will publishers create different content for Stamp, or just re-use Instagram or Snapchat assets?
  • Will users migrate over to Google to use what seems likely to be a very similar product to Snapchat Discover?

We expect all of these questions to be answered in due course, although Google is still reticent on a firm release date for this ambitious venture.

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How to optimize VR content for search

Virtual reality (VR) has been the talk of the town for a little while now and its marketing potential is getting difficult to ignore.

Whether using it to look around a potential new home without leaving your sofa, or to explore a popular scuba diving spot without touching a drop of water, the possibilities are endless and exciting.

There is a proliferation of content on the web, and virtual reality offers a new and exciting way of presenting this content. Now more than ever, there is a need to distinguish yourself from the competition, to provide content that excites, inspires and influences. This is a chance to get creative and be different.

With VR content, storytelling is immersive and messages more impactful. An experiment carried out last year demonstrated that VR drives engagement and empathy significantly more than traditional video. These factors make virtual reality a powerful weapon in a marketer’s arsenal.

However, despite the clear benefits of VR, businesses are still hesitant about diving in. In addition to questions of cost and accessibility, there is a more fundamental question of discoverability: can VR content be found using search engines? Is it even possible to optimize virtual reality content for search?

The good news is, the idea of search-optimizing VR is not as alien or impossible as you might think.

Increasing accessibility of VR

Although many consider the technology to still be in its infancy, virtual reality has already evolved a great deal over the past couple of years. This has been spurred along by a few handy innovations by Google to increase accessibility and ease of use. Notably in 2016, Google introduced VR view to allow users the ability to embed 360 degree VR content into websites on desktop and mobile, as well as native apps.

One of the primary reasons that companies fail to embrace the technology is a misconception over its accessibility. No, you don’t need to own an Oculus Rift to be able to experience VR content. In fact, you don’t need anything. With the ability to embed VR content into websites with the simple addition of an iframe, anyone can access the benefits that it has to offer.

Now on mobile, you need only discover a 360 VR video in your Facebook news feed, wave your phone around in the air and hey presto, you’ve engaged with the world of virtual reality. For a more immersive experience, a simple Google Cardboard headset will suffice, or go a step further with Daydream, a more robust version but without the hefty price tag of an Oculus Rift.

A Google Cardboard headset, one of the most affordable VR headsets available

Optimizing VR for search

All this fancy new technology is all very well, but if it can’t be found in the search engines, then the potential reach of your content is diminished. If you’re having doubts about the visibility of VR content in search, then just remember one important fact. Google itself is heavily invested in VR technology. It therefore follows that the Big G would not only make it as accessible as possible, but also reward those who embrace it.

VR content often takes the same file format as standard video content. Therefore, optimizing VR for search is much like optimizing traditional video. Below we share our tips:

Embed using Google VR View

Google created this tool for a reason and it would be remiss not to take advantage of it. VR View takes care of all the tricky technicalities to ensure maximum compatibility and it also means that there is no need to embed a video via YouTube or other video platform. This is important in terms of SEO and content marketing, as you want to avoid the potential for users to leave your website.

Write relevant metadata

Make it as easy as possible for the search engines to find and index your content by adding the appropriate metadata. Write a short, snappy title and use the description to add more detail. Include any necessary keywords to help indicate what the content is about.

Don’t forget to adjust the file name as a bonus way of providing extra detail to the search engines – avoid a generic media file name like “vrmedia123.mp4”.

Add schema markup

Go a step further than the metadata and add schema markup, as it will help the search engines to better understand the content and therefore improve its appearance in the SERPs. It is also worth submitting a video sitemap, which will make your content more discoverable by Google.

Optimize the page itself

Optimizing the VR content itself is crucial but don’t forget to apply standard SEO best practices to the webpage itself. Even if your video does not display in the SERPs, you may be able to get the page ranking.

SEO 101: valuable, shareable content

It’s obvious but we had to include it. As with any other form of content, the overarching aim should always be to provide value. Create content that is engaging, informative and entertaining. Make it highly shareable and repackage for use across all marketing channels for effective cross-promotion. Provide value for your users and the rest will come naturally.

Final words

Ultimately, optimizing VR for search is not wholly different from optimizing any other type of content for search. Aside from a couple of minor technicalities when it comes to the method of embedding, applying your usual high quality SEO techniques will suffice.

With VR content becoming increasingly common and accessible, Google has made it easier than ever before to get such content seen in search. Google VR View cemented this accessibility and we only expect the technology to continue evolving. Best start jumping on the VR bandwagon now!

If you enjoyed this article, check out our guide to getting started with creating VR content: How to get started with 360-degree content for virtual reality.

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How to optimize featured snippets for voice search

SEO is an exceptionally fast-paced industry, and sometimes keeping on top of the latest updates and imminent changes can be a full-time job in itself.

One factor that is having an unprecedented effect on organic search is voice search. The combination of an increase in mobile searches and the rise in voice assistants has meant that the way in which people are searching for information online is changing dramatically.

Whether it’s Siri, Cortana, Amazon Echo, Google, or another robot friend, there is no questioning the importance of voice search. According to Google, more than half of queries will be voice search by 2020, and this requires a refreshed approach to SEO.

Featured snippets

One of the key aspects of this is featured snippets, as these are the results which are read aloud in response to voice searches. Featured snippets are often referred to as ‘Position Zero’, a phrase coined by Pete Meyers. They are the direct answer results that appear at the top of the SERPs in a box, and they often include a link back to the source of the answer.

Source: Stone Temple

According to Stone Temple Consulting, nearly 30% of 1.4 million Google queries tested now show Featured Snippets. That’s a lot of affected searches. Updating your search strategy to include optimization for featured snippets should therefore be a priority.

The key point to remember with featured snippets is that if a searcher is using voice search and expecting a verbal reply, they will not be presented with a choice of results. Instead, only one result is read out and where there is a featured snippet, this will be the choice of the voice assistant.

You could have the most mind-blowing and enticing meta description and title tags in the world, but if you’re not in that sought after position zero, then your lovingly crafted content will not be read aloud and will therefore remain both unseen and unheard by the searcher.

Long-tail keywords

Of course the key difference between voice search and standard search is the use of more natural, conversational language. This new style of search and query formats must be factored into your strategy. Cue long-tail keywords!

The first step in your journey to the exclusive realm of featured snippets is to identify the informational queries related to your product or services. Use keyword tools, but also ask customers and consider the frequently asked questions you receive on a regular basis.

Answer the Public is a fantastic tool for these more conversational search queries. The tool allows you to dig deeper into user intent by separating the results into question starters, such as ‘who’, ‘why’ and ‘how’. Build on this research by uncovering other similar queries, using the ‘People also asked’ feature on Google.

Test the questions that you generate by typing them into Google and analyzing the results of the featured snippets. Use these as a basis, but work out what you could add or improve on to make the result even better. Perhaps the article source does not provide much further information, or perhaps the current answer displaying isn’t long enough.

Optimizing content

The next step is to write a response to these questions, which is likely to be in the form of a blog post. Sure, Google only shows a small percentage of the text from an article in the featured snippet, but this does not mean that your article should only answer the question directly.

Include a direct response, but expand on this further in the article and provide depth. We all know that Google loves depth of information and given that featured snippets provide the option to click through to the source, you need to be offering additional information that could be of use to the reader.

Adopt the formula of answering the question directly and then follow it up by covering other related search queries. This should help you cover all the bases and achieve that coveted spot. Ultimately, you may need to do a bit of testing and reiterating to see what works best.

It is also worth integrating more Q&A style formats into your content. These do not have to just be limited to an FAQ page and it is worth revisiting how you can optimize some of your content to fit this Q&A style. The easier you can make it for Google to pull the featured snippet from your content, the more likely you are to appear in that prized position zero and therefore benefit from voice search as well.

More than a third of featured snippets and knowledge boxes contain an image, so another tactic to experiment with is to utilize different formats, such as tables or graphs. Try using numbered points to break up the content into simple steps, as this helps to optimize the content for voice search.

Plus, if there are too many steps to display in the featured snippet, then Google will include a read more button that links through to your website, which can be an effective way of converting people from voice search into website traffic.

Local searches

Voice search is characterized by its prevalence on mobile devices and its focus on local searches. This is of paramount importance to local search strategies, especially given that 50% of mobile visitors who perform a local search will visit a store within one day.

Although these may not bring up featured snippets, they do reveal the Google My Business profiles, which can be read aloud as directions. In fact, directions are one of the most popular queries for voice search, unsurprising given the push towards hands free, particularly when driving.

How to optimize featured snippets for voice search

Source: Google Official Blog

As far as local searches go, you need to make sure that all of your contact information is as accessible as possible on your site. Make Google’s life easy when it comes to crawling your site; you’ll be more likely to feature high up in the featured results and therefore be the winner of the voice search game. Ensure your contact information isn’t simply within an image or this will certainly damage your chances of appearing.

You know what else you can do to make the Google bots even happier? Schema markup – it will significantly increase the chances of obtaining a featured snippet.

It goes without saying that you need to keep your Google My Business up to date. Again, this should be part of your SEO efforts anyway, so no sweat there. Once your contact information is updated and where it should be, help the process along by submitting a sitemap to Google. Also submit any new content that you add to your site, just to speed up the process.

How to optimize featured snippets for voice search

Mobile ready

Don’t forget to focus on mobile. Given that the vast majority of voice searches occur on mobile, it is essential that the mobile version of your site is fully optimized.

I know what you’re thinking: but voice search entails that only the featured snippet will be read aloud, so what’s the point of a fancy pants mobile friendly website? Well, Google likes fancy pants mobile friendly websites, that’s why. Don’t believe me? Riddle me this – why are they moving to a mobile-first index?

Even using voice search, there is always the chance that the user decides to delve into their query further to read more. In which case they’ll head straight to your site, and if it’s not delivering in terms of user experience then you won’t be staying in that top spot for long.

Conclusion: User intent is key

When it comes to trying to get that valuable featured snippet place, there is no special technique that is any different to standard SEO. In short, if you are thinking carefully about user intent then you should be fine.

Given the recent updates like Hummingbird and Rankbrain, user intent should already be a priority in your search strategy. So if you’re doing this then your content should already be optimized for featured snippets and voice search.

Using voice search for commercial intent is only in its infancy at the moment. However, we are only expecting this to evolve and develop over time as people become more and more comfortable with voice search.

So you’d best be ready!

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Why SEOs can’t afford to wait around for a mobile-first index

We’re often told that the web is increasingly mobile, and that it is imperative for businesses to adapt their marketing strategies to be ‘mobile-first’ in order to capitalize on this shift in internet behavior.

But just how mobile is the web in 2017, and what does this mean for search?

Leading SEO and content performance platform BrightEdge today released a new report which sheds light on this question, and on the steadily widening gap between mobile and desktop search.

I spoke to Erik Newton, VP of Customer Marketing and Head of SEO at BrightEdge, about the report’s findings, Google’s mobile-first index tests, and how SEOs can adapt their strategy to account for the increasing divergence between desktop and mobile.

Majority mobile: 57% of web traffic is now mobile & tablet devices

In one of the key findings of the research, BrightEdge reports that 57% of web traffic now originates from mobile and tablet devices – meaning that close to 6 out of every 10 consumers are using a mobile device. Businesses who still aren’t optimizing for mobile, therefore, are ignoring a decisive majority of potential customers.

Even more noteworthy is the finding that the same query on the same search engine generates a different rank on mobile and desktop 79% of the time.

Among the top 20 ranked results, the gap is less pronounced, with 47% of queries differing between devices – but this still means that close to half of rankings differ.

Why SEOs can’t afford to wait around for a mobile-first index

And 35% – more than a third – of the time, the first page that ranked for any given domain was different between mobile and desktop SERPs.

In a press release about the research, BrightEdge commented that these figures indicate a “significant shift to a new mobile-first index”. I asked Erik Newton whether this means that BrightEdge believes Google’s mobile-first index is already being rolled out. Most SEOs believe we are still awaiting the official launch of the new index, but is BrightEdge seeing otherwise?

“We are seeing a divergence of rank and content between the two devices, and we have seen the data move in both directions over the last few months,” says Newton. “We believe that Google is testing and calibrating, as they have with other major shifts, to prepare for the separate mobile index.”

This fits with Google’s usual M.O. around big algorithm updates, but it also means that whatever strategies SEOs are planning to deploy when the mobile-first index finally rolls around, now might be the time to start testing them.

And for those who are still biding their time, they may already be losing out.

How are businesses really doing on mobile?

In the marketing industry, we’ve been talking for what feels like years, with increasing urgency, about the need for our campaigns and our web presences to be mobile-friendly. Or mobile-responsive. Or mobile-first.

But how are businesses really doing with this? Are marketers doing enough, even in 2017, to optimize for mobile?

“For most of the businesses that grew up on desktop, we see them using a desktop frame of reference,” observes Erik Newton. “We see evidence of this tendency in web design, page performance, analytics, and keyword tracking.

“We believe that Google gives the market signals to move forward and toward mobile faster. This is one of those times to push harder on mobile.

“Some of the newer companies, however, are mobile-first and even mobile-only. They are more likely to be app-based, and have always had majority mobile share.”

Why SEOs can’t afford to wait around for a mobile-first index

As we’ve seen from the figures cited in the previous section, using desktop as a frame of reference is increasingly short-sighted given the widening gap between desktop and mobile rankings. But how, then, should marketers plan their search strategy to cater to an increasing disparity between the two?

Should they go so far as to split their SEO efforts and cater to each separately? Or is there a way to kill two birds with one stone?

“The research report has some specific recommendations,” says Newton.

“One – Identify and differentiate mobile versus desktop demand.

“Two, design and optimize websites for speed and mobile-friendliness. Three, use a responsive site unless your business is app-based and large enough to build traffic through app distribution.

“Four, understand different online consumer intent signals across desktop and mobile devices. Five, produce separate mobile and desktop content that resonates on multiple device types.

“Six: focus on optimizing mobile content and mobile pages to improve conversions. Seven: track, compare, and report mobile and desktop share of traffic continuously.

“Eight, measure and optimize the page load speed of the mobile and desktop sites separately. And nine, track your organic search rank for mobile and desktop separately.

“The first challenge is to be even equally attentive to both mobile and desktop. We find that many brands are not acutely aware of the basic stat of mobile share of traffic.

“Additionally, brands can analyze the mobile share among new visitors, or non-customers, to see what kind of a different role it can play for people at different stages of the customer journey. For example, my mobile traffic is 32% higher among new visitors than overall visitors, and my mobile-blog-non-customer is 58% higher. That’s a place I should be leaning in on mobile when communicating to non-customers.

“Brands do not need to split their SEO efforts, but they do need to decide that some content efforts be mobile-first to be competitive.”

It can be difficult for brands who have traditionally catered to desktop users and who are still seeing success from a desktop-focused strategy to break away from this mindset and take a gamble on mobile. However, the figures are convincing.

What’s most evident is that it isn’t enough for SEOs and marketers to wait around for the launch of Google’s mobile-first index: it’s already being tested, and when combined with the growing proportion of mobile web traffic, brands who wait to develop a mobile-first strategy are increasingly likely to miss out.

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Mobile SEO: The 3 areas that really matter for SEO performance

With the upcoming launch of Google’s mobile-first index, digital marketers are preparing for a proliferation of “micro-moments”.

There has been a lot of noise around this seemingly seismic shift, but this trend was set in motion years ago and we have plenty of data to hand on what makes or breaks a mobile SEO campaign.

Undoubtedly, mobile SEO is distinct from its desktop counterpart in significant – sometimes very subtle – ways. As mobile usage continues to grow, user behaviors and expectations change too. Simply resizing the desktop site for a smaller screen won’t do.

Moreover, the evidence that the desktop and mobile algorithms must function based on different factors is right in front of us.

We can see from these screenshots of mobile results (above) and desktop results (below) for the query [credit card], taken from a collocated laptop and smartphone, that there are many differences across the two devices:

Mobile SEO: The 3 areas that really matter for SEO performance

Looking at this from the cold austerity of a rank tracking dashboard might not highlight just how different these experiences are. The order of the listings is very similar across devices, but they way a user experiences and interacts with them will vary.

This example is purposefully taken from a finance search query, less prone to location-based variations that we would see for a term like [coffee shop near me]. And yet, the mobile results page contains enough embellishments to distinguish it from the desktop version.

Rather than try to break down Google’s algorithms into the comforting-but-illusory format of a list of ranking factors, we should focus our efforts on what actually helps websites get more mobile traffic.

Based on experience of what a successful mobile SEO campaign entails in 2017, we can distil this into three categories: Context; Speed and Accessibility; and User Engagement Signals.

Within this article, we will first assess the reasons that mobile SEO stands apart, before delving into some practical tips in each category that can help all marketers drive improved performance via organic search.

1. Context

Smartphones contain an array of sensors that allow them to understand our environment. Everything from an accelerometer to a magnetometer to a proximity sensor is contained within the average mobile device nowadays.

Mobile phones create a huge amount of data and smartphone companies aren’t afraid to capture and use it. We shouldn’t be surprised; even our vacuum cleaners are mapping out our homes, hoovering up data along with dust.

The below is a very much redacted list of factors Google uses to shape mobile search results (taken from a patent approved way back in 2013):

  • Current time,
  • Current date,
  • Current day of the week,
  • Current month,
  • Current season,
  • A current, future, and/or past weather forecast at or near a location of a previous event in which a user and/or a user’s friends participated,
  • Information on user’s calendar, such as information regarding events or statuses of a user or a user’s friends,
  • Information accessible via a user’s social networking account,
  • Noise level or any recognizable sounds detected by the mobile platform and/or a monitoring device,
  • Health statistics or characterizations of a user’s current health

Even without reviewing the unabridged Ulysses-length list, we can get a clear sense of what’s going on here. Tech companies know a lot more about us than ever before, and they get a lot of this information from our phones.

Changes to how Google designates the centroid for a search have made a difference, too. The user’s phone now acts as the centroid, fundamentally shifting the notion of local search to a hyper-personalized level.

This applies to the local listings within Google Maps, but can also affect the content shown in ‘traditional’ SEO listings.

Combined with advances in semantic search, it is now essential for marketers to understand a user’s context if we are to satisfy their search query.

In spite of the absence of clear rules to follow across the board, there are still some practical ways that we can use context to improve SEO performance.

  • Split out search volume by device type. This will help you understand which queries tend to occur predominantly on either mobile or desktop. Knowing this will allow you to create content that caters for the preferred user experience. Desktop content is typically one-third longer than mobile content, for example.
  • Download a user agent switcher to view your content as it looks on a variety of different devices. You can get the extension for Chrome here, or for Firefox here. If you need to get really specific about the phone dimensions or location, try Mobile Phone Emulator.
  • Create content that responds to user needs, rather than just matching their search query. That may mean using image-heavy content, for example, rather than sticking with strictly text-based pages. Tracking universal search results will allow you to pinpoint these queries.
  • Track ranking performance across devices, territories, and media formats. This will give a truer picture of how frequently your domain is showing up in search results. You can achieve this through Google’s Search Console and Data Studio, combined with your rank tracking software.

2. Speed & Accessibility

SEO isn’t just about having the most relevant, thorough answer anymore. You also need to be the quickest site to provide it, or run the risk that users will simply go elsewhere.

Mobile SEO: The 3 areas that really matter for SEO performance

Source: Google

This is more important than ever, with Google’s quick answers pulling responses into the search results pages directly, and its Android Instant Apps project allowing consumers to use an app without installing it.

Google has given significant backing to its Accelerated Mobile Pages initiative too, and the evidence so far suggests it is paying off. AMP pages were introduced in early 2016 and run on a stripped-back version of HTML that very significantly decreases page load times. They also use a lot less data to load, so the benefits for users on the go are plentiful. A recent survey corroborated this, with over 60% of respondents saying that they would seek out AMP results due to the faster, lighter experience they provide.

AMP pages were initially seen as a boon for publishers (about 70% of Google News stories are AMP-enabled now), but retailers like eBay have started to adopt this standard too. In fact, publishers have had challenges in monetizing these light-touch formats, while ecommerce sites look likely to be the long-term beneficiaries. With AdWords and AdSense support for AMP continuing to increase, there is really no option other than to get on board with AMP if you want to maximize your content’s mobile opportunity.

Add in Facebook’s Instant Articles or Twitter Moments and the picture is clear: speed is of the essence.

This is not just a matter of removing assets to strip down individual pages, however. Websites are more than just the sum of their parts, so we need to ensure that our site structure is sound and, of course, that our content is accessible by Google, Facebook, Apple, et al.

  • Mercifully, Google has upgraded the Mobile Site Testing Tool, which now generates reports with recommendations you can send to your development team.
  • Remove any interstitial pages that stand between a user and access to the page they want to see. Google’s position on this has grown more severe over time; from mildly humorous posts through to an algorithmic penalty to dissuade sites from using interstitials in early 2017.
  • Android Instant Apps is a clear indication of the direction the industry is going in. People don’t want to install and load separate apps; this initiative allows them to enjoy the benefits of apps without the drawbacks they typically bring. It is open to all developers now, so it is worth getting started if you haven’t done so already.
  • The AMP Project website contains a host of useful tutorials that will get developers up to speed in no time. There are also plug-ins available for content management systems like WordPress, so you don’t even necessarily need to know AMP code in order to use it.
  • Use AMP for AdWords landing pages. Google provides plenty of handy advice on this and it is essential to adopt this practice early.
  • Google lists its mobile SEO best practices, in a rare example of olive branch extension to organic search marketers. However, these are quite basic tips that will get your site indexed. They won’t make a huge difference is such a competitive market.
  • Consider what you are willing to sacrifice in the name of faster loading times. AMP HTML provides a great solution, but there is a further temptation to minimize JavaScript to improve loading times further. This can come at the cost of user experience, so be sure to weigh up the pros and cons of removing each element before you do so.
  • Don’t just think of accessibility in technical terms. Your content needs to be accessible for the right audience once it loads; tools like Readable.io can help ensure that you are writing with an appropriate level of complexity.

3. User engagement signals

The shift to mobile devices has caused Google to change the methodology behind how it indexes and ranks websites. This has proven to be a much more complex task than many expected. As a result, Google has delayed the launch of the mobile-first index and is now prepared to launch on a website-by-website basis.

Google’s Gary Ilyes said of the mobile-first index at SMX West earlier this year:

“Mobile sites don’t have a lot of the metadata that desktop sites have. We’re aiming for a quality-neutral launch. We don’t want users to experience a loss in quality of search results. We need to replace the signals that are missing in the mobile web.”

This is a significant statement for SEO practitioners. Google wants a quality-neutral launch, but it has to do so by replacing some signals it has traditionally used to rank results. No wonder the mobile-first index is taking some time to get right.

Aside from the reduction in the quantity of metadata that mobile sites have versus desktop sites, we also need to bear in mind that links become less important on mobile. People share content via messaging apps much more frequently, which poses a problem for a search engine that has typically relied on links to navigate the web.

Other reinforcement signals for Google’s algorithms are harder to pin down in the mobile age too. One of Google’s most celebrated engineers, Jeff Dean, said in an interview with Fortune last year:

“If a user looks at a search result and likes it or doesn’t like it, that’s not that obvious.”

The advent of RankBrain in late 2015 was driven by a desire to do exactly this; to understand whether a user is satisfied with search results or not. Google now assesses whether a user stays on a website (known as a ‘long click’) or if they return to the search results page to find a more suitable result (a ‘short click’). A high click-through rate alone won’t suffice – we need to focus on what users do once they’ve landed on the site.

A SearchMetrics study last year summed this up quite nicely:

“User experience factors that improve mobile sites are related to better SEO rankings; external links continue to decline in importance.”

Links do still matter on mobile, of course; just not to the same extent. That’s a good thing – links can be manipulated (even bought), but it’s harder to falsify user engagement factors over a long period of time.

This leads us to a few valuable points to bear in mind when optimizing for user satisfaction:

  • Data analysis should be the cornerstone of your SEO efforts. Assess how customers access your site, what they do when they get there, and where the primary exit points are. This should all be built into your analytics dashboard to give you real-time access to invaluable user information. You can be pretty sure that Google is utilizing similar metrics to see if your site satisfies a user’s request.
  • Look at how your landing pages have performed since the launch of RankBrain to see if there are any correlations between user engagement metrics (such as time on page, bounce rate, and so on) and your SEO rankings. Often, you will notice that your best performing pages from a UX perspective have seen a  notable SEO boost too.
  • Links still matter. We should just think of them differently. Consider whether the links you attract will actually drive qualified traffic to your site, rather than just adding to antiquated metrics like external link volume.
  • Encompass UX and CRO within your SEO campaigns. Without improving your site experience, any SEO rankings improvements you achieve may lack staying power.
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What do we know so far about Google’s new homepage?

Google has released a new, feed-based mobile homepage in the US, with an international launch due in the next two weeks.

This is perhaps the most drastic and significant update of the Google.com homepage (the most visited URL globally) since Google’s launch in 1996.

The upgraded, dynamic entry point to the world’s biggest search engine will be available initially on mobile devices via both the Google website and its mobile apps, but will also be rolled out to desktop.

Let’s take a look at what’s changing and how, as well as what it might mean for marketers.

What’s different about the new homepage?

Google’s new homepage allows users to customize a news feed that updates based on their interests, location, and past search behaviors.

On the Google.com website (via a mobile device), there are now four icon-based options: Weather, Sports, Entertainment, and Food & Drink.

The ‘Weather’ and ‘Food & Drink’ options can be used straight away, as they take the user’s location data to provide targeted results. The ‘Sports’ and ‘Entertainment’ options require a little more customization before users can benefit from them fully. Without this, Google will just serve up popular and trending stories within each category.

In the example below, I tapped on the ‘Sports’ icon, then selected to follow a baseball team, the Boston Red Sox. Based on this preference, Google then knows to show me updates on this team on my homepage. The results varied in their media format, with everything from Tweets to GIFs and videos shown in my feed.

What do we know so far about Google’s new homepage?

This means that rather than encountering the iconic search bar, Google logo, and the unadorned white interface we have all become accustomed to, each user’s feed will be unique. As I start to layer on more of the topics I am interested in, Google gains more information with which to tailor my feed.

On the Google mobile app, based on my selection above, my homepage looks as follows:

What do we know so far about Google’s new homepage?

This is quite a big departure and is an experience we should expect the Google.com website to mirror soon. For now, the latter retains enough of the old aesthetic to be recognizable, but the app-based version is more overt in its positioning of suggested content.

The trusty search bar is still there, but users are encouraged to interact with their interests too. The interface is designed for tapping as well as typing.

Sashi Thakur, a Google engineer, has said of the launch,

“We want people to understand they’re consuming information from Google. It will just be without a query.”

It is essentially an extension of the functionality that has been available in Google’s Android app since December. Google will also continue to use push notifications to send updates on traffic, weather, and sports, based on the user’s set preferences.

Why is Google launching this product now?

Google has struggled to find a significant commercial hit to rival its hugely lucrative search advertising business. That business relies on search queries and user data, so anything that leads users to spend more time on Google will be of significant value.

The same motive has led to the increased presence of Google reservations, which now allow users to make appointments for a range of services from the search results page.

As Google stated in their official announcement, “The more you use Google, the better your feed will be.”

Users type a query when they have an idea of what they want to find; Google is pre-empting this by serving us content before we are even aware of what exactly we would like to know. By offering a service that will increase in accuracy in line with increased usage, Google hopes users will get hooked on a new mode of discovering information.

What do we know so far about Google’s new homepage?

This also allows Google to incorporate a number of other initiatives it has been working on, such as fact-checking and Google Posts.

You’d be forgiven for wondering whether Google is trying to find its way into social media again. After the demise of the short-lived Google+ platform, Google has seen Facebook grow as a credible threat in the battle for digital advertising dollars.

Facebook’s algorithmic news feed has been a significant factor in its rise in popularity, and with Google Posts incorporated into this news feed, there are certainly elements reminiscent of a certain social network in Google’s new homepage initiative. Readers may also recall the launch of iGoogle in 2005, a similar attempt to add some personalization to the homepage.

That said, it seems more likely that these changes have been rolled out in response to recent launches from Amazon than as a direct challenge to Facebook.

Amazon has made an almost dizzying amount of product announcements and acquisitions of late. As a pure-play ecommerce company, their rapid growth will have been cause for consternation at Google and there is a need to respond.

Of particular interest in relation to the new Google feed is the very recent launch of Amazon Spark, a shoppable feed of curated content for Amazon Prime members. It is only available via the iOS app for now, but it will be launched on Android soon too.

What do we know so far about Google’s new homepage?

Spark is a rival to Instagram in some ways, with its very visual feed and some early partnerships with social media influencers. It is also similar to Pinterest, as it encourages users to save their favorite images for later and clearly tries to tap into the ‘Discovery’ phase that Pinterest has made a play for recently.

Amazon has also launched its ‘Interesting Finds’ stream, which works in a noticeably Pinterest-esque fashion:

What do we know so far about Google’s new homepage?

Google has taken aim at Pinterest with its ‘Similar items’ feature and its revamped visual search technology, which feeds the new Google Lens.

In Google’s announcement of the new homepage, they make use of the verbs “discover” and “explore”. Both Amazon and Pinterest have tried to shape and monetize these phases of the search-based purchase journey; Google evidently thinks its homepage needs to take on a new life if it is to compete.

Will it open new opportunities for marketers?

Almost certainly. We should view this as a welcome addition to the elements of current search strategies, with a host of new opportunities to get in front of target audiences.

Google is not launching this product because of any existential threat to its core search product, which still dominates Western markets:

What do we know so far about Google’s new homepage?

Source: Moz/Jumpshot

The update should encourage a shift in user behavior. As people get used to the new experience, they will interact with Google in new ways and marketers need to be prepared for this.

From a paid perspective, we can expect to see new options open to advertisers, but not in the immediate future.

Amazon has two innate monetization mechanisms within Spark: users have to sign up to Prime (for an annual fee) to get access and, when they do, they are served a shoppable list of results. It comes as no surprise when we are on Amazon that we will be asked if we want to buy products.

That is not always the case on Google, where the initial purpose of the news feed is to gain traction with users and encourage them to spend more time within the site.

Options for sponsored content and (almost inevitably) paid ecommerce ads will come later, once a large and engaged user base has been established.

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Everything you need to know about visual search (so far)

Visual search is one of the most complex and fiercely competed sectors of our industry. Earlier this month, Bing announced their new visual search mode, hot on the heels of similar developments from Pinterest and Google.

Ours is a culture mediated by images, so it stands to reason that visual search has assumed such importance for the world’s largest technology companies. The pace of progress is certainly quickening; but there is no clear visual search ‘winner’ and nor will there be one soon.

The search industry has developed significantly over the past decade, through advances in personalization, natural language processing, and multimedia results. And yet, one could argue that the power of the image remains untapped.

This is not due to a lack of attention or investment. Quite the contrary, in fact. Cracking visual search will require a combination of technological nous, psychological insight, and neuroscientific know-how. This makes it a fascinating area of development, but also one that will not be mastered easily.

Therefore, in this article, we will begin with an outline of the visual search industry and the challenges it poses, before analyzing the recent progress made by Google, Microsoft and Pinterest.

What is visual search?

We all partake in visual search every day. Every time we need to locate our keys among a range of other items, for example, our brains are engaged in a visual search.

We learn to recognize certain targets and we can locate them within a busy landscape with increasing ease over time.

This is a trickier task for a computer, however.

Image search, in which a search engine takes a text-based query and tries to find the best visual match, is subtly distinct from modern visual search. Visual search can take an image as its ‘query’, rather than text. In order to perform an accurate visual search, search engines require much more sophisticated processes than they do for traditional image search.

Typically, as part of this process, deep neural networks are put through their paces in tests like the one below, with the hope that they will mimic the functioning of the human brain in identifying targets:

The decisions (or inherent ‘biases’, as they are known) that allow us to make sense of these patterns are more difficult to integrate into a machine. When processing an image, should a machine prioritize shape, color, or size? How does a person do this? Do we even know for sure, or do we only know the output?

As such, search engines still struggle to process images in the way we expect them to. We simply don’t understand our own biases well enough to be able to reproduce them in another system.

There has been a lot of progress in this field, nonetheless. Google image search has improved drastically in response to text queries and other options, like Tineye, also allow us to use reverse image search. This is a useful feature, but its limits are self-evident.

For years, Facebook has been able to identify individuals in photos, in the same way a person would immediately recognize a friend’s face. This example is a closer approximation of the holy grail for visual search; however, it still falls short. In this instance, Facebook has set up its networks to search for faces, giving them a clear target.

At its zenith, online visual search allows us to use an image as an input and receive another, related image as an output. This would mean that we could take a picture with a smartphone of a chair, for example, and have the technology return pictures of suitable rugs to accompany the style of the chair.

The typically ‘human’ process in the middle, where we would decipher the component parts of an image and decide what it is about, then conceptualize and categorize related items, is undertaken by deep neural networks. These networks are ‘unsupervised’, meaning that there is no human intervention as they alter their functioning based on feedback signals and work to deliver the desired output.

The result can be mesmerising, as in the below interpretations of an image of Georges Seurat’s ‘A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte’ by Google’s neural networks:

Everything you need to know about visual search (so far)

This is just one approach to answering a delicate question, however.

There are no right or wrong answers in this field as it stands; simply more or less effective ones in a given context.

We should therefore assess the progress of a few technology giants to observe the significant strides they have made thus far, but also the obstacles left to overcome before visual search is truly mastered.

Bing visual search

In early June at TechCrunch 50, Microsoft announced that it would now allow users to “search by picture.”

This is notable for a number of reasons. First of all, although Bing image search has been present for quite some time, Microsoft actually removed its original visual search product in 2012. People simply weren’t using it since its 2009 launch, as it wasn’t accurate enough.

Furthermore, it would be fair to say that Microsoft is running a little behind in this race. Rival search engines and social media platforms have provided visual search functions for some time now.

As a result, it seems reasonable to surmise that Microsoft must have something compelling if they have chosen to re-enter the fray with such a public announcement. While it is not quite revolutionary, the new Bing visual search is still a useful tool that builds significantly on their image search product.

Everything you need to know about visual search (so far)

A Bing search for “kitchen decor ideas” which showcases Bing’s new visual search capabilities

What sets Bing visual search apart is the ability to search within images and then expand this out to related objects that might complement the user’s selection.

Everything you need to know about visual search (so far)

 A user can select specific objects, hone in on them, and purchase similar items if they desire. The opportunities for retailers are both obvious and plentiful.

It’s worth mentioning that Pinterest’s visual search has been able to do this for some time. But the important difference between Pinterest’s capability and Bing’s in this regard is that Pinterest can only redirect users to Pins that businesses have made available on Pinterest – and not all of them might be shoppable. Bing, on the other hand, can index a retailer’s website and use visual search to direct the user to it, with no extra effort required on the part of either party.

Powered by Silverlight technology, this should lead to a much more refined approach to searching through images. Microsoft provided the following visualisation of how their query processing system works for this product:

Everything you need to know about visual search (so far)

Microsoft combines this system with the structured data it owns to provide a much richer, more informative search experience. Although restricted to a few search categories, such as homeware, travel, and sports, we should expect to see this rolled out to more areas through this year.

The next step will be to automate parts of this process, so that the user no longer needs to draw a box to select objects. It is still some distance from delivering on the promise of perfect, visual search, but these updates should at least see Microsoft eke out a few more sellable searches via Bing.

Google Lens

Google recently announced its Lens product at the 2017 I/O conference in May. The aim of Lens is really to turn your smartphone into a visual search engine.

Everything you need to know about visual search (so far)

Take a picture of anything out there and Google will tell you what the object is about, along with any related entities. Point your smartphone at a restaurant, for example, and Google will tell you its name, whether your friends have visited it before, and highlight reviews for the restaurant too.

This is supplemented by Google’s envious inventory of data, both from its own knowledge graph and the consumer data it holds.

All of this data can fuel and refine Google’s deep neural networks, which are central to the effective functioning of its Lens product.

Google-owned company DeepMind is at the forefront of visual search innovation. As such, DeepMind is also particularly familiar with just how challenging this technology is to master.

The challenge is no longer necessarily in just creating neural networks that can understand an image as effectively as a human. The bigger challenge (known as the ‘black box problem’ in this field) is that the processes involved in arriving at conclusions are so complex, obscured, and multi-faceted that even Google’s engineers struggle to keep track.

This points to a rather poignant paradox at the heart of visual search and, more broadly, the use of deep neural networks. The aim is to mimic the functioning of the human brain; however, we still don’t really understand how the human brain works.

As a result, DeepMind have started to explore new methods. In a fascinating blog post they summarized the findings from a recent paper, within which they applied the inductive reasoning evident in human perception of images.

Drawing on the rich history of cognitive psychology (rich, at least, in comparison with the nascent field of neural networks), scientists were able to apply within their technology the same biases we apply as people when we classify items.

DeepMind use the following prompt to illuminate their thinking:

“A field linguist has gone to visit a culture whose language is entirely different from our own. The linguist is trying to learn some words from a helpful native speaker, when a rabbit scurries by. The native speaker declares “gavagai”, and the linguist is left to infer the meaning of this new word. The linguist is faced with an abundance of possible inferences, including that “gavagai” refers to rabbits, animals, white things, that specific rabbit, or “undetached parts of rabbits”. There is an infinity of possible inferences to be made. How are people able to choose the correct one?”

Experiments in cognitive psychology have shown that we have a ‘shape bias’; that is to say, we give prominence to the fact that this is a rabbit, rather than focusing on its color or its broader classification as an animal. We are aware of all of these factors, but we choose shape as the most important criterion.

Everything you need to know about visual search (so far)

“Gavagai” Credit: Misha Shiyanov/Shutterstock

DeepMind is one of the most essential components of Google’s development into an ‘AI-first’ company, so we can expect findings like the above to be incorporated into visual search in the near future. When they do, we shouldn’t rule out the launch of Google Glass 2.0 or something similar.

Pinterest Lens

Pinterest aims to establish itself as the go-to search engine when you don’t have the words to describe what you are looking for.

The launch of its Lens product in March this year was a real statement of intent and Pinterest has made a number of senior hires from Google’s image search teams to fuel development.

In combination with its establishment of a paid search product and features like ‘Shop the Look’, there is a growing consensus that Pinterest could become a real marketing contender. Along with Amazon, it should benefit from advertisers’ thirst for more options beyond Google and Facebook.

Pinterest president Tim Kendall noted recently at TechCrunch Disrupt: “We’re starting to be able to segue into differentiation and build things that other people can’t. Or they could build it, but because of the nature of the products, this would make less sense.”

This drives at the heart of the matter. Pinterest users come to the site for something different, which allows Pinterest to build different products for them. While Google fights war on numerous fronts, Pinterest can focus on improving its visual search offering.

Admittedly, it remains a work in progress, but Pinterest Lens is the most advanced visual search tool available at the moment. Using a smartphone, a Pinner (as the site’s users are known) can take a picture within the app and have it processed with a high degree of accuracy by Pinterest’s technology.

The results are quite effective for items of clothing and homeware, although there is still a long way to go before we use Pinterest as our personal stylist. As a tantalising glimpse of the future, however, Pinterest Lens is a welcome and impressive development.

Everything you need to know about visual search (so far)

The next step is to monetize this, which is exactly what Pinterest plans to do. Visual search will become part of its paid advertising package, a fact that will no doubt appeal to retailers keen to move beyond keyword targeting and social media prospecting.

We may still be years from declaring a winner in the battle for visual search supremacy, but it is clear to see that the victor will claim significant spoils.

The ultimate law of mobile site design: Entertain users and drive conversion

Most consumers rely on their smartphones to make purchases and gain knowledge. In 2017, any business that lacks a mobile presence runs a serious risk of falling behind.

But it’s not just about having a site – it needs to provide a good experience. According to Google, 29% of smartphone users will immediately switch to another site if it doesn’t satisfy their needs.

Mobile users are goal-oriented, and they expect to find what they need from a responsive mobile instantly and easily. So punch up your conversion rates by designing your mobile site with the user’s intent and needs in focus.

1. Homepage and navigation

A homepage can serve as a promotional space and welcome page, but should provide users with the content they are searching for. A conversion focused homepage should tick off the following elements: concise CTAs, homepage shortcuts, minimal selling or promotions.

Navigating on a smaller screen, it is easy for users to miss key elements on your homepage. Therefore it is advisable to put your calls-to-action where users will see them easily, such as occupying the bottom half or above the fold.

Your call-to-action signifies the tipping point between conversion and bounce. To design calls-to-action that convert, optimize the copy and design, i.e. choice of words, color, size, fonts, etc.

We understand the travails of losing our way in the mall or a mart? The same happens on mobile sites, the lack of navigation menus or location bars can hurt conversion. Mobile users expect to get back to the homepage with a single tap either through tapping your logo or clicking the home navigation menu. For best practices, use your logo as the homepage shortcut.

Too often, ads and promotion beat the purpose of visiting a page and users get turned off. To entertain visitors and drive conversion, ads or promotional banners should be kept to the minimum and placed in a position which won’t affect the user experience.

To place ads on your homepage, think like a user. What is the user trying to accomplish? Where will their attention be focused? How do I keep the page clean and uncluttered?

By answering these questions, ad placement on your homepage will be a breeze and won’t need to negatively impact user experience.

2. Commerce and reviews

With an increased rate of digitization, users expect smooth mobile experiences when searching, reviewing and purchasing products. How can marketers and businesses increase their conversion rates while ensuring excellent mobile experiences for visitors?

The answer lies in allowing visitors/users to convert on their own terms.

For an ecommerce store, requesting that visitors sign up very early in the customer’s journey is a major turn off. Visitors will abandon a website demanding registration before they can continue, resulting in low conversion unless the site is an authoritative brand.

For better results, allow visitors explore your site before requesting for registration and enable visitors purchase products as a guest. For mobile commerce sites, easy and quick should be the watchword when designing the checkout process.

Best practices for mobile commerce include the availability of multiple payment options for commerce sites. Adding payments options such as Apple Pay, PayPal and Android Pay can boost conversion rates saving users the stress of inputting credit card information. For previous users, load and pre-fill their data fields for convenience in filling shipping information.

Statistics show that 92% of consumers read online reviews before purchasing a product or doing business with a company. Meaning reviews are an important part of the decision-making process for consumers, include reviews on your web pages then allow filters be applied to these reviews. Filters such as “most recent reviews”, “most positive reviews” and “lowest ratings”.

3. Site usability

When it comes to mobile site design, every little detail matters. Details such as zooming, expandable images, transparency about the use of visitors data will aid conversion.

According to studies, users found it easier to navigate a mobile-optimized website than desktop sites on smartphones. To ensure consistency, optimize every single page on your website for mobile devices, including forms, images, etc.

Your search bar should be placed near the top of your homepage for users to search for specific products and ensure the first search results are the best. Remember to include filters on search results to narrow down users intent or preferences on your mobile site.

Be careful not to label the link to your desktop site as full site. This might confuse visitors into thinking the mobile site is not fully featured causing them to opt for the full site, simply label the link to the desktop site as “Desktop Site” and link to the mobile site as “Mobile Site”.

When optimizing a mobile site, remember to disable pinch to zoom on your images as this might affect the general site experience, calls-to-action will be missed and messages will be covered. Basically, upload images that are sized properly and will render perfectly on any device.

Due to the nature of mobile devices, lengthy forms will hurt conversion when trying to gain leads. On surveys or multiple page forms, include a progress bar with upcoming sections at the top or bottom to guide users through the process.

To aid or satisfy customers, implement auto-fill on forms for name, phone and zip code fields. For date and time fields, include a visual calendar as users might not remember dates for the next weekend but the visual calendar will stop users from leaving your page to use the calendar app.

There are numerous resources on forms that include the use of calendars and other custom input fields, including Google forms, Xamarin Forms and FormHub.

4. Technicalities

While great design drives conversions, do not ignore the very foundation of your website. The following technicalities should be implemented and audited monthly.

  • Implement analytics and track conversion on mobile and desktop
  • Test your site as a visitor and load content in their intent
  • Optimize and test your mobile site on various devices and browsers to ensure optimum performance
  • Mobile ads should redirect to mobile sites, not desktop sites
  • Check your site speed using Google speed tool
  • Check for elements of Flash and remove them as they won’t render on iOS and slow on Android
  • Submit your mobile site pages XML sitemap submitted to Google.

Finally, run your website through Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test.

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How JavaScript impacts page loading speed on mobile

The effect of JavaScript on mobile web performance is twofold.

One, it is the second largest contributor to webpage weight, behind images, thereby increasing download time; and two, once downloaded, the browser then needs to run the script, which can delay the downloading/rendering of other (perhaps more important) assets on the page.

JavaScript (aka scripts or JS) is one of the triumvirate of technologies that make web pages (and web apps) work. The HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) controls the structure and content of the webpage; CSS (Cascade Styling Sheets) controls how the site looks on different devices; and JavaScript makes the page more interactive and dynamic.

Scripts perform numerous functions on webpages such as loading ads, A/B testing, tag management (personalizing the page) or displaying an inline video player.

Over the last five years, the total weight of pages sent to mobile devices has quadrupled to 2.2MB. Size matters because, in general, the more data that is sent over a mobile, or fixed, network the longer a page will take to load. More data, more seconds staring at an empty mobile screen.

This suggests that images – which tend to take up more of the total kilobytes (KB) or megabytes (MB) of each page – are the main culprit. But this is not always the case.

JavaScript could potentially have more of an impact on page performance than images. As Patrick Meenan, founder of the web performance testing site WebPageTest and software engineer at Google, explains:

“Scripts are usually a (bigger) issue because of the time it takes to actually execute the script in addition to the download size, while images really only matter because of the download size. With mobile devices for example, it can take several seconds to run a script even after it has been downloaded.” 

It’s not necessarily JavaScript, per se, that is the problem, but how it is implemented: scripts can monopolize browser activity, blocking the download and rendering (displaying) of other content.

“The problems are often compounded where the script is referenced in the page. The content after a ‘blocking’ script (as opposed to an async script) doesn’t exist, as far as the browser is concerned, until after the script has been downloaded and executed. When, as is commonly the case, scripts are put at the beginning of the page this means that the page will be completely blank until the scripts have downloaded and executed.”

We will discuss below the difference between blocking, inline, synchronous (sync), asynchronous (async) and deferred scripts and how to fix JavaScript problems, but first we’ll look at how to spot issues.

Testing for blocking JavaScript

If you have tested your webpages using Google PageSpeed Insights (N.B. you should regularly test your mobile webpages using tools such as WebPageTest and PageSpeed Insights), chances are you have seen the following warning:

! Should Fix:

Eliminate render-blocking JavaScript and CSS in above-the-fold content

Your page has 8 blocking script resources and 7 blocking CSS resources. This causes a delay in rendering your page.

None of the above-the-fold content on your page could be rendered without waiting for the following resources to load. Try to defer or asynchronously load blocking resources, or inline the critical portions of those resources directly in the HTML.

The text and image above is from a Mobile PageSpeed Insights test on BBC.com conducted in February 2017.

Note “above the fold” refers only to the part of the webpage which is visible on a mobile device, without scrolling, Google is not analyzing scripts on the rest of the page.

The BBC is the world’s most popular English language news website, according to Alexa, so to put it in context we should also test the others in the top four. The results suggests two more publishers have similar issues with JavaScript. (The test also highlights CSS issues, but this is not the focus of the article):

  1. BBC.com PageSpeed test (8 blocking scripts; 7 blocking CSS resources)
  2. NYTimes.com PageSpeed test (0 blocking scripts)
  3. ESPN.com PageSpeed test (2 blocking scripts; 3 blocking CSS resources)
  4. CNN.com PageSpeed test (6 blocking scripts; 2 blocking CSS resources)

4x growth in JavaScript use in five years

Over the last five years the amount of JavaScript used on the average mobile page has almost quadrupled from 101KB in February 2012 to 387KB in February 2017. The number of requests (a request is the number of times a browser is required to download an additional piece of content or code) for different JavaScript files has increased from 8 to 21.

This is clearly illustrated in the graph below from HTTP Archive. HTTP Archive tests the top 1 million sites several times every month using data from WebPageTest, and publishes trends and stats that are essential benchmarking for the performance of your site.

How JavaScript impacts page loading speed on mobileFor the top 1 million sites monitored by HTTP Archive, JavaScript accounts for 17.4% of page weight. JavaScript also accounts for 21 out of 93 total requests (22.6%).

For some sites, particularly in the news space, JavaScript has a considerably larger share of page weight than the norm.

The image below compares the breakdown by content type for the average site with BBC.com tested by HTTP Archive (15 February 2017):

  • The first thing to note is how impressively small the BBC page size is: 609KB v 2225KB.
  • The second thing to note is how small the combined size of the BBC images: 70KB v 1501KB.
  • The third thing to note is how proportionally large the scripts are: 458KB or 75.2% of total page size.
  • The fourth thing to note (not shown in the charts below) is that 39 (44.3%) of the BBC’s total 88 requests are scripts.

How JavaScript impacts page loading speed on mobile

When you compare the test results of the top four English language news websites, it is remarkable how much smaller the BBC is than its rivals. It is a one-third to a half of the size, with two to three times less JavaScript.

  1. BBC.com tested by HTTP Archive: Scripts 458KB (75.2%) of 609KB of total data; 39 JS requests (44.3%) of 167 88 total requests.
  2. NYTimes.com HTTP Archive test: Scripts 1511KB (51%) of 2953KB of total data; 73 JS requests (43.7%) of 167 total requests. (N.B. NY Times has a dedicated mobile site at mobile.nytimes.com, which is not listed by HTTP Archive, which may deliver different results.)
  3. ESPN.com HTTP Archive test: Scripts 1183KB (65.7%) of 1802KB of total data; 50 JS requests (47.2%) of 106 total requests.
  4. CNN.com HTTP Archive test: Scripts 1484KB (68%) of 2182KB of total data; 67 JS requests (31.9%) of 210 total requests.

What is the effect on mobile page speed?

So does it follow that the slim-line BBC site would load much faster than all its rivals?

Err, no. On 15 February 2017, HTTP Archive recorded the following load times:

  1. BBC.com: 18.3 seconds
  2. NYTimes.com: 27.4 seconds
  3. ESPN.com: 8.8 seconds
  4. CNN.com: 31.5 seconds

So, the BBC is faster loading on a mobile device than CNN and the New York Times, but considerably slower than the (larger) ESPN.

This is what the two sites look like on a mobile device. (The filmstrip is one of WebPageTest’s most visually compelling features, easily understood by any non-techie). Each frame represents 1 second. When the HTTP Archive test took place, for 9 seconds BBC.com mobile visitors saw nothing, while for 4 seconds ESPN visitors saw nothing.How JavaScript impacts page loading speed on mobile

There could be many reasons why one website might be faster than another, such as server response times, use of content delivery networks (CDN), the impact of ad networks, inclusion of third-party data (common on news sites), or the time and place of the test (in this case California, USA).

However, all other things being equal, it is possible that JavaScript could be a contributing factor. (Apologies for the hedging of bets). As noted above, BBC.com did receive more warnings for blocking scripts above the fold than the other news sites.

Reducing reliance on JavaScript

JavaScript is often used to perform tasks that cannot (easily) be done with HTML or CSS. As the W3C gradually add these features to the HTML or CSS standards and they are implemented by browsers, the JavaScript patch is no longer needed, as HTML/CSS is likely to be more efficient. A good example of this is responsive images.

Alex Painter, Web Performance Consultant at NCC Group:

“As a rule, it’s worth sticking to the principle of progressive enhancement – delivering a site that works without JavaScript and using scripts only for those extra features that can’t be done any other way.

“Using JavaScript to render content can be expensive – it takes time to load and execute. So, for example, if you can use HTML and CSS to achieve the same result, that’s generally going to be faster.

 “When it comes to responsive images, for example, you can use media queries in CSS and picture/srcset in the HTML to deliver the right image for the viewport without having rely on JavaScript.”

Choose asynchronous and deferred JavaScript over blocking and inline scripts

There are a number of ways that JavaScript can be implemented on a webpage, including:

  1. Blocking scripts are synchronous which means they have to be dealt with immediately and ahead of anything else. By default, all JavaScript is parser blocking. As the browser does not know what the script will do to the page, as soon as it meets a request (in the HTML file) to download a JavaScript file, it stops building the webpage, and does not continue until the file is downloaded and executed.
  1. Inline scripts also stop the page build, but as they are included in the HTML, they do not need to be individually downloaded. However too large or too many inline scripts will bloat and delay the initial download of HTML file.
  1. Asynchronous scripts allows the browser to continue parsing (analyzing the code and building the webpage), while the JavaScript file is downloaded. Including the async attribute in the HTML tells the browser that it doesn’t need to put everything on hold.
  1. Deferred JavaScript – tells the browser to leave the execution of the JS file until after it has finished building the webpage, this is signified with the defer attribute.

Are blocking scripts ever justified?

Patrick Meenan:

“If the site functionality relies on the code, then it needs to be run as a blocking script so that it is ready before the page needs it. A very common case for this is tag managers and A/B testing platforms where the code will change the page. In other cases blocking is used when it will be more work to load the functionality asynchronously.”

Reducing size of JavaScript files

How big is too big? How many requests is too many?

This will always be a balancing act.

Patrick Meenan:

“Since the browser will only load six requests at a time for each domain, if you have more than that it needs to request the rest after the first ones have completed, leading to longer times from the request/response delays.

 “Larger JavaScript files also take longer to parse and run (1ms for every 1KB of uncompressed JS is a reasonable estimate).  All else being equal, if you have the same amount of JS in a lot of files it will take much longer to load than if the same amount of JS was in a single file.”

Google recommends minification of JavaScript files using UglifyJS or Closure Compiler.

For more on how to optimize the speed of your mobile site, check out our previous three-part series:

Andy Favell is Search Engine Watch’s columnist on mobile. He is a London-based freelance mobile/digital consultant, journalist and web editor. Contact him via LinkedInor on Twitter at Andy_Favell.

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How to optimize images for mobile: Implementing light, responsive, correctly formatted images

The mobile web has a weight problem. Too many mobile sites are slow to load, and bloated with unnecessary bells and whistles, leading to a poor user experience.

Chief among the culprits is images, which as we have seen in part 1 of this series, How to optimize your mobile site speed, account for 68% of total page weight. Then, in part 2, we looked at how to reduce the impact of images on the speed of your mobile site, including how to make sure your images are as accessible as can be. This mostly focused on removing images which do not add value, and making the ones you do use work harder.

But how can you make sure that any images on your mobile site are light, device-responsive, and use the best format to combine speed and quality? This column focuses on optimizing images for mobile, including responsive images and other clever methods for stopping images ruining mobile user experience.

The balancing act of image optimization

The problem with image optimization is that there are no hard and fast rules. Image optimization is always going to be a careful balancing act between user experience, attractiveness and page performance.

Raluca Budiu, Director of Research at Nielsen Norman Group, explains:

“Because the screen is small on mobile, too small images may offer too little information, and too big images may slow down the page too much. We recommend that you start with a modest size image and allow people to zoom in (or download a larger picture of the image).

Most of the time huge images are not a good idea — their information density is low, and they require people to wait for the page to load and/or to scroll down for more content. This is a common problem with responsive one-column designs: because images are supposed to fill up the whole container width, we often end up with huge images that carry little information compared to their size.”

There is no set-in-stone rule for how small a mobile image should be – it’s a trade-off between quality and page size. But a good guideline is to benchmark against the 100 most popular sites. According to httpArchive, the average JPG is 29KB and the average PNG is 16KB.

Reducing the weight of an image is partly about saving the image at the appropriate size and resolution (number of pixels) and partly about compressing the image. Some creative tools, such as Photoshop, will afford some compression, but often not enough, especially with larger image types such as PNG.

There are a number of tools that will very effectively compress images individually or in batches of images. For example the homepages image above was compressed using TinyPNG resulting in a 79% reduction in weight.

For a comparison of the leading compression tools, see GitHub.

Should you use different sized images for mobile, tablet and desktop?

When designing separate websites for mobile, tablet and desktop, whether that is via dedicated URLs (site.com and m.site.com) or serving different sites via a single URL (adaptive web design), it is implicit that images ought to be appropriately sized for the largest device in that category.

The position is perhaps less clear with responsive web design (RWD). With RWD, the principle is to serve the same website to different devices, using CSS to format the content according to the device capabilities and screen size.

This doesn’t mean, though, that websites should necessarily adopt a one-size fits all approach to images, explains Alex Painter, Web Performance Consultant at NCC Group:

“Pages are often slow on mobile because of a failure to deliver images appropriately sized for the viewport. The popularity of responsive design may be partly to blame – the idea that the same content can be reflowed so the layout works in any viewport can mask the fact that imagery hasn’t been optimized for mobile.

Plenty of sites deliver the same images on desktop as they do on mobile – with mobile versions just scaled down to fit. This might not be immediately obvious to end users with high-end devices on fast, reliable networks. But it can make websites completely unusable for people with lower spec phones or with poor connectivity.

 There are two reasons why this is a big problem. The first is simple – it just takes longer to deliver an unnecessarily large image over the network. The second is often overlooked: the mobile device has to work hard to a) decode and b) scale down the image. This is expensive in terms of processing power and memory.”

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Helped in part by the advocacy of the Responsive Images Community Group, the HTML specification now makes it easier for developers to create a number of alternate images for different device types – to suit different screen sizes (viewport), resolutions (number of pixels) or device capability.

The webpage HTML tells the browser which of these images to select for screens up to a maximum width and if the image should take up all or just part of the screen width.

Previously, some developers would use JavaScript to specify the use of different images, but using the HTML <picture> element should be more efficient, reducing the extra code and requests that slow down page load times.

Alex Painter:

“Delivering the right image for the viewport is now reasonably straightforward. We’ve had CSS media queries for background images for some time, but until recently images referenced in the HTML was more of a problem.

Now, we have the responsive images specification: the <picture> element, with the srcset[set of alternative image sources] attribute and sizes attribute that make it possible to define which image should be delivered for which viewport width (or to allow the browser to make the most appropriate choice from a selection of images).

The spec is now very well supported by browsers, and developers should ideally be using it rather than using JavaScript to achieve the same end.”

How to optimize images for mobile: Implementing light, responsive, correctly formatted images

Who is using responsive images?

A peek at the source code of major websites such as Amazon, Facebook and the BBC confirms that none is yet using the <picture> element to serve responsive images.

Would they benefit from doing so? Serving different images to each platform potentially offers several advantages:

  • Allows the website to show a larger, higher resolution image on the desktop.
  • Reduces the picture sizes and total page weight and thus speeding up mobile load time.
  • Enables the mobile site to show a zoomed in image on mobile. (Note the cropped image of the dog above).
  • Retailers can display Mobile-Friendly Hero Images on mobile while sticking to traditional pack shots on larger displays.

Finding the best format for your images

The most common formats for images used in mobile/mobile-friendly sites are JPEG 46%, PNG 28%, GIF 23% and SVG 1% according to httpArchive.

How to optimize images for mobile: Implementing light, responsive, correctly formatted images

Using an inappropriate image format can increase file size and effect quality when images scale for different screen sizes.

There are two types of web image: raster and vector. The first is made up of dots (like a digital photograph), while the second is made up of lines and shapes. JPEG, PNG and GIF are raster. SVG is a vector. SVG is a newer format not as widely used (yet), but is recommended for responsive design sites by this course on Responsive Images from Google and Udacity.

There are pro and cons for each, and every web designer has a different opinion and favorite formats. You need to research your own company policy, but in general:

  • JPEG is most commonly used for web photographs
  • GIF is common for animations as well as simple graphs, icons and logos
  • PNG is common for higher quality graphs, logos, icons and other illustrations and photos with graphical effects
  • SVG is good for graphs and logos, page headers – things that are designed by an illustrator.

For more information on format types and sizes, see Google’s guide to optimizing images.

Alternatives to traditional images

Webpages are made up of many small images, such as icons and buttons. If these are made using individual GIF/PNG/JPEG images, it all adds to the page size and each one requires an individual browser request, which can slow down page load time.

Three methods that can help keep page size and image requests down are:

  • CSS sprites – combines a collection of smaller graphics into a single CSS file. N.B. Overloading sprites with too many or too large graphics will be counter-productive.
  • Icon fonts – is a library of icons sent as one single file.
  • CSS shapes – are shapes built using CSS, rather than as a traditional image

Mike D’Agruma Lead Front-End Web Developer, E-volve Creative Group:

“To save on file size, I generally stay away from loading larger, more popular icon libraries, and use Fontastic to create my own custom icon fonts. This method works extremely well on a variety of levels: 1) As I’m only using a small number of custom icons, the font file size is drastically smaller; 2) Icons are created with SVGs, which ensures they’ll be extremely crisp on devices; 3) You can’t beat this option for flexibility, as font icons are extremely customizable with CSS.

Another great way to safe on time, file-size and server requests is to use CSS to create shapes – you can create most shapes and add as many effects and transitions as you’d like with CSS.

 Take Summit County Metro Parks mobile site as an example, in the header section alone, I was able to use a combination of CSS shapes and font icons to create what could’ve been six different images. Activating the mobile menu shows an example of a CSS-shape animation (the hamburger menu morphing into an “X”), and the use of an additional icon on the right side of accordion triggers shows open and closed states.”

How to optimize images for mobile: Implementing light, responsive, correctly formatted images

Web design techniques for improving perceived load time

When you have trimmed the fat, removed the unnecessary images and optimized the remainder, but the page is still not loading fast enough – what do you do? Cheat.

Make sure the most important stuff loads first, says Raluca Budiu:

“When a page loads, make sure that the text loads first, so that people can start scanning the content. As images load, don’t shuffle the already loaded content around — it will cause readers to lose their place on the page, and sometimes they will even click on the wrong link because the right target unexpectedly moved.”

There is a difference between perceived load time and actual load time. All that matters to the user is that the content on they are looking at, or for, is available. They do not want to be staring at an empty screen while the browser fetches images they may never see.

There are three common techniques for delivering this. Robert Gaines, a Kansas, US-based, web and app developer explains:

 “1. Deferred loading, or delayed loading, uses JavaScript to stop images and other assets loading until after the main content of a webpage has finished loading. Deferred loading reduces the amount of time it takes for a webpage’s primary content to render, but reduces the need to cut images that would otherwise slow down a webpage.

2. Lazy Loading loads assets when and as they are needed. So content is loaded above the fold first, then below the fold as the user scrolls. With image galleries – such as product searches on retail sites – thumbnail images are used, larger images are only loaded when a corresponding thumbnail is clicked.

3. Progressive image loading first loads low quality images while a webpage is being rendered and then replaces them with high quality images after primary content has finished loading. Progressive image loading balances performance with visual appeal. Unlike deferred loading, it doesn’t leave users waiting for secondary images to load after primary content.”

Tools such as Photoshop allow images to be saved as progressive JPEGs, or interlaced PNG, which will load in the way described.

This course on Responsive Images from Google and Udacity is a good introduction to this subject; it is aimed at web developers, but everyone will benefit. You can skip the coding exercises.

 

This article is Part 3 of a three-part series on how to optimize your mobile site speed. Read the previous instalments in this series:

A version of this column was originally published on our sister site, ClickZ. It has been republished here for the enjoyment of our audience on SEW.