Why is important to optimize for mobile SEO

  • Nowadays more people search on mobile phones than computers.
  • People are five times more likely to leave a  site if it’s not mobile-friendly.
  • Over half of mobile users will leave a website if it takes longer than three seconds to load.

If you want to benefit from SEO, you need a website to participate in Google indexing (Firebase App Indexing) and other traditional signals that contribute to ranking. So, if you have begun with a native app only, you’ll need a website to take advantage of SEO.

If you don’t have a website, there are some companies that offer a solution to solve that problem while you build it. Branch, for example, offers app content sitemaps with AMP Deepviews for search. They automatically index your app content and create a de-duped sitemap hosted on your app.link domain to expose your content to search. You have to enable app indexing first.

Since more people search on mobile phones than on desktops, Google has adopted a mobile-first index approach. It was announced for the first time in October of 2016, but today the mobile-first index is still months away (maybe at the beginning of 2018??).

When Google switches to mobile-first index, Google will use the mobile version of web content as its primary index and rank results based on that mobile content, even for desktop searches.

Prepare for a mobile-first index world

Let’s see first what indexing means and why a mobile-first index is needed. It’s important to distinguish the core parts of any search algorithm: Crawling, Indexing, Retrieval, and Rankings.

  • Crawling. Google follows links on the web to discover pages.
  • Indexing. Google makes a copy of your page in a format that is useful to the ranking algorithm.
  • Retrieval. It’s the part where the engine “asks” for everything relevant to the search query.
  • Rankings. Google order the results based on a number of factors.

Google has an index based on desktop sites. It creates signals based on Googlebot with the desktop user agent. Google then crawls with their mobile Googlebot to gather mobile friendly signals.

Currently, when a user searches on Google (mobile or desktop) the retrieval part of the algorithm looks at the desktop index created by the Googlebot desktop crawler. Finds relevant results and rank them based on the desktop index. For rankings, it looks at the mobile signals collected by the mobile crawler and adjust the ranking accordingly.

What can you do to prepare for the mobile-first index?

  1. Make sure your mobile site has the content you want to rank for. Make your mobile version your primary version and ensure it’s always updated first.
  2. Make sure structured data are on your mobile site. If your website is responsive, you should be fine. However, if you have two different URLs you’ll have to add structured data to your mobile pages.
  3. Make sure rel-annotations are on your mobile site.

According to Google, if you have a responsive site or a dynamic serving site where the primary content and markup is equivalent across mobile and desktop, you shouldn’t have to change anything. If the content is not equivalent, then consider doing the following:

  • Serve structured markup for both the desktop and mobile version (use the Structured Data Testing tool).
  • Use the robots.txt testing tool to verify your mobile version is accessible to Googlebot.
  • Sites don’t need to make changes to their canonical links.

Add and verify your mobile version in Google Search Console. If you only have a desktop website, Google will continue to index your site as usual.

In preparation for the first-mobile index, check your mobile site and look for no-index directives and n1 redirects. You can use Googe Search Console> Crawl Errors> Smartphone Errors.

The no-index tag will prevent web pages from being indexed. Use it only on pages you really don’t want search engines to find.

N1 redirect= faulty redirect. It’s when a user is directed to a page they didn’t intend to visit. This happens a lot when site owners have the desktop and the mobile page, they tend to redirect all mobile traffic over to the mobile homepage. What they should do instead is redirect the mobile traffic to the equivalent mobile web page.

Make sure that the mobile and desktop web pages are both being indexed. To verify that your mobile pages are indexed, go to Google search box on your smartphone and enter “site:yourwebiste.com” and see what shows up.

If you have two separated pages (one for desktop and one for mobile) and you see that the Googlebot is not indexing your mobile pages, you can try the following:

  • Create a mobile sitemap and tag your mobile pages with rel=canonical and rel=alternate tags
  • Submit your sitemap to Google Search Console and add your mobile sitemap to your robots.txt

Crosscheck the content published on desktop and mobile. The manual way to do this is: Go to Google Analytics and pull a list of the pages with more traffic into a Google Sheet. Then, view each URL on your desktop and also on your mobile.

If you find pages that have a different content than the desktop version, redesign those pages.

Google also advised recently that if you are planning to migrate your m-dot domain to a fully responsive website, then you should do it before the mobile-first index goes live. Since Google has a desktop-first index, it does not really index your m-dot URLs.

Create a mobile-friendly website

There are three ways to implement your mobile website:

  • Responsive design. This is Google’s recommended way. A responsive web design serves the same HTML code on the same URL regardless of the users’ device (desktop, tablet, mobile) but can render the display differently based on screen size.
  • Dynamic content. Uses the same URL regardless of device, but generates a different version of HTML for different device types based on what the server knows about the users’ browser.
  • Separate URLs. Serves different code to each device, and on separate URLs.

In order to test the mobile usability of your site, you can use Google tools. The Search Console look at these mobile usability issues:

  • Flash usage. Mobile browser doesn’t render Flash
  • Viewport not configured. The viewport meta tag aids browsers in scaling a page to suit a specific device
  • Fixed-width viewport
  • Content not sized to viewport. The page content does not fit the window
  • Small size font
  • Touch elements too close
  • Interstitial usage

Run the mobile-friendly test for all your web pages first and take the necessary actions.

Page speed

Speed is one of the many signals used by Google to rank pages. Page speed is a measurement of how fast the content on your page loads. Page speed can be described in “page load time” (the time it takes to fully display the content on a specific page), or “time to first byte” (how long it takes for your browser to receive the first byte of information from the web server).

You can use Google’s PageSpeed Insights to check your website and it will give you a score  (0 to 100 points) that falls into one of these categories: Good, Needs work, and Poor.

You can also see an overview of page loading times within Google Analytics if you go to Behavior> Site Speed report.

The ideal page speed is two-to-three-second loading time.

Some basic speed rules

  • Avoid landing pages redirects
  • Enable compression
  • Improve server response time
  • Leverage browser caching
  • Minify resources
  • Optimize images
  • Optimize CSS delivery
  • Prioritize visible content
  • Remove render-blocking JavaScript
  • Use asynchronous scripts

Here you can find the rules explained in more detail PageSpeed Insights Rules.

When talking about page speed we also need to mention AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages). It’s a very lightweight version of a web page that has been stripped of the many elements that cause a regular web page to display slowly (cookies, third-party JavaScript, and slow-loading ad networks).

AMP is now required to be included in Google’s news carousel. It’s also given preference over app deep links in the search result.

Mobile user experience

The following 25 mobile design principles are extracted from a research study that Google did in collaboration with AnswerLab (Principles of Mobile Site Design: Delight Users and Drive Conversions).

Mobile users tend to be very goal-oriented. They expect to be able to get what they need from a mobile site easily, immediately, and on their own terms.

Homepage and navigation

A mobile homepage should focus on connecting users to the content they’re looking for.

1. Keep CTA front and center

Feature your primary CTA in your most prominent site space. It was easier for participants to complete tasks on sites that clearly displayed primary calls-to-action in the main body of the site making secondary tasks available through menus or below the fold.

2. Keep menus short and sweet.

A shorter menu with distinct categories is easier for mobile visitors to navigate.

3. Mobile users want an easy way back to the initial home page

In the study, participants usually expected tapping the logo at the top of the page to take them back to the homepage.

Use your logo as a navigation button to return to the homepage.

4. Make sure promotions do not interfere with navigation and are clearly distinct from calls-to-action.

For app promotions, participants preferred easily dismissible banners as opposed to large interstitials.

Maximize the value of your site’s search

5. Make site search visible

Users looking for a specific information usually turn to search. Search should be one of the first things mobile users see on your site.

Participants responded best to easily-visible open text search boxes at the top of the page.

6. Ensure site search results are relevant

Participants judge the site’s search based on the results it returns first. Make sure your site search returns the strongest results first, and implement smart-search features like autocomplete and spelling correction.

7. Implement filters to improve site search usability

Participants relied on filters to narrow down search results, and abandoned sites that couldn’t reduce volume. Make sure users can’t filter a search to return zero results.

8. Guide users to better site search results

If your offerings can be easily narrowed by segment, asking a few questions upfront helps ensure visitors see relevant results. For example, a shoe retailer can begin by asking users their gender and size of shoe.

Driving conversions by putting your visitors in control

9. Let users explore before they commit

Allow visitors to use your site without registering for an account. Participants became frustrated by sites that demanded registration in order to continue, especially if the site was an unfamiliar brand.

10. Let users purchase as a guest and encourage registration with tangible benefits

Participants describe the guest check out as “convenient”, “simple”, and “easy and quick”.

They were annoyed at a site that required registration to purchase, especially because the site didn’t explain the benefits of registering.

11. Use existing information to maximize convenience

For registered users, remember and pre-fill their preferences.

For new users, offer a third-party checkout service they may already use. This way you will reduce friction.

12. Use click-to-call buttons for complex tasks

Offering a prominent click-to-call button can keep users from dropping out of the funnel when they need to provide complex information.

13. Make it easy to finish converting on another device

Offer an easy way to save or share information across devices to keep users in your funnel.

Mobile visitors may be researching to convert later, so offer an easy way to resume their journey on another device via social sharing, email or save-to-cart functionality.

Reduce friction at the finish line through streamlined form entry

14. Streamline information entry

Offer users a number pad for fields requiring number entry, and automatically advance them through form fields as they input information.

15. Choose the simplest input method for each task

When participants needed to make a choice with limited options, it was easier for them to top a large toggle icon than to enter text or select from a drop-down.

For selecting one of many, a traditional drop-down was more straightforward.

16. Provide a visual calendar when selecting dates

Keep visitors on your site by offering date selection via a visual calendar with clear instructions.

17. Minimize form errors with labeling and real-time validation

Label your forms clearly, and make sure the labels are visible when users are entering information. Once information is entered, validate it for errors in real time prior to submission to prevent users from having to resubmit.

18. Design efficient forms

Make sure your forms have no repeated actions. Minimize the number of fields in your forms, and autofill information wherever possible. User clearly-labeled progress bars to help users get through multi-part forms.

Usability and form factor

19. Optimize your entire site for mobile

Your site is easier to use if all your pages are designed for mobile.

20. Don’t make users pinch-to-zoom

Participants were frustrated when they needed to zoom in or out and sometimes missed important messaging and calls-to-action.

Design your mobile site so your users won’t ever need to change the size.

21. Make product images expandable

Include high-quality close-ups of key images like product photos. Customers want to see what they are buying.

22. Tell users which screen orientation works best

Communicate to users if your site works best in a certain orientation, but ensure your important calls-to-action can be completed regardless of the orientation.

23. Keep your users in a single browser window

Ensure your calls-to-action stay in the same browser window, and add functionality to your site that addresses why consumer must switch windows.

Participants also sometimes opened new windows to search for coupons. Consider offering these on your site to avoid users looking elsewhere.

24. Avoid “full site” labeling

When participants saw an option for “full site” vs “mobile site”, they assumed the mobile site was condensed and chose the full site instead. Use labels like “desktop” instead of “full” to be clear that both sites offer the same experience.

25. Be clear why you need a user’s location

Users should always understand why you’re asking for their location. Leave location fields blank by default, and let users choose to populate them through a clear call-to-action like “Find near me”.

App indexing

App indexing makes in-app content discoverable through search. Let’s see how it works from the beginning until now.

In 2013, Google announced that they could index the content within Android apps and the mechanism to do that was app indexing. App indexing allowed webmasters to connect pages from their web sites with specific content within their Android app. A user that had the app installed on his smartphone could open it directly from relevant mobile search results.

In order to be able to technically do this, you needed to configure both the web site and the app to define the relationship between them. How?

  • Annotating app links for each page on your website (or through sitemap) that can be opened in your app to specify how the page’s content can be opened in the app.
  • Adding intent filters for deep linking in your app manifest to specify how to reach specific content inside your app.

In 2014, Google announced at the Google I/O developers conference that it was expanding its app indexing program to all Android apps. Previously, they had only been indexing selected apps.

Bing also offered Bing App Linking since at least March 2014. It worked similar to Google App Indexing but it was specifically designed to work within Bing’s search results and directly link to Windows or Windows Phone apps.

In 2015, Google announced two significant changes to its search algorithm for ranking the mobile search results. This was called among other names the Mobilegeddon.

  • Google will be using mobile-friendly factors in its mobile search results starting on April 21, 2015. Google’s mobile ranking factors will not only label your site as mobile-friendly but will also use that to determine if your site should rank higher in the search results.
  • Google will rank mobile apps participating in App indexing for signed-in users better in the mobile search results. If the searcher does not have the app installed, the content will not be surfaced to the user.

The algorithm assesses each page individually. It analyzes mobile compatibility on a page-by-page basis. Google recommendations to facilitate app indexing were as follow:

  • Add deep link support and specify how to reach specific content within the app.
  • Verify your app’s official website on Google Play Console.
  • Provide deep links for each web page that has a corresponding deep link.
  • Check for errors and fix them.

By April 2015 people searching on Google could discover your app if they didn’t have the app installed yet. In some cases, an app install button was shown in the search results.

Google started using App indexing as a ranking signal for all users on Android (app installed or not).

In November 2015, Google announced that it could index and rank app-only content within Android, content that only exists within the app itself and which has no web counterpart. Google launched this only in nine selected apps.

With Google indexing both app landing pages and deep screen in apps, Google’s app ranking fall into two basic categories: App Packs and App Deep Links.

App Packs link to app download pages in Google Play or the App Store depending on the device you are searching from.

Ranking in the App Pack relies heavily on the app title, description, star ratings, and reviews.

App Deep Links link to specific deep screens within an app.

Google has an algorithm to determine how an indexed deep link should rank in search results. The known positive ranking factors are:

  • Installation status. Android apps are more prominently featured in Google search results when they are installed on a user’s device.
  • Proper technical implementation
  • Website signals (title tags, description tags)

The known negative ranking factors are:

  • Content mismatch. Google will not index app screens that claim to correspond with a web page but don’t provide enough of the same information.
  • Interstitials

Google is intentionally giving preference to app results for certain queries. In some cases, being an indexed app may be the only way to rank at the top in mobile Google search. Keywords like “games” and “editor” are a common trigger for App Packs and App Carousels. For every app that is included in an App Pack, one web ranking is pushed off the page.

Some App Pack ranking factors:

  • Google treats App Titles like Title Tags and App Descriptions like on-page text.
  • One of the best ways to target Google App Pack search results is by adding appropriate keywords to your App Title and description when submitting apps to the OS-specific app stores.
  • Google may also rank apps based on keywords from the user reviews that are included on the app landing page.
  • Star ratings are also a strong App Pack ranking signal.

To recap

Google uses app indexing to crawl app content. App indexing allows crawlers to read your in-app content and index it. In order to do this, you need to have a website.

When Google indexes app content, it connects it with existing web content. To get your app’s content indexed by Google, use the same URLs in your app that you use on your website. Google Search crawls the links on your website and serves them in Search results. Then, users that have your app installed go directly to the content in your app when they click on the links.

App indexing is important because it gets users back into your app. When the user clicks the link in the search results, the app is launched and the corresponding content is loaded.

In some cases, app indexing can lead to Google surfacing an install button in the search results. This happens when users enter what Google calls “app seeking queries” (for example, restaurant finder).

For brands, one of the key benefits is that app indexing can help capture branded search traffic by showing your app in the results in response to branded queries. Users don’t see aggregators or affiliates.

There are three ways to implement app indexing:

  • Use meta tags
  • Use App Indexing API
  • Add deep links into your XML Sitemap

Google recommends that you implement at least two out of the three ways mentioned above to get the most impact from App Indexing.

Once the implementation is completed, make sure to use the “Fetch as Google” functionality in Search Console to test the implementation.

Resources

Resources about mobile-first index
Understanding Mobile-First Indexing (1/3): The Immediate Impact on SEO
Understanding Mobile-First Indexing (2/3): The Long-Term Impact on SEO
Understanding Mobile-First Indexing (3/3): Google’s Mobile-First Architecture Options for SEO
What Does Mobile First Index Actually Mean?
How to Dominate SEO in the Mobile-First Index
How to Improve Your Rankings with Mobile-First Indexing
Google advice: Switch your m-dot domain to responsive before the mobile-first index rollout June 2017
Google Confirmed Again: Content Hidden In Tabs With Mobile-First Index Is Okay July 2017
SMX Advanced session: Mobile-First For The Advanced SEO June 2017

Resources mobile SEO optimization
Google Webmasters building mobile friendly websites
SEO in 2017: Mobile optimization as a competitive advantage
The mobile playbook by Google
Moz – Mobile Optimization
The Mobile SEO Stack: Tools to Develop a Mobile-First SEO Process
Introducing Progressive Web Apps: What They Might Mean for Your Website and SEO
Google’s Rolling Out AMP to the Main SERPs – Are You Prepared?
Faster Sites: Beyond PageSpeed Insights
How to Achieve 100/100 with the Google Page Speed Test Tool
It Ain’t What You Do, It’s the Way That You Do It – Mobile App Usability Best Practices
Discovering Opportunities To Drive Your Mobile Web & App Optimization Strategy
Mobile SEO: The 3 areas that really matter for SEO performance

Read more about App indexing
Google App Indexing: Google Can Index & Link To Content In Your Android App 2013
App Indexing & The New Frontier of SEO: Apple Search + iOS App Indexing 2015
App Indexing: Why It Matters For The Future Of Search
Simple tips to get your app indexed, ranked & installed
SMX Advanced recap: Advanced Google App Deep Linking
An SEO Study on Google App Packs: Beyond ASO
Mobile Marketing: App Indexing & Search – All the articles

Testing tools
Mobile-friendly test – Google
Mobile usability report – Google
AMP test – Google
Structured data testing tool – Google
Test your mobile speed tool – Google