Mobile SEO in 2018: 4-Step Optimization for Any Device
By: Valerie Niechai
February 6th, 2018
Can you imagine an adult in your immediate surroundings who does not own a mobile device? Can you imagine yourself without it? Do you remember what we used to do without the Internet? Personally, I get panicky even at the thought that I'm somewhere without a phone, let alone actually being in such a situation. I'm sure, I am in good company with millions of fellow-thinkers.
Plus, do you hear this buzz? It is the sound of thousands of SEOs writing and talking about Google's shift to mobile-first indexing that should be due in mid-2018. As it is already 2018, every webmaster should acknowledge this fact and get a firm grip on mobile optimization.
1. Mobile audit.
Before you dive into optimizing for all the new trends that will make your mobile site the best and the fastest, you have to make sure you do not have issues that can harm the whole optimization process.
The team of Google Search Console and WebSite Auditor will help you run an audit and detect possible problems. It is important to know whether all your important resources are accessible to Googlebot and free from errors. Pay attention to the fact that you have to check each landing page of your site for mobile-friendliness as it is assessed on a page basis.
OK, what to do?
1. Use Google Search Console.
If you have a mobile version of your site, add and verify it in Google Search Console.
2. Test your pages for mobile-friendliness.
Open WebSite Auditor, create a project for your site or open an existing one, go to Content Analysis > Page Audit, add a page you want to analyze, and enter your target keywords. When the check is done, switch to Technical factors and scroll to the Page usability (Mobile) section to see if there are any problems detected.
3. Do an in-depth mobile audit.
In your WebSite Auditor project go to Preferences > Crawler Settings, make sure the Follow robots.txt instructions box is checked; in the drop-down menu next to it choose Googlebot-Mobile. Right below, check the Crawl as a specific user agent box. In the drop-down menu to the right, pick the second user agent on the list:
That's the user agent Google uses when crawling mobile versions of pages. Press OK and click the Rebuild Project button. In a moment, the tool will conduct a full audit of your mobile website.
4. Keep all your resources crawlable.
5. Avoid Flash.
Flash isn't supported by most mobile (and many desktop) browsers. To make sure Google (and visitors) can access all content on your site, it's best to avoid the use of Flash on your mobile pages.
When you are done with this procedure and see that there are some errors, make sure to fix them as these are the key technical elements according to which Google rates the usability of your mobile site.
Users are clearly aware of the quality level that they can experience when surfing the Web on mobile. The summary of their intentions — they want to achieve their goals as fast as possible with no fuss.
No pinching to zoom. No confusing navigation, no touch elements located too close to each other. And what is more important — no waiting! In case any of these expectations are not fulfilled, there goes irritation and very active bouncing (bounce rates on mobile are 40% higher than on desktops).
Do you follow my lead? What really matters now is user experience. You have to give your users what they need on their own terms.
1. Responsive design.
Responsive design, endorsed by Google, is one of the bearing walls of the cross-device world that we rush forward. Without a mobile version, it allows your site to render differently depending on the device used for navigation. And it isn't only about adjustment to the screen size, it is more about the overall functionality.
Ideally, a responsive design should provide fluid browsing experience on whatever device users choose. It means that you have to apply a considerable amount of effort when making your static site into a responsive one.
It is supposed to have:
- Fast load time;
- Fluid site grid with proportionate (instead of fixed) measures;
- Flexible texts and images;
- Impeccable usability;
- Optimized breakpoints for design changes.
OK, what to do?
I would recommend to read my article on and pay specific attention to the whole UX chapter where I go over those key factors that make your site user-friendly on any mobile device.
For now I need to say that while it is important to make your site responsive, it is even more important to do it elaborately. I mean, the smaller the size of the device, the less content is seen to the user at a first glance. If you fail to navigate them, your conversion will suffer a downfall. If your site will take some time to load, your conversion will suffer a downfall. A nagging pop-up window may kill the user's intent. As well as touch elements designed for Cinderella's fingers may frustrate all the other people who are not Cinderella (i.e. all of them).
P.S. The same goes for a separate mobile version of your site.
2. Load time.
According to Google's mobile page speed study, as page load time slows down from one second to six, the bounce rate increases by 106%. Pretty motivating, eh?
Google also thinks so. Speed has been used as a ranking signal for quite some time, though it was mostly focused on desktop searches. To fill the mobile gap, Google announced the so-called Speed Update (strangely, no cheetahs or antelopes involved in the naming): starting from July 2018, page speed will be a ranking factor for mobile searches.
They promise that this update will affect only a small percentage of pages that deliver the slowest experience to its users. It is highlighted that the intent of the search query stays a very strong ranking signal. It means that the slowest pages can rank high providing they have great, relevant content.
Ok, a small percentage sounds comforting until we realize that Google processes about 3.5 billion search queries per day. In such a situation, "a small percentage" can mean a lot of websites. Plus, it is not that clear what "the slowest experience" means as we have not been given any benchmarks yet.
OK, what to do?
1. Optimize load time.
Compressing your images is the simplest way to improve mobile UX and page speed. You can get a ready link for downloading your compressed images in WebSite Auditor. In your project go to Content Analysis and select a page you need to analyze. Proceed to Page Audit > Technical factors, scroll to the Page speed (Desktop) , click on Uncompressed images, and get a link in the How to fix section.
2. Evaluate page performance.
For now, it is hard to suggest any tools that will help you define whether your site is affected by this new Speed Update. However, Google itself recommends the following: Chrome User Experience Report, Lighthouse, or PageSpeed Insights.
3. Accelerated Mobile Pages.
"Should we AMP-lify?" — asks Eric Enge from Stone Temple. To answer this question, let's see what that AMP creature is anyway.
Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) is an open-source project that allows mobile site content to render almost instantly (due to a simpler, much lighter version of HTML delivered from the Google-hosted cached version). This initiative is sponsored by Google, but not owned by it. And it is supported by Bing, Baidu, Twitter, Pinterest, and other parties.
When it first made its appearance in 2015, the project was focused on publishers. Apart from the instant rendering of their mobile pages, Google also gave them great exposure in its search results by including the news articles in the Top Stories carousel.
While it is a sheer-clear advantage for publishers, what is a big deal for others? Well, that's easy: by implementing AMP, you provide great user experience that can lead to positive engagement metrics. Check this out. A recent survey proved it with over 60% of participants saying they seek out AMP results due to the faster experience they provide.
For example, e-commerce sites seized the opportunity pretty fast, and it totally worked out. With AMP, they experience an average 20% increase in sales conversions compared to non-AMP pages. Just look what 0.1 second increase in page load time did for Amazon!
OK, what to do?
You can check out a couple of case studies by Stone Temple of how AMP influenced different kinds of businesses. As well as their own experiments with their own mobile site.
Once you are positive about implementing AMP, you have to remember one extremely important thing that is key to your success. It is not enough just to install a plugin and then forget about it. To get something from this project, you have to invest time to make the AMP version of your pages nearly identical to your normal responsive mobile pages.
This requirement is quite critical as on November 16, 2017, Google announced that they will exclude pages from the AMP carousel if the content on your AMP page is not substantially similar to that of your mobile responsive page.
It means that if you start this AMP job, you have to go all the way with it. It may be not that simple as it seems at the start, but you will appreciate the results.
Additionally, it is really useful to track the performance of your AMP pages. You can do it either with a bonus challenge from Eric Enge (Stone Temple) of setting up the tracking of AMP pages in Google Analytics or with the help of WebSite Auditor.
Open your WebSite Auditor project, go to Site Structure > Pages, click the "+" button in the upper right corner to create a new workspace. Add a filter condition to only include the pages with AMP in their URL:
Further on, add the necessary columns (canonical URLs, status codes, robots instructions, broken resources, and so on) to your workspace for a deep analysis of your AMP pages.
4. Progressive Web Apps.
Following the talk about cross-device convergence, let's have a look at one more trend of 2017 — Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) that will definitely continue into 2018.
In short, it is the Web's shape-shifter. While being a web page, if done correctly, it can make users think it is a native app (though it is not published in an app store). It has become so popular due to the fact that it combines the loading speed of mobile pages with the best functionality of a native app. It is definitely a viable option if you need an app but you are not sure you can cover the cost.
PWAs can be installed on a phone, they will have an app icon, full-screen display without an address bar, on- and offline functionality, and push notifications. What's more, they require a lot less maintenance, optimization, and promotion efforts.
Google is setting an example by making a transition of its own web-resources into PWAs, like Traffic, Sports, Restaurants, Weather, Google Contribute, and Maps-Go.
And if you think that PWAs are more of an Android- and Chrome-ish thing, you should know that Apple has finally admitted that Safari is going to support the Service Worker files that make PWAs so functional.
OK, what to do?
I would recommend this article-checklist by Google that provides some basic, yet important (and proven) practices for building crawlable content both for PWAs and static pages.
5. Mobile design.
It is kind of a Tetris game when you try to fit in and arrange your site's content into the mobile version that will be most agreeable to your users. However, if you realize what things are the most frustrating when surfing the Web on mobile, and especially, if you put yourself at the place of your users, then you should get it and rock.
OK, what to do?
— Images, fonts, headings.
Once you have a responsive or mobile version of your site, test it on different devices. You need this to make sure that all the visual elements look responsive. What I mean is that your images should be scalable (and if they occupy the whole screen, you can consider to avoid using some of them at all), fonts should be readable, and headings should not occupy most of the screen when a user opens a particular page.
— Clear navigation.
Navigation should not be the first and only thing that a user sees when opening your site. It should not be in-the-face. It should be like a humble, loyal friend — there when you need it. And of course, you have to understand how to summon it.
The best case scenario is to use a so-called hamburger menu — a box with horizontal bars usually placed in the top left corner.
— Site search.
If your site is big enough, you should think about the search function. It is important to place the search box in the place that is clearly visible to your users.
When you have it, use Google Analytics to see what people search most of all. If you realize that your users search for something that you lack in your content or something that is difficult to find through the navigation menu, consider to bridge this gap.
I love to use the technical support function. And in most cases, I'm pleasantly surprised with the speed and quality of help I receive. There are hundreds of problems of different nature that an average user can experience, and without the feedback from them, you will never know what harms your usability.
However, once you have some feedback, you will know all the soft spots you might have and you will keep up the loyalty of your users. A live chat built in your page is great. An email-based ticket system is great as well.
The only thing, you can include these features if you are ready to maintain their key function — you are able to reply to your users in a short or rather short period of time. Otherwise, do not include it, it will be frustrating.
Plus, you can generate a FAQ page on the basis of the most frequent questions you receive from your users.
— Call-to-action buttons.
Please remember, whenever you include any touch elements into your mobile version, make them big enough for fingers to click on. And if there are a few buttons in the vicinity, they should not be too close to each other — otherwise, a user can end up clicking the wrong button and get really frustrated.
And God forbid if your buttons do not work at all! This UX crime should be punishable by severe exposure to one hundred mobile sites with unresponsive buttons. The same goes for text links.
One more thing that can help you understand the intent of your users is heatmaps that visualize users' behavior on the site — scrolling, tapping, clicking, etc. Try Hotjar, for example. This tool also allows you to create conversion funnels, feedback polls, online forms, and surveys.
— Pop-up windows.
It is well known that Google frowns upon interstitial pages but, apparently, not all of them. Anyway, if you use them or have to use them, do it carefully. And respect your visitors. Nobody likes ad-oriented pop-ups in their faces that occupy the whole screen, with a small and barely visible "x" button.
Consult the following images for the correct use of interstitials:
At this point it should be clear that content needs to be easy to consume. What else? You know, when it comes to Google, whatever restrictions it applies, it usually does the following concession — your site can still rank high providing the content is great. And in the era of semantic search, this state of things is going to last for quite some time. In the end, it is the content that converts.
One of the essential things that you should bear in mind while optimizing content for mobile is that people like to use voice search on this very kind of device.
According to MindMeld, in 2015 voice search jumped from zero to 50 billion searches a month. SEO company HigherVisibility surveyed 2,000 mobile phone users and found that 27% of respondents use voice search assistants daily, while another 27% use them at least once a week. For a more thorough research on voice search refer to this post.
OK, what to do?
1. Keyword research.
Curiously enough, people behave differently when searching with the help of a search box and by voice. In the first case, they usually type a few keywords that express in short what they need to find.
However, when they speak to their phone or any other device, they tend to pronounce the whole sentences, as if talking to a person. This behavior calls for a new kind of keyword research. To cut a long story short, you have to build your content around those potential questions of your users.
- Question ideas with Rank Tracker.
In your Rank Tracker project go to Keyword Research, click the Suggest Keywords button, and choose the Common Questions research method. Enter your keywords and click Next. When your research is done, your dashboard will populate with ideas for your possible questions.
- Question ideas with the People also ask box.
The "People also ask" box is just an infinity of related questions. Once you click on one of the queries, you receive a few more. After some clicking-through, questions may repeat, but on the whole, it is a magic box for new topics.
2. Optimization for a featured snippet.
A featured snippet, that box with an answer and a link above all the results, is something that you need to rank even higher in mobile search. Why is that? The truth is, once you gain a featured snippet, it will occupy most of the screen on the mobile phone, and it will be the only thing that will be read when a person searches with voice.
- Make your content snippable.
Use the inverted pyramid formula to structure the data:
- start with the most important information to answer the question;
- transit to more details beyond the direct answer and add visual support;
- wrap up with examples or case studies.
- Optimize the format.
By wise HTML formatting and structuring your data, you can guide Google to the necessary spots to retrieve the data for the answer box. Try to format your target page according to the major types of featured snippets:
Paragraphs: Think of a short summary to answer a potential query, about 40-50 words to fit in the answer box. Format this paragraph in a paragraph HTML tag <p> and put this paragraph right under the heading for the question.
Tables: When it makes sense, add the tabular data or reformat suitable paragraphs into tables. Mark up the table on your page using a <table> tag.
Lists: Give your list a title (H1 or H2) that matches the targeted keyword and format your "steps" as subheadings. Remember that Google can also make its own lists out of the text. So you can format your text with subheadings where it is logical to do so. Then Google will snip your subheadings and list them chronologically.
- Request re-indexing.
Once you have done some changes to your pages that are ready to be snipped, use Google Search Console to re-crawl your pages. Apparently, this request almost instantly updates Google's index of the page. It means that your page can gain a featured snippet the same day you did re-indexing.
3. Use of structured data.
Structured data is a big deal now because it helps Google understand what is going on without having to rely on heavy crawling and parsing all the content which seems to be an endless job. Plus, when you use different kinds of Schema markup, your snippets in SERPs look much more attractive.
- Choose a suitable type.
- Edit the code. You can do it manually, of course, or with the help of Google's Structured Data Markup Helper.
- Test the markup with the help of Google's Structured Data Testing Tool.
4. Different forms of content.
Users on mobile have a rather short attention span, they skim and save for later. Thus, you may want to engage them with different forms of content (if applicable, of course): images, videos, GIFs, infographics, polls, etc.
Tech companies know about us more than ever before, and they get a lot of information right from our phones. Google does not conceal the fact that it actively captures the patterns of our behavior on the Web. This allows it to shift search to a hyper-personalized level. This tendency is clearly seen when we try to perform a local search. And especially when we do it on a mobile device: Google says 80% of "near me" searches come from mobile.
OK, what to do?
To be there when your potential customer performs a local search and be that only one for a voice search query, you have to pay attention to the following:
1. Claim your Google My Business listing.
Google takes most of the info for local business listings (including an address, phone number, images, map, etc.) from that page. Once you have set up your profile, make sure to:
- Add a long, unique description with a link to your official website;
- Choose the correct category for your business;
- Upload a high-resolution profile image and cover photo;
- Double check your address, local phone number, and opening hours;
- Update the information when necessary.
2. Gain positive reviews.
Try to get at least 5 reviews on Google, as it is critical for ranking in Google's local pack. Plus, Google has an option for searchers to select only those businesses that are above a certain rating. If you see a happy customer, try to encourage them to leave a review. Here you can check out Google's guidelines for reviews.
Remember that it will do you good if you reply to the negative comments and suggest some solutions. You can monitor your brand mentions via any monitoring tool, like Awario, for example.
3. Provide NAP consistency.
Make sure that your Name, Address, and Phone number are included into the mobile version of your site, and check whether this information is correct for all the locations that you have, and that it is consistent along all the places where it is indicated.
4. Add photos.
Invest some time in taking quality photos of your business.
5. Use Schema markup.
The use of microdata can give your site a local ranking boost for non-branded keywords. The local section of Schema.org has a variety of categories you can use, including an address, phone, and working hours.
6. Optimize AdWords campaigns for the "Near me" searches.
If you have already been running an AdWords campaign for your local business, you can maximize your visibility both for voice and regular search using the following tips:
- Use AdWords location extensions:
When you enable location extensions in AdWords, it will allow you to have your business' address, phone number, and directions to your location displayed alongside your ads. It is important if you want to show up in the "Near me" searches.
- Use Google Maps Local Search ads:
This kind of ads appears above the organic results in Google Maps. You can use this guide to find out how to use this type of ads.
If you are still not sure that you should make some serious steps to mobile optimization, this is a sign: you absolutely have to!
If you think of trying any of the new trends, this is a warning: do thorough prior research and do not forget to invest effort along the way.
If you have any questions or suggestions on this subject, this is a request: start a discussion in the comments section.