Google’s shift to mobile-first: mobile moments that matter
Columnist Jim Yu outlines Google's long march toward a mobile-first index and explains why optimizing for mobile devices is no longer optional.
Eric Schmidt predicted that sales of smartphones would surpass PCs more than six years ago, as the then-Google CEO prepared the world for the “mobile-first” culture at the Mobile World Congress in 2010.
Fast forward to today, and we’re witnessing the birth of a new mobile era where consumers interact and convert in what Google describes as mobile micro-moments — the key points of time when a user is interacting with their mobile device because they want to know something, go somewhere, do something or buy something.
As marketers, measuring mobile moments that matter — by understanding and optimizing mobile traffic, mobile engagement, mobile conversion and mobile revenue — is critical to developing a successful mobile-first strategy that improves performance.
Consider the four statistics below;
- By 2019, mobile ad spending is expected to increase to $195.55 billion, and mobile ads will account for 70.1 percent of all digital advertising, Source: Venture Beat.
- By 2019, PQ Media estimates that content marketing will be a $300+ billion industry.
- By 2020, SEO-related spending will be worth $80 billion.
- According to Google, 34 percent of online purchases now happen on a mobile device.
Mobile, SEO and content marketing are maturing concurrently and in a synergistic way.
Furthermore, it is clear to me that delivering and optimizing impactful mobile content is going to be the ultimate way to reach target markets at the most opportune times.
Below I give a brief overview of Google’s shift to mobile in the last six years and share some key insights into mobile strategies that help move the needle on performance.
Google’s shift to mobile-first: a brief timeline
Before we move forward, it is useful to take a step back and look at how Google has continually given marketers clear indications that this shift was imminent.
February 2010: Eric Schmidt’s mobile-first statement
At the Mobile World Congress in 2010, Google’s then-CEO, Eric Schmidt, announces that the company is adopting a mobile-first mindset. From The Telegraph:
“Our programmers are doing work on mobile first,” [Schmidt] said. “We’ll still have a desktop version, but we’ll also have one on a high-performance mobile phone. The top programmers want to work on mobile apps.”
October 2014: Mobile Usability report is added to Webmaster Tools
Google adds the Mobile Usability report to Webmaster Tools (now Search Console) to help webmasters who were seeking to implement a mobile-friendly site, presumably in preparation for the as-yet-unannounced mobile-friendly algorithm update.
At the time, research revealed that brands had an opportunity to capture 200 percent more traffic if they optimized mobile correctly.
November 2014: Google introduces “mobile-friendly” snippet to search results
Google unveils snippets alongside regular mobile search results that indicate whether the page in question is “mobile-friendly.”
This was when SEOs started to pick up on the hint that Google would be updating its algorithm to accommodate for mobile sites.
January 2015: Google uses Webmaster Tools to determine mobile-friendly sites
Google issues warnings to webmasters about mobile usability errors. The message indicates that certain pages will not be seen as “mobile-friendly” by Google Search and will not be ranked for smartphone users.
February 2015: Google announces the mobile-friendly algorithm update
Google announces that as of April 21, 2015, it will be expanding its use of mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal in mobile search results. The announcement clearly indicates that the update will “affect mobile searches in languages worldwide and will have a significant impact in our search results.”
April 2015: Google’s mobile-friendly algorithm update goes live
Mobile-friendly algorithm update goes live. Site owners and marketers work to become more competitive by tracking mobile keywords, understanding mobile context and optimizing the mobile experience for conversions.
September 2015: Google emphasizes the importance of mobile micro-moments
Understanding and navigating the mobile customer journey becomes more important than ever. Google emphasizes micro-moments and the mobile journey.
Though the term “micro-moment” was introduced in April 2015, September is when Google released “Micro-Moments: Your Guide to Winning the Shift to Mobile,” which instructed brands how to succeed in a mobile-first world. This comprehensive guide included insights into a rapidly changing digital landscape and provided concrete advice to marketers, using case studies from real companies.
October 2015: Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) announced
Customers expect pages to load quickly. Even as far back as 2009, Forrester found that around 40 percent of consumers would abandon a page that does not load in three seconds. Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) address this need for speed. The AMP Project, announced on October 7, 2015, is an open source initiative designed to help publishers build lightweight versions of their web pages to perform better on mobile devices.
February 2016: AMP news carousel goes live in Google search results
After months of beta testing, AMP results begin to appear in the “Top Stories” area of mobile search results. By delivering exactly what a user in an “I-Want-to-Know” micro-moment wants, publishers can increase user engagement and drive more traffic to their content.
September 2016: AMP goes beyond Top Stories
This update allows for AMP content to surface in the main organic area of Google’s mobile search results, rather than limiting these pages to the “Top Stories” section. All types of brands and content creators can now AMP-enable content, as it’s no longer restricted to news publishers.
Google confirms AMP is not used as a ranking factor, but AMP-enabled content will display a “lightning bolt” logo to indicate it is a fast-loading page. This may encourage more users to click on the result — especially if they are looking for information quickly.
One the first companies to use AMPeBay was eBay, as reported here. Today, eBay has over 15 million Accelerated Mobile Pages.
November 2016: Google begins testing its mobile-first index
Google begins testing a mobile-first index, wherein the mobile version of a site will be considered the “primary” version for the purposes of search rankings.
Google explained that it sees more mobile searches than desktop searches on a daily basis. But when Google looks to evaluate a page’s ranking in Google, it currently looks at the desktop version of the site — an issue we pointed out over a year ago. To fix this, Google will look at the content, links and structured data of the mobile version of your site if one is available.
In light of this, sites that have different configurations for mobile and desktop will need to make some changes. Responsive and dynamic serving sites will not require any changes.
Google has also published some recommendations to help marketers prepare for mobile-first indexing.
Understanding & optimizing mobile moments that matter
As Google points out, the world is full of micro-moments — the pivotal times when a consumer is interacting with a digital device to perform a search, be entertained, communicate with someone or buy something.
Marketers now need to look for mobile patterns, signals and clues to maintain a competitive edge. Organic search data will be key to identifying the key moments that matter — necessary information for strategizing in a new mobile era.
For example, here is some data from Google’s “Micro-Moments: Your Guide to Winning the Shift to Mobile“:
- I-want-to-know: Over 51 percent of smartphone users have discovered a new company or product when conducting a search on their smartphones. It all starts with search.
- I-want-to-go: There has been a 2x increase in “near me” searches in the past year. Think local.
- I-want-to-do: Searches related to “how to” on YouTube are growing 70 percent year over year. Produce mobile content that engages such as video.
- I-want-to-buy: 82 percent of smartphone users consult their phone while in a store. Track, measure and attribute online and offline performance.
The online customer journey has now exploded into billions of key moments, whether they are I-want-to-know, -go, -do, or -buy, occurring in any order at any time because every buyer is different. The once linear online customer journey is now out of date.
If you haven’t identified and optimized for the moments when your target audiences engage via mobile, then it’s time to take action now and build a path forward. Winning mobile moments that matter requires marketers to:
- design and optimize your site for speed and mobile-friendliness.
- identify and differentiate mobile vs. desktop demand.
- understand different online consumer intent signals.
- produce separate mobile content that resonates on the small screen.
- optimize mobile content and mobile pages to convert key micro-moments.
- track, measure and continually compare mobile and desktop results.
Note: According to 2016 research from BrightEdge (my company), 73 percent of Google search results show different results on mobile devices compared to desktop, so optimizing just for mobile is not enough. There will be multiple instances where mobile conversion rates tend to be lower than desktop conversions, so it is important to tweak and test different content formats to determine which types of mobile content are most effective.
In order to drive online marketing performance from both mobile and desktop, marketers need to use data as the new currency that connects the dots. Search data can help you identify patterns for a clear understanding of a customer’s intent, behaviors and final actions.
Google has given marketers a clear signal: Mobile is no longer optional.
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