2013 probably marked the most drastic changes we’ve yet seen in the SEO landscape. While you can never be sure, I don’t think that 2014 will feature big high-profile updates like Penguin. This sent shockwaves through the system as sites got penalised for unnatural looking link profiles. But overall I think the pace of change will be maintained - it’s just that changes will be more incremental and possibly not immediately apparent.
Which leaves owners of eCommerce sites wondering what the future holds and where, exactly, they should be focusing their efforts to build organic search traffic. And given that many of Google’s changes are driven by the increased use of mobile devices for shopping and browsing, many are also asking whether a site that doesn’t perform well on smartphones or tablets will also see search rankings decline.
Build now for the future
I don’t think anyone claims to have all of the answers, and we certainly don’t have a telepathic link with Matt Cutts or any of the Google anti-spam team. But I think there are clear enough indicators to allow businesses to form sensible SEO strategies that won’t fall apart with the next Google algorithm update. There are also strong reasons, which I’ll explore, why ensuring your site performs flawlessly on mobile devices should already be in your plans for 2014.
The first point is that you need a strategic approach, and not pursue short-term fixes that you can repent at considerable length later. SEO is increasingly about doing a wide range of things well over a sustained period rather than intensive activity around a small number of pursuits such as link building. If you need a short-term traffic boost, PPC or paid media may well be the safest and most effective options.
Where is Google heading?
There’s no big secret about what Google wants to achieve. Google wants a user to see search results that are relevant to them, results that answer their questions, and which link through to sites with strong levels of reputation, trust and authority. It also wants to favour sites that deliver an outstanding user experience on a wide range of devices. The big questions are how quickly all of this will happen and the extent to which it is already happening.
It’s often helpful to have two SEO horizons: how do we need to be building for the future, and what do we need to do right now? Longer term plans, for example, must focus on how you build your authority and online communities. But where does having a mobile-friendly site fit in? Is delivering the best possible experience, on the widest possible range of devices, something you can put off, or something you need urgently? And is Google going to penalise you if you don’t?
More of that in a minute; let’s look at the immediate term first.
Clean up your links
It could be that wittingly or unwittingly you have accumulated a bunch of links pointing back to your site that Google could decide are unnatural. Penguin will continue to update and, rest assured, Google hasn’t given up rooting out what it believes to be artificial or manipulative link-building.
If you have never analysed the links that point to your site I strongly recommend using a backlink tool to see who exactly is linking to you and whether there are links that you should delete or disavow.
Here is a range of tools you could use:
http://opensiteexplorer.org/ (paid with restricted free version)
https://ahrefs.com/ (paid with restricted free version)
http://www.majesticseo.com/ (paid with restricted free version)
http://cognitiveseo.com/ (paid- auto classification of links for disavow purposes)
I could spend a long time talking about the intricacies of link detox, so lets save that for another post. In the meantime, there is plenty of advice online. I'd suggest reading the following articles:
Whatever else you do to improve SEO - including making your site responsive or mobile friendly - you’ll be undermining all of that effort if you don’t have a squeaky clean link profile. Relevant links from good quality sites are still one of the most significant ranking factors, though, so don’t just wipe out everything.
I’d make the same point with keywords. SEO may be becoming less keyword-driven but it still makes sense to have properly researched keywords used appropriately in your URLs, meta data and content.
Hummingbird signifies a different way of thinking
Late last year Google also released an algorithm update called Hummingbird. The immediate impacts on site rankings seem to have been less drastic than Penguin but, arguably, the longer term implications are even more significant.
Hummingbird represented the first public step towards natural language searches and delivering results that depend on a user’s intent and context, rather than precise keyword matches: ‘things not strings.’ Partly this is driven by wanting to deliver better, more helpful results and partly by wanting to ensure that Google remains the most popular search tool for the growing number of mobile internet users.
These users are increasingly likely to speak rather than type their queries. We may have become conditioned to type ‘keyword-speak’ queries but few of us are ready to talk that way. Also, with mobile, contextual factors like location become more significant.
Content is crucial
Google will look at the content you publish, who created that content and what sort of online reputation your brand, and the individuals linked to it have. There’s some debate whether there is a specific measurement you could call Author Rank but the growing influence of reputation on search visibility is undeniable. Google will use this information to decide whether yours is the most appropriate content to present to a particular user. If somebody asks it a question and it can find an answer from a reputable source in your content, that’s what it wants to show them.
Think what this might mean for the type of content you create. The question might not be “windscreen wiper relay – Ford Focus”, it’s more likely to be “Why have my wipers stopped working.” By the way, Google will understand that this query relates to windscreen wipers and a car, even though you didn’t tell it.
Full ‘semantic’ search of this type is a few years away. But Google is moving towards it and so should you. And, don’t forget, the ability to deliver content effectively on all of the devices that users care to use will be a factor.
And does mobile make a difference?
The answer to this has to be a massive yes. We have certainly seen an uplift in search rankings since we launched our new fully responsive website. And we’re also monitoring closely the impact of usability indicators such as mobile page load times on responsive sites we create for clients. Sometimes this is difficult to unpick as a site re-launch involves many factors. But it’s entirely logical that Google would be taking the user experience of the growing number of people using smartphones and tablets into consideration.
Google is making it more and more clear that they’re expecting websites to be mobile optimised. To be specific they’re recommending sites become fully responsive so they work across a broad array of devices.
Responsive sites are sites that adapt to the user’s screen size. This means that a small mobile phone for example will have a version of the site tailored to their exact device. This is done using fluid grids, flexible images and different CSS style rules to adapt how information is displayed according to the screen size of the device.
Aside from likely SEO benefits, it’s worth noting that by mid-way through 2013 mobile devices accounted for over a quarter of all internet searches. And that share, particularly via tablets, is growing rapidly. Most people predict that some time in 2014 traffic from mobile devices will outstrip that from PCs and laptops. That’s a user base that Google cannot afford to ignore, and neither can eCommerce businesses.
Already, during the evening, people are more likely to be using a tablet than a laptop for browsing and online shopping; in some niches we’ve seen this more than others such as apparel websites. So if that’s when your traffic peaks, what kind of experience are you offering?
Does mobile-first have to mean responsive?
Before responsive websites were available, some businesses built separate mobile versions of their sites - some still do. Some might argue that this is the best way to offer the ideal mobile experience by stripping out the content that mobile users don’t need to see and then rendering what’s left specifically for mobile screens.
The difficulty comes when you then have two websites to manage. You potentially have issues with duplicate content and SEO efforts are diluted. Add to that the fact that tablets and smartphones increasingly come in a range of sizes and the separate mobile version starts to look like a less than ideal solution.
Does a mobile-first approach make sense?
Designing from mobile outwards is always a smart idea. Mobile has the most limitations due to the limited screen size. Figuring out the best way to fit everything you need on the smallest, most tricky space is the biggest challenge.
There should be no reason to sacrifice features on the full sized desktop version of the site just because there’s also mobile or tablet version. It’s perfectly possible to select features that won’t be displayed on the mobile screens and still offer a fully featured experience for PC.
Always remember that mobile and tablet users interact with their machines differently from people using a mouse or touchpad. Form filling is always more difficult with a touch screen, particularly if the pop-up keyboard takes up half of the screen; so features like postcode lookup and one-click ordering become even more important.
As ever, intelligent use of Analytics data will help identify any specific usability issues for mobile users, and you have to make sure you update your goals and data gathering accordingly.
So, does the mobile user experience influence SEO today? Almost certainly. Will it have more influence in the future? Definitely! And SEO is just one of the reasons that you can’t afford to ignore the needs of mobile users and move to a responsive solution as soon as possible. If you are looking for an eCommerce agency that can help you with responsive design or responsive eCommerce solutions, why not get in touch today?