How to Approach SEO as Google Moves to a Mobile-First Index

The rules of search engine optimization (SEO) can change so quickly, by the time you implement yesterday’s best practices, a new set of considerations seemingly take their place.

And that moving target is set to move again as shifts in user behavior continue to force Google’s hand. Since more searches now come from mobile platforms than desktops, Google will soon roll out a fully updated mobile-first index, which considers the mobile version of a website its primary version.

This change in how Google ranks sites—which the search-engine giant has been pushing, in drips and drabs, for years—has already altered some tried-and-true conventions for placing content high up in a search result.

But a pronounced shift toward mobility is only the latest iteration in this ever-changing exercise.

“The SEO tactics required to be successful today are very different than they were before,” says Allison Fabella, director of global SEO for CareerBuilder. “People tend to think it’s still all about keyword stuffing and clogging up your site with mediocre content just to expand your footprint. Or they think it’s all about changing title tags and meta descriptions—but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

Instead, she says, search rankings depend primarily upon the user experience, how they’re interacting with that page. Fabella, who will speak to the issue at the upcoming Social Shake Up show, May 22-24, 2017, in Atlanta, provided some quick best practices to keep in mind if you want your content to stand out from the pack.

Mobile Matters

“From now on, a mobile site is going to be a top ranking factor," Fabella says, "and many sites that haven’t heeded that call are falling in the rankings."

This doesn’t mean that a web page needs to undergo responsive design, wherein a desktop page scales in response to the size of the screen—you can have two separate versions of a site without being penalized. But it’s absolutely critical to ensure all of the content on the mobile site matches up with what users can find on the desktop site.

“If your mobile site is just a pared-down version of the desktop version, you’ll be lost,” Fabella says.

Quality Matters

Since the user experience is one of Google’s most important ranking considerations, the speed, quality and appearance of a page are of paramount importance.

CareerBuilder, director of global SEO, Allison Fabella
Allison Fabella, director of global SEO, CareerBuilder

First, how long a page takes to load is a big deal. If it takes three seconds or more, users will typically bail on that site, and the resulting exodus will have a negative affect on your ranking.

Second, the quality of the content is key to rising in the ranks. To be ranked as the top site, you have to actually be the top site. That means you have to offer the best and most relevant—not necessarily the most—content on a particular subject.

Finally, what that content looks like on a mobile device is important too: The size of the fonts, the readability of the page, how easy it is to navigate—these are all important aspects of the user experience, and therefore, important to Google.

Size Matters

The old SEO adage, that long-form content equates to a bad user experience, isn’t a rule of thumb anymore. In fact, that conventional wisdom has been turned on its head. In a recent study, Backlinko looked at 1 million search results and found that long-form is king—the average first-page result was 1,890 words long.

Of course, if a page has nothing but an uninterrupted sea of text, users will likely gloss over the content and leave quickly. But given how much now depends upon the quality of content, you can take those same 1,500 words and break them up visually, with charts, graphs, images, sidebars or bullet points for example, to tell a more engaging story.

“Long-form articles are an opportunity to give all kinds of information that, assembled together, make a really good article,” says Fabella.

Not all content lends itself to a long format, of course, so a healthy mix of short-, mid- and long-form content is advised.

Looking for a deep dive into all things social? Check out the full program and speaker roster for The Social Shake-Up, which will be held May 22-24, 2017, in Atlanta. Brand communicators from Coca-Cola, Dunkin' Donuts, the Atlanta Hawks, Arby's and many more will speak on a breadth of topics from content marketing to measurement to Snapchat strategy.

Investment Matters

The biggest mistake that companies tend to make when approaching SEO is in under-funding the effort.

“Either they don’t hire a dedicated SEO resource, or they’ll make SEO an add-on duty to a marketing person or maybe a developer that shows an interest in it,” Fabella says. “But they’re missing the level of expertise that stretches across many disciplines, like marketing, user experience, PR, technology.”

But even if an organization has an excellent SEO resource either in-house or outsourced, the other big misconception is in expecting immediate results.

“SEO is a long game, and I don’t think organizations always recognize that,” she says. “Often there’s an expectation of immediate results. But it still takes time for the information to get to its optimal place and to start resonating with people so that they’ll come back again.”

Follow Allison: @Alli12

Follow Jerry: @Jascierto