Mastering mobile search – the Google way

Jun 17th, 2019

Recently, one of the best and most thorough pieces of information I’ve seen – relating to mobile optimisation – landed in my inbox. Surprise surprise, it was from Google and was a comprehensive look at the industry as a whole, and how certain sectors (Retail, Finance, and Travel) were performing

The aim of the research was to find the brands and industries that were performing above the expected standard and those which were not.  The main focus for conducting such a report was that more people now use smartphones as part of their everyday lives, and they’re expecting better and better mobile experiences all the time.

The benefit of this research is that, apart from being insightful, it gives us the opportunity to reflect on the work that we do and see how brands are constantly missing the mark when it comes to SEO. A few months back we published our FMCG whitepaper and the trends were alarming. Reports like this are valuable and with that we’ve decided to delve into the ‘mastering mobile’ research from Google and their understanding of Mobile-First search a little deeper.

What is Mobile-First search?

Essentially Mobile-First search is Google’s nod to the fact that people using their service are far more transient and that the way in which the search is often done on a smartphones or tablets. With this in mind it has put a greater focus on ranking sites which are optimised for such devices.

Google now uses the mobile experience of a site to calculate its rankings, rather than the desktop version.  As this Mobile-First indexing directly affects where your business appears in search results, the responsiveness of your website has never been more crucial.

Your site’s mobile responsiveness has long impacted on your SEO performance in other ways:

  • Functionality – websites that are difficult to operate on mobile devices have a higher bounce rate, driving frustrated users to competitor sites: another factor Google takes into account when determining rankings.
  • Page load speeds – slow load times widely affect mobile users relying on 3G signals; the ‘3 seconds-or-less’ rule means users will abandon sites that don’t load quickly enough, which can again drive up your bounce rate.

The way people use the internet on mobile devices is different to desktop – and so is their purchasing behaviour. Mobile users expect that they can access information quickly and simply.

The stand-out issues with the mobile buyer’s journey is how regularly it is interrupted and how short the sessions can be – people often browse while waiting to do other things, or between tasks. This means you need to give your customers a leaner experience that’s as fast and simple as possible if you want to increase conversions.

So what did Google do?

Google decided that the best way to take action would be to make incremental changes to their ranking algorithm and have published the following study –  . The study looked at how major brands are adopting mobile performance as metric, highlighting areas where they were missing out and learning for the changes that brands were making. This study was informative and as such we thought it best to look in depth at the changes that you could make.

Google assessed over 1,000 of the most visited sites across retail, finance and travel, for the following five usability areas:

  • ‘Findability’
  • Product pages
  • Registration and conversion
  • Mobile design

(These four were assessed by user experience specialists.)

  • Speed

This was measured through an automated process which was then reviewed and managed by web speed performance specialists.

The criteria for these pages were as follows:

  • ‘Findability’ – Following a search, are users taken to the most appropriate page? Does the on-site search help them quickly find the right product or service?
  • Product pages – Are the main product or service images and details presented clearly and consistently? Are there prominent next steps or calls to action?
  • Registration and conversion – Are forms easy to complete? Are price breakdowns provided? Is the transaction process simple and safe for users?
  • Mobile design – Are the site’s pages mobile-friendly? Are they well laid out, with clear headings, well-labelled icons, and relevant content? Is branding consistent?
  • Speed – Is the site’s performance optimised for mobile? Do pages load fast enough to not disrupt the overall experience?

For the speed part of the study, Google’s Lighthouse v2 browser automation tool was used to conduct synthetic (or simulated) testing of website speed on WiFi. The following metrics were measured:

  • First meaningful paint (5)
  • First CPU Idle (5)
  • Time to Interactive (5)
  • Speed Index (1)
  • Estimated Input Latency (1)

The numbers in brackets relate to the weighting that Google gives each task in relation to speed. Whilst this isn’t gospel, I feel that it gives businesses an indication of which parts of speed performance to target first when making changes.  Of the overall score, 70% was based on vertical-specific usability best practices, and the other 30% on site speed. While the best practices were broken down for clarity into four usability areas, the score was based on the total result across all usability areas.

How did they do it?

Google created a custom set of best practices –for the evaluation of mobile websites within the specific verticals listed earlier. The metrics originally derived from a large-scale mobile website usability evaluation led by Senior UX researcher Jenny Gove back in 2014.

The brands for the study were chosen based on data provided by SimilarWeb. They identified the most visited websites in the 12 months before September 2017 in Europe, Middle East and Africa and before December 2017 in Asia-Pacific region. To qualify for inclusion, websites needed to:

  • Be a B2C site
  • Have a transactional element

In a similar vein some brands were excluded because they didn’t meet the criteria. The sites that were not selected fell into the following categories:

  • Sites which only drive conversion offline via a phone call or store visit
  • Meta-search engines which drive conversions on other sites
  • Branding sites where the bulk of visits are non-transactional
  • Local transit sites for commuters

After choosing the sites that fitted the criteria, they prepared an appropriate user journey and modelled it around each site, detailing:

  • The context of completing the task
  • The reason they were performing the task
  • A task for the user to complete

Following on from using these brand determining factors, Google then compared the brands to other studies that had conducted, notably the ‘Consumer Barometer’ survey by Google and TNS (2017), ‘Connected Consumer’ survey by Google and TNS (2017) and ‘Getting Things Done on Mobile’ study by Google and Heart+Mind Strategies (2018). Overview page statistics on mobile consumer behaviour were taken from these studies and allowed Google to display some of the following metrics.

What were the results?

The results of the Masterful Mobile tool are broken down to show you not only the sector, but the percentage of brands that are  undertaking set tasks and then these are filtered into subpages with actionable advice.

If we look at the retail vertical of the study, you are offered the chance to view the number of sites that have passed one of the Google tests based on the five segments that we touched on earlier. The dropdown can be seen below.

Once you choose both the region and the usability area, there are a range of stats displayed. If we select ‘findability’ in the European region, the results are as follows.

97% of all of the sites that were crawled as part of the study used deep linking. By selecting the ‘learn more’ option we are able to further understand how and why such a large number of retail sites are implementing this.

A good example is the one below from morhipo. This takes users to the most relevant category page for their search, which allows them to immediately continue their journey on their own terms, and is more likely to result in a conversion

Brands that want to test if they are properly set up for deep linking should identify the most relevant product/service or category/search results landing page. If present, but the homepage is used, then it’s a fail. Simple.

Examples of well optimised mobile sites in retail

Looking at some of the best performing sites in the study it is clear that they do the following well…

CTAs – Namshi has its main call to action anchored to the bottom of the screen. That way, when users scroll down through all the page content, the call to action always remains visible.

Page design – Coolblue has used its brand colours in the text, header and some buttons. For main call to actions they have also used additional colours, which are more likely to stand out.

Consistent experience – use the same design elements, colours, information architecture and page contents between desktop and mobile. Users do not have a reduced experience on smaller devices.

High quality images – Etstur provide high quality images throughout their site to inspire and inform users looking to find the accommodation that meets their needs. The images can be zoomed without becoming blurry.

Landscape friendliness – When users switch to landscape view on the Argos website, they stay at the same point on the page, and images or videos enlarge to fit the additional space available.

What can we learn from this?

There are many things that businesses can learn from this tool and in truth the main takeaway should be that if you want to achieve the performance of big brands in terms of SEO, then you should look at the tool as a checklist. If you are optimising for speed and use relevant content and deep linking then you will be in with a far better position.

To improve a mobile site’s user experience there are a few things that you can do. First it is important to identify areas in the user journey where most customers drop out, using quantitative tools like web analytics reports and qualitative research.

Conduct user testing to understand customer pain points within the five user experience categories that we mentioned earlier.

Next, set goals and prioritise ways to fix these gaps in your user experience. Identify solutions to help you get started. The site is a great resource for the latest tools and technologies – along with guidance and inspiration to help you solve your customer pain points.

Finally commit to continually testing and improving your mobile site. Delivering a great user experience is never a one-off process. Regularly monitor your mobile site’s speed with WebPagetest, or through your analytics reports.

Following these steps and by embracing tools you are in with a far better chance of improving your rankings and ultimately surviving the switch to a mobile focus.

For all the latest in search marketing news and views, why not subscribe to our blog – or contact us to see what we can do to help your brand thrive online.

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