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Google changes make responsive design a priority

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Google, the world’s leading search engine, is making changes to how it displays search results that will have a “significant impact” on sites not built to work responsively on mobile devices.

With immediate effect from 21st April, sites which are mobile-friendly will be give priority in search results on mobile. Google says: “This change will affect mobile searches in all languages worldwide and will have a significant impact in our search results.”

The search company didn’t specify if this would also impact desktop searches, but there is widespread speculation in the SEO community that, if it doesn’t yet, it will in the near future.

The change means that sites which are built to work responsively, with a layout that adapts to mobile, will rank higher in users’ searches than those which aren’t, and is one of the biggest changes in the way Google ranks sites that has ever been announced.

In 2014, the number of people using mobile to access the web overtook those using desktop and laptop devices – and the gap continues to grow. With the web increasingly becoming a mobile experience, Google’s new search weighting is designed to reward sites which deliver their content for the majority audience.

If you want to check how well your site works responsively in Google’s eyes, you can use their  Mobile Friendly Test which analyses individual pages on your site and advises you what needs to be done to make them mobile friendly.

The need for speed in SEO

As expected, Google has announced that site speed – how quickly a site responds to a request – has become a factor in where your site appears in the search engine’s results.

Google is aiming to reward sites that offer a better user experience, saying: “We’re including a new signal in our search ranking algorithms: site speed. Site speed reflects how quickly a website responds to web requests.

Speeding up websites is important — not just to site owners, but to all Internet users. Faster sites create happy users and we’ve seen in our internal studies that when a site responds slowly, visitors spend less time there.”

The speed issue re-emphasises the need to ensure your site is built to the highest coding standards, and also shows the continuing way Google is shaping its search algorithm to reward usable sites – something that will continue to matter more and more in SEO. While the latest change to the algorithm will have only a minor effect overall, the move towards more intelligent measurement of user satisfaction by Google makes addressing all usability issues a more and more essential part of your overall SEO programme.

It also shows the importance of having a good hosting partner who offers superfast, low-latency hosting. Cheaper hosting – for this and many other reasons – can often end up costing you far more in the long-run than more expensive but higher quality hosting.

Conversion, Conversion, Conversion – the 3 rules of SEO

How do you measure the success of your Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) campaign?

It’s a question we’re often asked, and one which our clients often have their own answer for. For some, all they want to know is where they appear in Google. For others, its how much their traffic increases.

For us, there is a clear answer – the three most important indicators of SEO success are:

1: Conversion
2: Conversion
3: Conversion

SEO should never live in isolation from your overall marketing aims. When we start working with an SEO client, the very first thing we do with them is to establish what their web marketing goals are and what actions they want their clients to perform on the site to support those goals.

Only then can we begin the process of finding keywords, optimising the site, link-building etc.

By understanding what clients need to be doing on the site to reach those goals, we can set in place ways of measuring conversion – essentially finding out just how many users actually did the things on the site that the client wanted them to.

That could be buying particular items, joining mailing lists, making telephone contact, or more esoteric actions such as increasing brand awareness or better understanding the proposition of the company.

Position *heart* Conversion

Getting a high position for your carefully selected keywords/phrases is a very important part of SEO – but it is really just one step along the line to your ultimate goal, and not the ultimate goal in itself.

Similarly the number of visitors to your site is a stepping stone, not the finish line. In some cases, you could actually see visitor numbers fall as a result of successful SEO.

That might seem illogical, but we recently had a client who wanted to know if there was a simple figure he could give his board to show the success of an SEO campaign. He felt that visitor numbers was the key.

We’d just advised him to change the page title and description that appeared in Google when his site showed up for an important keyphrase. The description was slightly misleading – and while his company offered a very particular service related to the keyphrase, the title and page description made it appear his company’s site was more of an overall information portal for the subject covered by his service.

We explained that by changing the title and description he would almost certainly see the number of people clicking through to the site fall. The important factor was not visitor numbers – but getting the right visitors.

While thousands of searchers were clicking through to that page each month, the bounce rate was horrendous. The reason? The page was optimised to appear for that search term by focussing on the term rather than the offering. The vast majority of people clicking through were either expecting something else, or not seeing what was really on offer.

As we expected, when we optimised the page for conversion, the level of traffic fell. So – very slightly – did the Google placement.

But, the number of people actually going on to engage the service – to perform the action we planned at the beginning of the campaign – rose by more than 100%.

Balancing act

So an SEO campaign that saw visitor numbers and Google placement fall? Measured by conventional SEO wisdom that would be a failure. Measured by conversion, a resounding success.

SEO needs to balance conversion and position. Neither factor should eclipse the other – having a great conversion rate for a tiny amount of traffic is no better than having a tiny conversion rate for lots of traffic. But if you are to weigh the two against each other – conversion should always be the first priority.

SEO is not about appearing as high as possible in Google for a focussed search term – it’s about appearing as high as possible for a focussed search term that leads to direct conversions.

Conversion needs to be seen as part of an SEO, not a separate discipline – optimising for conversion and optimising for position work best when they work together.

There’s actually an even easier way to measure the success of our campaign with that client. Just look in the company accounts.

The client is making more money from promoting that service online now than they were before we made our changes. For conversion, read return on investment.

Don’t be the first loser in SEO

There’s an old sporting saying (probably by an Australian!) that coming second makes you the first loser.

In the race to the top of the search engines, though, this isn’t always the case – in fact SEO is one of those areas where it really is more about how you play the game than where you finish (well, almost).

This was illustrated recently by SEO update meetings with a couple of clients. Both were very pleased with how their SEO work was going, but both also picked up on the fact that for one of their main keywords they “only” appeared as the second search result in Google.

The fact that in both cases it was their major offline competitor that occupied that precious place above them certainly didn’t help.

But in both cases we looked together at the competitor pages which had pipped their landing-page to the post, and drew the same conclusions.

In our clients’ cases, the sites had carefully optimised landing pages indexed at number 2, so potential customers got straight to the products they were looking for when they made their Google search with minimal fuss. They were also able to action their searches immediately – adding to basket or making an inquiry, key goals for the page.

In the case of the competitor pages it was clear that all their SEO efforts had gone into a single, catch-all page. The pages were full of text – not keyword stuffing, but dense, user-unfriendly text nonetheless. There was no immediate way to find the product you had Googled and after making an intelligent search in Google (whose interface users understand) you were then being asked to make another search using an interface with which you were not familiar.

Cue the back button.

It reminded me (and helped soothe the clients) that too often people see SEO simply in terms of rank. Yes, you want to be in the top few results, and ideally first. But successful SEO is not about being found, it’s about being used.

If 1000 people find you because you are top of Google but only 2 people use you, that’s bad SEO. If 400 people find you because you are the 7th result on Google but 200 of those use you, that is good SEO.

In the case of our clients’ competitors, they had “bought” position one at the cost of probably putting off a large percentage of potential customers. That’s not a price worth paying – position without conversion is simply poor SEO.

Optimising your site, creating compelling copy, making life easy for your users, focussing on conversion, writing good description text that makes people want to click through – these are all every bit as much a part of SEO as link-building, page rank and position.

In SEO, it’s not about being first – it’s about being the first winner.

Google cans Local Listing spam

Google appears to have taken on board complaints from business and ethical SEOers alike about the blatant spamming of its Local Listing facility.

While Google has been pretty tough on cracking down on black-hat SEO techniques like keyword stuffing in its traditional search returns (though not tough enough, but that’s another story), the Local Listings have been a haven for dodgy practices of all sorts.

Now Google has released its updated Business Listing Quality Guidelines, setting out the new rules on techniques such as name spamming (creating multiple business names for the same company), location spam (doing the same with locations) and services spam.

Key guidelines designed to tackle these techniques include:

  • Represent your business exactly as it appears in the offline world. The name on Google Maps should match the business name, as should the address, phone number and website.
  • Do not attempt to manipulate search results by adding extraneous keywords or a description of your business into the business name.
  • Do not include phone numbers or URLs in the business name.
  • Do not create listings at locations where the business does not physically exist.
  • PO Boxes do not count as physical locations.
  • Businesses that operate in a service area as opposed to a single location should not create a listing for every city they service.

Getting tougher on businesses which try to manipulate local listings results will help ethical SEO companies and businesses compete on a more even playing field – and those that have spent their money on getting listed in this way are hopefully about to see the rug pulled from under their “investment”.

More importantly it should help users get the most accurate search results for businesses they are looking for, which is what it is really all about. We’ll watch with interest.