Preparing For Google Algorithm Changes In 2018+
Recently, I had the opportunity to host an event at Google in San Francisco called, Pubtelligence. It brought together a diverse mix of digital publishers of all shapes, sizes, and experience levels. At this event, no speaker captured the attention of everyone in the audience quite like Illya Grigorik, a member of Google’s webmaster team (Search).
He discussed how publishers should be preparing for Google algorithm, and search ranking changes, in 2018 and beyond.
This came as no surprise. Google’s search algorithm and webmaster practices are the subject of constant rumors, news, and evaluation. This is all for good reason.
Publishers rely on Google’s search product to help them drive visitors to their properties. Businesses have been built and conquered on the search giant’s shifts in algorithm changes in the past, and no one wants to fall behind.
Below, I’ll discuss all the important things that Illya Grigorik covered in his presentation. I’ll also read between the lines on a few things he discussed and shared with everyone present. Furthermore, I’ll boil it all down to a few clear directives for digital publishers that want to ensure they are staying ahead of shifts and trends in Google search changes.
Looking at Google search trends for 2018 and beyond
There seemed to be several key themes heading into the presentation on where Google would be directing a lot of their attention in the coming 12-18 months.
It’s important to keep in mind that Google is not rolling out search algorithm updates quite like they have in the past (more on those Google search changes here). With the inclusion of A.I., rolling updates, and changes in the way paid results are displayed, changes in Google search are now much more related to keeping up with the way Google delivers results than the way they rank properties.
Above, you can see the types of things that Google webmaster teams are emphasizing to digital publishers right now. There is a lot of focus at Google on mobile (more on those specifics here) — especially in emerging markets — and how they deliver the right kinds of results and information to these users.
“Contrary to popular belief, we actually are trying to reduce the amount of time that users spend on our search results page. We want them to find the information they are looking for quickly; which means less time on the search results page” – Illya Grigorik, Google Webmaster Team
More specifically, they are emphasizing how they can deliver better results to these users faster and more efficiently. This includes a very strict focus on security as well.
You know the future is mobile, right?
For those paying attention, it should come as no surprise that Google is continuing their push towards improving search satisfaction for mobile users. This is something publishers have, on average, been slow to adapt to since many independent publishers spend most of their time browsing their own sites on desktop.
This led to a much deeper conversation about how Google has been gathering data about how quickly user behavior is shifting on mobile. Not only are more users on mobile devices when using Google search, but how they browse mobile results is changing too.
Google is very aware of these changes; especially in emerging markets. There is a lot of new users coming online in countries, like India, that are leveraging mobile devices. Google is ensuring that its flagship technology is equipped to meet the needs of these users.
Many publishers have scoffed at some of these trends when Google has brought them up before, but I’ll tell you why it’s very important to pay attention to Google when they are talking about this…
The changes that Google makes to adapt to these markets and changing mobile behavior will dramatically impact publishers; regardless of who their target visitor is.
As Google adapts to meet the needs of new users, publishers positioned to provide content in parallel with what Google is seeking will be poised for major payoffs in traffic.
So, to recap… even if these emerging markets seem to be irrelevant to many publishers, it is very important to pay attention to how Google is adapting to meet the needs of these markets. These search algorithm and ranking changes will impact publishers regardless of who their audience is.
Google is actually going to make speed a ranking factor
That’s right. Until now, Google has really relied mostly on key visitor experience metrics to determine if visitors were being affected by something like site speed.
However, in July of 2018 Google will be adding speed as a small ranking signal.
Unfortunately, Google has realized that most publishers are not very good at measuring or fixing speed issues.
Their own tools actually makes it harder for some publishers that see things like Google PageSpeed Tools as something they should be optimizing… HINT: Google says that’s not important.
What is important?
Understanding and improving speed the way Chrome sees it, in the developer tools waterfall.
You can read all about how to actually measure and improve site speed the way Google does here.
WTF is a progressive web app?
If you remember back to earlier this year, John Cole and I broke down some of the trends for 2017, and we said that progressive web apps (or PWAs) would be a hot topic toward the end of this year.
A progressive web app is a blend of an app experience inside of a mobile browsing experience. Google was very bullish on this technology when discussing how it could help serve all markets of search users.
Google sees PWAs blending with AMP technology (Progressive Web AMPs) to provide mobile visitors from every part of the globe with a fast, dynamic, and functional web/app experience.
As mentioned earlier in their presentation, Google is trying to find ways to help users access content in a way that is fast and affordable in places that have slow connections and high data costs.
Ultimately, they believe it can lead to a better experience for everyone; as theoretically, PWAs provide more functionality and better speeds for mobile visitors.
Theoretically, PWAs provide more functionality and better speeds for mobile visitors. This is an important part of their mission; as they want to be able to help all of their users’ access content in the most efficient way possible.
This seems to be one of the primary drivers behind the move towards a mobile-first index.
When is mobile-first going to be a thing?
For those unfamiliar with the upcoming shift for Google to move their entire search index to mobile-first, here are the cliff notes:
- Google currently has two search indexes (mobile and desktop)
- They are going to combine them into one index soon
- This index will crawl the mobile version of a page first
- This means the mobile version of your site will be the one crawled, not desktop
You can read more about how this will work by checking out our previous article on this topic (above).
The mobile-first index was officially rolled out in late March 2018. It is continuing its rollout now.
Google has said that there are few things to pay close attention to with these major changes.
Here are the key takeaways for publishers on this subject…
- Have a mobile site no matter what
- Don’t let the site be a dumbed down version of your desktop site
- Make sure all elements of your site are crawlable on mobile (Google mentioned this was an issue they were seeing)
- Make sure that structured data, meta descriptions, tags, etc. are all setup the same on mobile as they are on desktop (some sites only have this on the desktop version of their site right now)
In many ways, mobile-first is not a major change that should be feared. However, all publishers should be making sure their I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed in the next 6-9 months; as having a mobile version of your site that is unequal to the desktop version in any way could be damaging.
I wrote an in-depth article on how to take advantage of mobile-first indexing here.
Speaking of things enhanced elements like structured data markup…
User experience will drive innovations in Google algorithm changes
In line with their comments earlier about trying to get searchers to spend less time on the results page, Google is hoping that by delivering fast, rich results they can improve overall search satisfaction for users.
This is something publishers have been skeptical of since the start. Rich snippets and Knowledge Graph have been cannibalizing content from publishers for a while.
Regardless of how publishers feel about it, this trend is only going to continue.
Ultimately, it looks as though the publishers most ready to adapt to accommodate these types of searches will be best positioned to capture traffic for the associated inquiries — even if that means that Google still eats up some potential pageviews in the process.
Google is doubling down on these enhanced forms of results for searchers. They debuted some new forms of rich mark-up for Google images during the presentation and revealed that still, very few digital publishers are leveraging structured data market (or Schema.org markup) to the fullest extent that they could be.
Add these kinds of traffic-driving mark-ups to your site using this simple guide.
This actually ends up being one of the most actionable things publishers can do offensively to secure a little more potential web traffic in the coming months.
By properly equipping your site to provide rich results — when applicable — publishers can expect to see higher search rankings for associated keywords.
There are a lot of really simple ways to add structured data to your website. For WordPress users, it’s as simple as finding some reliable and user-friendly plugins. For others, it’s as easy as adding some simple code markups to the pages that would likely benefit most from markup.
Google is super serious about speed
It should come as no surprise that Google is talking even more about page speed. They are actually going to include it as a mobile ranking signal this year. Given the comments earlier in the day about emerging markets and connection speed, this was to be expected.
However, many publishers may have the wrong idea about speed right now…
Google revealed that almost 20% of all search results end up with a searcher clicking on a result and returning to the search results page before the Google Analytics tag even fires on that publisher’s website. This means that there could be an additional 20% added to some publishers bounce rates that they will never know about.
However, it was abundantly clear that this is something Google is keeping a close eye on; and likely penalizing publishers for.
Engagement metrics like DOM interactive — the time it takes for a page to load and a user to interact with it — appears to be far more important than something like an arbitrary page speed number. Google emphasized that they aren’t using any form of page speed scoring to rank or position sites. However, they did emphasize the importance of delivering the content the user is looking for quickly.
This is the motivation behind their AMP initiative. While publishers still remain extremely skeptical of AMP — for caching content and generally earning less revenue — Google is working on improvements to push this technology forward. They want pages to load instantly for searches. This intention is noble.
Unfortunately, AMP still has many flaws for publishers; as it may work better for some than others. However, what publishers can take away from this entire push is that optimizing your site for instant loading and fast ACTUAL speed will pay dividends.
Google is going to make sites convert to HTTPS
A lot of publishers have delayed from moving their site over to HTTPS with an SSL. Most of the reasons for this have passed their utility; as concerns over redirects or ad partners is largely not worth much concern anymore. However, many are frustrated by the fact that Google is emphasizing this change even when many do not collect any user data on their site.
If HTTPS as a search ranking factor wasn’t enough incentive to move your site over in the past, Google revealed their roadmap for how they will begin punishing publishers who fail to add an SSL to their site.
For publishers who have resisted this change for a while, it’s time to make the switch. If you’re concerned about redirects, don’t be, server level redirects and host features make it very simple to handle these challenges. And, any concerns about monetization and ad partners with nonsecure pages, are largely out-dated; as most quality ad providers are now fully-supportive of HTTPS sites.
Note: Ezoic users can have the platform solve this problem for you very easily, contact your rep for details.
Publishers that wait too long for this switch could have their visitors seeing this (below) when browsing in Chrome in the near future…
Making this information actionable
So what should you do in light of all this new information? Good question. As a publisher there a couple of key takeaways…
- Emphasize your mobile development (content, UX, everything)
- Cross check your site — and ongoing efforts — against parameters for the mobile-first index
- Add more — or start adding — structured data to your site’s pages and images
- Make sure your content actually loads fast for visitors
- Move your site to HTTPS if it’s not already
Hopefully, some of those items can put you in a position to stay ahead of Google algorithm shifts and changes for the next 12-18 months. Interested in learning more about what was discussed at Pubtelligence? Check out the article below that feature content from other sessions during the day…
Catch up on all Pubtelligence topics and videos