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How Do You Optimize for Mobile-First SEO? – Cindy Krum
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How Do You Optimize for Mobile-First SEO? – Cindy Krum

It’s no secret that more and more people are using their mobile devices to access the web on a daily basis, outnumbering those using desktops. Google has recognized this, and  in order to ensure the very best user experience, it is taking a “mobile-first” approach to indexing websites.

From an SEO perspective, what’s the difference in optimizing for desktop versus mobile? What does it take to rank at the top of the Google search these days, and how important is mobile to that? We posed all of these questions and more to Cindy Krum, CEO & founder of MobileMoxie, where she’s been optimizing for mobile even before the iPhone was a thing. She’ll update up on all the changes and what you need to be doing for yourself and your clients.

Rich: My guest is the founder and CEO of MobileMoxie. She is considered a thought leader in mobile SEO and ASO marketing, which stands for “app search optimization”, if you didn’t know. And she has been bringing fresh and creative ideas to consulting clients and digital marketing stages around the world, regularly speaking at national international trade events.

Her leadership helped MobileMoxie launched the first mobile-focused SEO toolset to help SEOs see what actual mobile search results and pages look like from anywhere, and to provide insights about the impact of mobile-first indexing on SEO, traffic, and conversion.

She is known for her uncanny ability to predict and explain Google changes years before their official announcements. Today, I’m very excited to be diving into mobile SEO with Cindy Krum. Cindy, welcome to the podcast.

Cindy: Thank you.

Rich: So Cindy, even within SEO, there are a lot of different areas one could focus on; local SEO, organic, on page, off page, technical, voice, and of course mobile. So what drew your focus to mobile SEO?

Cindy: You know, it was many years ago and it just seemed important and no one was talking about it. So I figured someone should start talking about it, so I just did.  I did some research, figured out what people were probably doing wrong, started writing about it kind of hoping that if there were someone out there that knew better that they would just tell me. But no one did. So I kind of became the de facto expert.

Rich: Excellent. So I wonder though, is there really any difference between optimizing your website for organic SEO and for mobile SEO?

Cindy: Yes there is for sure. It’s changed over the years, what you have to do to do a good job on mobile. It used to be all about doing a good job with your M dot subdomain. You’re smiling, but that wasn’t that long ago. And there’s still M dot subdomains around there. Some big companies use them, but now everything’s really focused on responsive design and there are a lot of ways that you can mess up responsive design. And then if you have a more sophisticated development team, they may be doing more adaptive design or adaptive responsive, or fully dynamic. So those things definitely are different, and they require in some cases a more technical eye. So it really just depends on what you’re working with.

But the other major difference is how the search result looks on desktop. We have kind of expansive amounts of space with ads over here, and ads over here, and then big, big stuff going on here. But in mobile everything’s stacked, so it’s much more competitive because you have fewer options on the screen, less real estate to work with, more ads taking up more space, and Google is sneakily putting the more interactive, and visual, and engaging stuff at the top of the mobile search result that you might not be as distracted by on desktop. But in mobile, fingers like to touch pictures, fingers like to touch expanders, and it keeps people in the search result rather than clicking through to a website. So, absolutely that’s a major difference as well.

Rich: Interesting. You mentioned a couple of things I just wanted to follow up with. You talked about developing websites and responsive as a way that most people these days think about building a mobile-friendly website, but you also talked about adaptive and dynamic. Can you just kind of clarify what those things are for us?

Cindy: Yeah. So adaptive is, well both adaptive and dynamic use the server. They rely heavily on the server and its ability to detect what kind of a device is requesting the content and then adapt it on the fly. Not necessarily changing the content and the experience with the content, but potentially sending more optimized versions of an asset or of a navigation or a user interface to meet the needs of this specific device.

And dynamic really just kind of replies to this more dynamic interaction between the server and the device where it’s not just a one-time request and then it’s done. It’s kind of a request and then a response, and it’s an ongoing communication between the website and the browser on the mobile device and the server, to kind of keep the experience going without necessarily always having to load a new page. So think about Facebook and any kind of site with infinite scroll. Let’s say new articles or new things are fetched from the server and loaded, that’s a dynamic interaction.

Rich: Awesome. Thank you. Now many of us have heard of the term “mobile-first indexing”, but what does it really mean? And what can I do to my own website to take advantage of this?

Cindy: Yeah. So there are some different interpretations on what mobile-first index means. From Google’s perspective, what their main point and what they try to communicate to webmasters is that mobile-first indexing is a change in the bot. It means that when Google is crawling and indexing a site, it’s doing it pretending to be a mobile phone instead of pretending to be a desktop computer. And so if you don’t have a good mobile user experience or you don’t have a mobile friendly site or things are missing from the mobile version of your site, Google may miss it. Because it really wants to make sure that people have a good mobile experience and so they think leaning really hard on this mobile-first indexing concept is going to do that.

Now they have some confusing messaging because they do say that if you have a desktop only website, it’s not meant for viewing on mobile, you should be fine. But then that kind of negates every other communication point they’ve given. So who knows what that means or how that works? But in my mind, mobile-first indexing is a bit more. Because what this mobile-first indexing leans on heavily is what they call [inaudible] rendering, which is Google used to just get the text of a website and kind of be happy with that. Maybe look at images and alt tags, but they weren’t appreciating the beauty of the image, just looking for assets.

But now they do the crawling where they get the text. And then the second phase is where they actually render the page. And that includes executing some of the JavaScript because they’ve gotten better at JavaScript, and really getting a better sense for what’s going on in the page and how it looks and interacts and stuff like that. So they want to evaluate things like user experience and engagement and how happy a user is going to be in a more rich way. And I think that also has to do with this new way of calling it indexing.

Rich: All right. So as a site owner, small business, medium sized business, whatever you have, what should I do today, or what can I do looking forward into 2021, to make my website take advantage of this mobile-first indexing? Are there specific tactics that you would recommend?

Cindy: Yeah. So number one, Google has had a tool called the “mobile friendliness tool” that’s been around for a long time. You should check and make sure that Google evaluates your page as being mobile friendly, that gets you one step closer. And the other thing is, if you haven’t already, you should set up your website in Google Search Console and use the mobile friendly and mobile usability feedback in there. It’ll kind of grade your pages on scale if you have a big website, rather than one at a time, and tell you the pages that might have issues with mobile friendliness.

And then the other thing is just to make sure that whatever content you’ve been serving to desktop users is also available in the mobile version of the site. And this can be tricky with things like navigation and JavaScript and stuff like that. And Google has gotten better at indexing all of them, but there are tricks to make it super easy for Google rather than Google having to try so hard. The key is when Google has to try hard, sometimes they get lazy and it doesn’t work out as well. So you want to make Google’s job is easy as possible. Even when Google says they can do something, that doesn’t mean that they’re great at it. Like I could run a marathon, but I’m not going to be great in a week. If I had a week, I’d probably run a marathon and break for snacks. Like. Developers often will say, “Well, Google says they can do this now, so we’re not going to worry about it.” And that’s not the way to go. You want to still do everything you can to make Google’s life easy breezy.

Rich: All right. There have been a number of recent changes to Google search results and they include things like passages and subtopics. Let’s tackle them one at a time. So dealer’s choice, which do you want to tackle first?  

Cindy: Passages for sure. And I’d have to check to see what Google’s official word on is if these have officially launched or not. Now regardless of whether they’ve officially launched, I have been seeing what I consider, and most people consider, to be passages for a long time. Not lots of them, but before Google officially named them “passages” we called them “fraggles”, which is a name that I coined because they’re essentially a fragment of text and a handle or a junk link. So “fraggle” makes sense, beautiful name.

What it means is, Google takes a piece of a page and ranks that, and links not just to the page but to that piece of the page and scrolls directly to it. Which you can imagine would be a great user experience for a searcher. They search for something, you have the answer, it scrolls directly to the answer so they can read it in context. What’s nice about that is the handle part, the jump link, doesn’t actually have to be something that you code into the page. Google can actually overlay these jump links, these invisible jump links, with just the ability to scroll directly to any piece of a page that it wants, and sections of the page without you doing anything. And that may seem small, but since Google’s inception, it’s been ranking websites one page at a time and looking at maybe domain wide information and looking at the entirety of the page. But sometimes for many years we’ve had this issue where we’ve had as SEOs to break long pages into shorter pages to keep them topic specific, so that the long page wouldn’t dilute or drown out specific topics within the page.

This passages launch may get us away from that and maybe in something deeper about how Google works moving forward. And it makes sense in a larger idea or a larger concept as well, because if you think about things that Google wants to rank, they want to rank not just websites but apps. And perhaps let’s say they want to rank clips from a movie or clips from even a YouTube video. That’s more in the context of what we know there are already putting these kinds of passages into YouTube videos by breaking them and saying, “You searched for this, we think this clip answers your question.” Great user experience. And we kind of trained Google to do that because there’s a way you can code the video to tell it to put those bookmarks in there and this is step one, step two. But also whenever Google has us do that, we’re also training their machine learning programs so that they know how to do it on their own eventually. So that’s kind of passages and videos and then passages on pages. It’s really a fundamental change and quite monumental.

Rich: I would think so because I remember years ago, and I don’t know if this example came from Google or just in SEO, but they were talking about how if you had two pages, one being about the civil war specifically, and one being about the 1800s, that if somebody searched on the Civil War and if the pages were equal in value in everything else, Google would serve up the one that was specifically about the Civil War, because the focus was so much more narrow.

And now it sounds like that may not be the case always. And if there’s better content in just part of a page, Google may choose to serve that as a higher-ranking result than the one that’s more focused, all things being considered.

Cindy: Yes. Yes.

Rich: The other thing I’m just thinking about, I’ve had that experience when I wanted to figure out how to fix my snowblower and it showed a YouTube video and it basically said, “here’s the section you might want to watch”, because the first 15 minutes was the guy just kind of droning on about snowblowers in general and not the repair part that I needed. And so I think as site owners or YouTube creators it’s interesting, this is supposedly better for the users, but it might not be better for the site owners. There may be something at the top of the page that I wanted to engage somebody with, and now Google’s pushing my users further down the page.

Have you given any thought to what a site owner might want to do to kind of make sure that the experience was the one he or she intended? Or is this just the future and we learn to live with it?

Cindy: I think it’s the future and we learn to live with it. But let’s look at what site owners want. From my perspective and what I’ve learned over the years is what site owners want is traffic. And that’s something that Google can help with. What we can’t help with is what a user really wants. We can’t change that.

And you know in your snowblower example, just because that YouTube creator thought that his first 15 minutes were brilliant, doesn’t mean that you will or that you have time for it. And so just because the YouTube creator wanted you to appreciate his brilliance in the first 15 minutes, doesn’t mean that you’re going to do it, or that you want to, or that you feel like you missed anything when you didn’t. And so I think that website owners who say, “Oh, well I really want the user to experience the top of the page”, or “I really want the user to see this ad”, the user doesn’t care. And the user is not there to make the website owner happy. The user is there to complete their task. And so you’ve got to just kind of release control and do a good job meeting the needs of the user. And if you have secondary goals that are more than just getting traffic and creating good user experiences, you have to think of those as secondary, not as required, for engagement on your site or in your snowblower video.

Rich: All right. In Google analytics, we’re not seeing that somebody is clicking on a jump link and being taken to a place on our webpage further down the page. Are we just seeing the fact that they arrived at this page?

Cindy: Yes, you are. If you put in jump links, I have in some cases seen jump links show up as separate pages in search console, but I’ve been told that that’s not the intended functionality and that might’ve been a mistake. But it does happen.

And that’s another thing that kind of tells me Google is looking for places like logical breaks in a page that might be a place where a new passage starts.

Rich: All right. So we talked about passages. Tell me a little bit about subtopics.

Cindy: So subtopics aren’t getting as much attention in the SEO world, but I do think they’re actually ultimately a bigger deal. And so what it seems like Google is trying to do, and what they’ve said they’re trying to do, is create in the same way that Google creates passages or sections of a page where none were officially there. Google is trying to understand a topic and expose their understanding of the topic enough that they can kind of create their own collections of things.

So for instance, let’s say, uh, put Google on hold for us. And again, let’s say you’re on Target and it’s about to be Saint Patrick’s Day, so they have St. Patrick’s Day page. And the St. Patrick’s Day page has all the green stuff from the entire store. There is green towels and green shoes and stuff like that, that’s a good example of a collection page. And what Google is trying to do – I think – is take that topic and apply it to a search result where they say, – this is an example they used from their announcement – “You have searched for ‘exercise equipment’.” We know that people search for exercise equipment, exercise equipment under a hundred dollars, used exercise equipment”, and so based on your search and the other searches that they know that surround it, they create these subtopics.

And what it seems like is we’ve sometimes seen the subtopics historically as filters at the top of the search box. But what it seems like the announcement implies, is that it’s not just going to be filters, but there might be sections of a page. So go back to the Target example. In the target example you might have from the homepage the swimwear sale, and it’s kind of a chunk. And you click to get more information, or you click to get to the collection page. It seems like the subtopics may work a little bit like that, where it’s kind of a visual filter where you get a free view of what’s going to be included when you click into that filter. And if that’s not the case, the other way that I’ve been explaining, because these ones they haven’t launched or they haven’t rolled out yet. But what I’ve been talking about as a potential for some topics is right now, unfortunately, if you search for the coronavirus topics, you get a really rich result with lots of graphics, news columns, a totally different layout from a normal search result. And it has filters built into it that seemed like they might be subtopics.

So we don’t have confirmation and we don’t have lots of ‘in the wild’ examples of what a subtopic would look like, but they’re talking about it. With the exercise equipment example, I think if we extrapolate, use some imagination, that could get us to what we’re already seeing on a lot of the coronavirus queries or even you get something like that when Golden Globes are happening. Or you’re getting stuff like that also a lot in sports. They’re testing and playing with sports queries a lot.

Rich: Okay. It might be too new to even think about how to optimize for subtopics since they haven’t really been rolled out all that much. But have you given much thought to how a site owner might optimize for passages?

Cindy: Yeah, these things are both really new, so hard to know exactly what the strategy is. But what we’ve been recommending for passages is to do a really good job with your heading tags, so H1s, H2s, H3s. We say go ahead, if it makes sense and you have a long article, go ahead and maybe add some jump links back in. That’s an old strategy that worked in the late 90s, but it’s potentially coming back just as a way to signal to Google that this might be a passage, and this might be a passage. We’ve seen some success with that.

And the other thing is to keep things kind of tight and concise, where you still have headings and subheadings. And even if you have a really long page, it’s going to be guided by the subheadings and headings. And the text is going to have a really tight relationship to whatever heading is above it. That way Google has a really easy job parsing and understanding the text and the text in a larger context.

Rich: All right. That makes a lot of sense. Yeah, absolutely. And it sounds like we really need to be thinking about how we structure our pages with our H1, H2, H3 tags, and just making sure that there’s a real connection between them.

And very often I see pages that either aren’t using H2 and H3 tags at all, or they’re just kind of like cutesy header tags and subhead tags, but they’re not really meant to tell Google what this content is going to be about.

Cindy: Yeah, absolutely. The other strategy within that is to do a really good job – this breaks people’s hearts sometime if they have a degree in creative writing – but you need to write really simple sentences. Because these two announcements, the subtopics and the passages, were both in an article that was about Google’s new advances in artificial intelligence and AI, which means machine learning. And machines don’t appreciate the beauty of a photo. They don’t appreciate the beauty or the complexity of your sentence. What they want is words they understand and sentences that they can diagram and break down.

And so one tip is, Google has a tool called the “natural language API”, and if you search for that and then scroll down halfway onto the page, there’s a text box with text in it. This tool is kind of weird and hard to use, but scroll down halfway, look for the text box that has text about Google, and replace it with text from your page, your homepage, or whatever. Copy and paste that in and hit ‘go’ or ‘process’, whatever it is. And it’s going to actually evaluate that text for you and it’s going to highlight the entities that it understands. If it really understands it, it will say, “Oh, I have a Wikipedia article on this”, and it’s going to process it and it gives you a couple different tabs so you can see sentiment analysis. And the one that I think is the most impressive is the sentence structure where it diagrams the whole sentence and it says, “this is the verb, and this is the adjective”, and it does all these lines to say what words are modifying what other words in the sentence.

And so just glancing through this, you get a sense for how easily Google is understanding your text. But then you can go back and tweak the text that you’ve put in and say, let’s break this sentence in two or let’s put the subject in the beginning of the sentence rather than the end, like a normal flow would be. And whatever you want to do, even capitalizing and punctuating differently, we’ve seen change how Google understands the sentence and how easily they find entities and concepts. And think about entities as concepts. So if you’re having a hard time ranking a specific page, that might be one step to take.

Rich: It might be that your English degree has gotten in the way of your marketing degree.

Cindy: Yes, exactly.

Rich: This is definitely interesting stuff. And it sounds like this is good for any SEO, not just mobile SEO, but I kind of was curious about with mobile. Obviously, we’re on our devices all the time and we’re talking to Google and we’re talking to Siri. How does voice SEO fit into mobile SEO, or is it just a completely different?

Cindy: No, it’s absolutely not a completely different thing, and Google has said explicitly that it’s all from the same index. And in fact, everything we’ve been talking about so far fits perfectly with voice. Because if you think about it, if you were talking to an assistant and you said, “Hey assistant, how do I fix the things on my snowblower?” If it read you the entirety of a web page, that would be a very bad experience.

Similarly with recipes, when all you want is the recipe and you don’t want to read someone’s life story and how it relates to apple pie, that would be a bad experience too. And so Google’s ability to really hone in on what is the answer to your question, rather than making you scan the whole page to find it, is all amazing for voice. Because you can yell a query at your device and it can actually read you the answer rather than reading you the entirety page.

Rich: I’m so glad you brought up the example of the recipes, because earlier when you were talking about skipping over the 15 minutes of unnecessary content, I’m like, I would love if I could just see the recipe and not that story about you walking in the Maine woods around Thanksgiving. Anyway, alright.

Cindy: And all that’s done, people aren’t doing that for their own edification, believe it or not. It’s usually self-indulgent, but people are doing that for SEO because Google really used to give a strong preference for longer content because longer content fit in more keywords and more keyword relationships. And so they just would write whatever they could above the recipe to get the recipe to rank. That’s where they were like, all we care about is traffic, so we’re going to create this extra stuff to get the traffic. So my hope is that with passages, we can just have the recipes rank now, and we won’t need all that.

Rich: We’ve talked about local SEO a number of times on this podcast, and we know that Google My Business is an important tool for local search. How does it fit into mobile search, in your opinion?

Cindy: It’s a huge part of mobile search because most searches for businesses are mobile. Either the person searching wants to call your business, and so they want to do it on the device rather than having to risk typing the phone number in wrong. Or they’re looking for directions, same thing. Or they’re just kind of casually planning an outing, especially pre-COVID when we had outings. So there I would say that it’s not even a separate concept. And really when we talk about mobile SEO, it’s a separate concept I guess, but not really, because more than half of searches are now completed from a mobile device in almost every country in the world.

So I made some waves a couple of years ago when I got up on a big stage and I said, “If you’re not doing mobile SEO, then you’re not a very good SEO”. And people got really mad about it. But why would you ignore more than half of your traffic? And even companies where you think, people are very stuck in their ways so they don’t want to change and they don’t want to think that people might be searching for something as boring and tedious as a tax attorney on their phone, but they absolutely are. They might do the deep, deep work on their computer if they need to read a PDF, but that’s not how people operate. People are at least pre-screening many, many things on their phone. And so if you have a bad experience or can’t be found on a phone, you’re not making the short list, you’re being rejected off the bat.

Rich: Very interesting stuff. I want to talk for a moment about MobileMoxie. You have this mobile-focused SEO tool set. Who is using that tool set? Like, who is your ideal customer and then how do they use your tools?

Cindy: Yeah, so lots to unpack there. I’m super excited about our tools, and we have lots of different levels. So small business owners can use our tools just for their website. We have packages for agency and enterprise kinds of customers. But essentially what the tools do that’s really great for SEO is they let you see what a search result looks like from anywhere in the world. And so that’s a big deal for local SEO, because you’re kind of driving in the dark a little bit if you’re doing SEO for a business location that is different from where you are, especially if it’s in a different state or even a different country. You have to do things like, I’ve seen my friends go on Twitter and be like, “Hey, can someone in Michigan send me a screenshot? Well, that’s lame. And so our tools make that kind of thing unnecessary because you can put in down to an address. That’s the other thing is, whatever local SEO tools are out there, they’re also summarizing things based on zip code at best, but usually city or state, you’re getting some kind of aggregated result. But ours are very specific, it becomes a lot of times GPS, so they’re very specific.

And so we take things down to a street address if you want. And say if you’re standing at this address and you search for this query, and we have a bunch of phones you can choose from, and you can even choose two at a time to compare, because sometimes there are differences, and show you what that sort of consult looks like. Whether there’s a map pack, whether they’re ads, stuff like that. So SEO’s love it, ad companies love it to check out competitors. Affiliate marketers actually love it because it gets you around any kind of blocking that other affiliates are doing so that you can’t see their ads. There are a lot of creative ways to use that and it’s a fully clickable result.

So it’s not just that you could do the search, you can actually click through and see what the websites are. And so you can do side by side comparisons, see this website on this page and this one on the other end. And so that’s a tool called the “separator”.

And then the other popular one is the “pages scope”. And the pages scope is very similar, but we skipped this Google query and we just let you put in a URL, and you can select the country. You know sometimes the website will auto detect what country someone is in and then update the shipping and currency and things like that. So we let you skip that so you can test all that. And it’s a fully interactive mobile experience, so you can click through and do tests, mobile conversions, you can see how your navigation looks on different phones, all of that. But then we parse everything.

So in the search result, we’re parsing it and we can give you a text diagram of where you ranked, what is the traditional rank that Google would count, what’s the actual rank. Which includes all the things that Google would prefer to ignore, like ads, and knowledge graph, and featured snippets, and maps that magically don’t have numbers in the counting but push you down, how much of the page you take up. And we give you a score based on how much of that page is you, which is something that other tools don’t do.

So for instance, let’s say this podcast perhaps as a podcast listing, perhaps a website, perhaps a Facebook group, perhaps a Twitter account, and perhaps you’ve been mentioned in a bunch of articles about the best podcasts for business.

Rich: Absolutely. Yeah.

Cindy: So you should get credit for that. Because when someone searches for a keyword and all that stuff is there, even though it’s not all on one domain, you should get credit. So we let you see anything that’s in the surf and you can claim it. And you can say, “this is me, this is me, this is me, this is me”, and then we remember that for all your future testing in our tools, and we give you a Moxy score for how much of the search result you own.

And then in the page of scope, we do something similar. We don’t have the Moxy score in the page of scope, but we let you parse it and we can see what is happening when Google only gets the text, what is happening when Google gets the text and the JavaScript, how are those two things different? And we’re about to add desktop stuff where we can parse the differences between what’s being seen on mobile and desktop for search results and pages. Which is a big deal.

Rich: It sounds like you guys have some very cool tools for SEOs out there. For people who want to learn more about you and your company, where can we send them, Cindy?

Cindy: Well, I’m all over Twitter, that’s my main channel of communication. So find me on Twitter and just tweet to me. Otherwise you can email me, cindy@mobilemoxy.com. I’m easy to find, is the short answer. Just search for my name and I’m everywhere.

Rich: Awesome. Cindy, this has been great. Thank you so much for coming by and sharing your expertise on mobile SEO.

Cindy: Thanks so much.

Show Notes:

Cindy Krum always has a finger on the pulse of what’s new and upcoming in the world of Google and mobile SEO. Her company, MobileMoxie, recently launched the first online mobile-focused toolset.

Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine, and founder of the Agents of Change. He’s passionate about helping small businesses grow online and has put his 20+ years of experience into the book, The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing.