2016 was an intense year, especially when it came to SEO and Google in particular. Because we are deeply convinced that we cannot attempt any preview of the future w

ithout considering what happened in the past, we invite you to look back at the events that have marked the evolution of Google in the past 10 months.

It is important to note that, contrary to more classic Google timelines, we prefer to see all Google-related events in the same place. We believe it's the only way we can escape from a too-narrow vision of where Google is headed:

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What we can learn from this timeline?

This:

  • Google is steadily moving to a mobile-only world. Mobile-first indexing seems like the inevitable consequence of a year (or more) almost exclusively dedicated to evangelizing and forcing a change of mindset from desktop to mobile.
  • Albeit links are still essential for rankings (see Penguin 4.0), Google's investigative efforts seem almost fully devoted to entity, predictive, and personalized search. Again, quite logical if we consider deeply personal devices like mobile and home assistants.
  • For the same reason, voice search seems to be the next frontier of search, partly because Bing — using a different business strategy than Google — may represent a big competitor in this arena.
  • Since John Giannandrea has become the Senior Vice President of Search at Google, machine and deep learning began to be used by default in every facet of Google Search. Thus, we should expect them to be used even more in 2017, perhaps with specific algorithms improving Hummingbird at every phase.
  • In a mobile-only world, the relevance of local search is even higher. This seems to be the strategic reason both for an update like Possum and all the tests we see in local, and also of the acquisition of a company like Urban Engines, whose purse is to aponalyze the "Internet of Moving Things."
  • The acquisition of startups like MoodStock and EyeFluence (but also Anvato and Famebit) seems to suggest that video/images and video/images marketing will be a central focus for Google, perhaps also because YouTube is struggling against Facebook (and not just Facebook) when it comes to videos/images and their monetization.

The shift from desktop-first to mobile-first

Until now, SEOs have considered mobile search to be one of the many specializations of SEO, on the same level as local search or international SEO.

That mentality did not change much when, back in 2015, Google announced AMP. Moreover, us SEOs considered AMP just another (often annoying) "added task" to our implementation checklist, and not as a signal of the real intentions of Google: Mobile search is all search.

With the announcement of mobile-first indexing, though, these intentions are now 100% clear, and somehow they represent a Copernican Revolution: After 18 years of prioritizing desktop, now we have to prioritize mobile.

The trend we are seeing clearly telling us that mobile search is bringing more traffic to websites than desktop: 20 industry niches out of 24 see mobile as their first source of traffic.

The four industry niche exceptions to this general rule are important ones, though:

  • Computer & Electronics
  • Internet & Telecom
  • Science
  • Travel

AMP, then, was the main character in the Google Search-branded storytelling about mobile this year.

Google announced AMP in October 2015, and by April already 37% of news sites' articles had an AMP version, according to a study by the GDELT Project.

However, the same study reported that, globally, only 40% of all news sites articles had a mobile version of any kind.

It must be underlined that the GDELT Project study refers only to news sites and not ecommerce or other kinds of websites, which see heavier use of mobile or responsive versions. Nevertheless, it can still be considered a good barometer of the reality of the web overall.

Speaking of "barometers," the Consumer Barometer with Google for 2016 is showing us important trends for the USA, like this one:

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The percentage of people mainly using a smartphone is growing, while the percentage of people mainly using desktop is decreasing with respect to 2015 (or is stable if we consider the last 5 years).

Beware, though: If you analyze the trends in other countries, like some Asian or European ones, the percent of people using mainly smartphones is even greater.

Does this mean that we should neglect desktop search? No!  it would be a big mistake, especially if our website were an ecommerce site.

The chart below, based on the same Consumer Barometer with Google data, tells us clearly that desktop is still by far the most-used device for product research (desktop is in orange):

(GRAPHIC 3)

This insight must be considered if we're planning to redesign our site, to find a balance in terms of site usability for both desktop and mobile... and We cannot help but think that the subtle (and recently not-so-subtle) suggestion from Google of moving from mobile/responsive to PWA is also influenced by this reality.

What to plan for 2017?

Prepare for mobile-first indexing

When Google announced mobile-first indexing last November 4th, it did not say that the change would happen that same day, or even after a few days

.

Google, instead, said this:

To make our results more useful, we've begun experiments to make our index mobile-first.

This means that we are still in a desktop-first index, but it's almost sure that it'll switch to mobile-first in 2017.

As happened with Mobilegeddon in 2015, Google is giving us plenty of time for:

  • Creating a mobile version with any possible format (m. site, responsive, adaptive, PWA) of our site if we still haven't (remember how few news sites' articles have a mobile version?).
  • Making the content and pages presented both in mobile and desktop versions the same. Be aware that this is the only possible way to really lose rankings, because if in desktop search we have visible content and pages that were discarded in our mobile version, when mobile-first deploys, it will lose that SEO visibility. For this reason, Google suggests responsive as the easiest way to avoid this problem.
  • Implementing structured data in our mobile versions, because it's usually neglected in the interest of speed (and Google needs that information!).
  • Eventually — and hopefully — reconsidering all the user experience and conversion optimization we offer on desktop and mobile (check out this deck by Talia Wolf from MozCon). For instance, in recent months — because of the Google demotion of tabbed content — many websites started to get rid of tabs and present all their content at once. This limitation won't apply anymore once mobile-first comes.
  • Rethinking and planning a new link building strategy if we have a separate m. mobile site. This is more of a defensive strategy suggestion, though, because we still don't know what will happen to inbound links to desktop versions in a mobile-first indexing world. It may happen that Google will find a way to make the Link Graph independent from the nature of the sites.

In light of what Google has told us about mobile-first indexing, and that you can find finely discussed here in this Q&A on Search Engine Land, If We had to give an extreme suggestion, it would be this:

if you have a very bad mobile version, and if you know that you're not going to have a new, fully functional one in time for the end of 2017, then (absurdly) it could be better for you to have a desktop-only site.

In fact, Google has repeatedly said that mobile-first does not mean that it won't index the desktop version of a site. To the contrary: If a site doesn't have any mobile version, Google will index and consider for rankings its desktop one. And this will be the case even if that same website has an AMP version.

Finally, We strongly urge you to update (or download, if you still don't use it) Screaming Frog.

In its very recent 7.0 version, Screaming Frog allows us to fetch and render crawled pages, something that before was only possible (and with a painful one-by-one URL process) via Google Search Console. Obviously, remember to set up Screaming Frog to emulate the Googlebot smartphone crawler.

Moreover, Screaming Frog now also alerts us to any blocked resource that could impede the correct rendering of our pages, again just as GSC does — but without the pain.

AMP

Despite some concerns AMP is generating amongst some bigs news sites, web owners, and SEOs, it doesn't seem that Google will reduce pressure for a large number of websites to adopt it.

Therefore, if your website is already receiving a great volume of traffic from mobile search, you might start scheduling the creation of an AMP version.

This should be a priority for a blog, a news site, or a recipe site.

However, if you have an ecommerce site, it could be interesting to AMP-lify a category to test the performance and ROI of creating an AMP version of it, as the AMP Project suggests here. Not every functionality that's standard in ecommerce is possible with AMP, but if We had to bet, this is the niche where the AMP Project will see its biggest enhancements; Google and Ebay are too deeply involved to ignore it.

That said, if you are an ecommerce site, while it can be exciting to experiment with AMP, your real strategic choice should be going PWA.

Progressive Web Apps (PWA)

We are quite confident that If there's a main trending topic for 2017, it will be Progressive Web Apps.

Not only has Google already started evangelizing it publicly via its Webmaster blog and developer website, but Googlers are informally suggesting it in conferences and private chats.

As we've seen above, ecommerce websites are not yet fully AMP-lifiable.

Moreover, three seconds is the new fast, according to this study Google presented last September. Even a very well-optimized responsive or m. site can barely perform with an average SiteSpeed like that if we consider how heavy web pages are right now.

Then comes the other obsession of Google: security... and PWA only works with HTTPS.

So, it's as easy as summing 1+1 to foresee how Google will push websites' owners to go PWA.

The only setback to this evangelization, ironically, could be mobile-first indexing, which is still very uncertain in all its details, hence causing people to hold off.

However, if you're an ecommerce site, don't have an app, or are reconsidering the opportunity of constantly maintaining two apps (iOS and Android) because of the need to rationalize costs, then Progressive Web Apps can be your best choice, as they allow a website to work as if it were an app (and offline, too).

Again, as we sometimes forget, SEO's future will be determined on a macro- and micro-scale by business decisions.

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