The most prominent and discussed changes Google makes are generally to the core algorithm. 2016 saw many small updates and not many major ones, Google favouring continuous improvement rather than intermittent large scale changes.
The biggest algorithm update reported on was Penguin 4.0, but even this is more of an infrastructural change than a ranking update. Previously Penguin was ran manually at certain intervals. It was moved into the core algorithm and shifted from an applied penalty to a ranking signal.
As with Penguin, Panda was also integrated into the core algorithm (although Google has kept quiet on exactly when this happened). This set the tone for 2016 with most of the big changes Google made being infrastructural and feature based rather than algorithm tweaks.
Update data gathered from https://www.rankwatch.com/google-timeline.html
The number of large-scale updates has dropped dramatically since peaking at over 30 in 2012. It's likely in 2017 there is going to be more of the same. Google isn’t about individual big updates anymore (in the desktop index at least).
The mobile index may behave a little differently as it's a newer property so may see a similar cycle of lots big updates, then moving to smaller more frequent changes.
The mobile index
In a big change to the infrastructure, mobile and desktop searches are no longer going to be stored and served from the same index. Google has instead decided to split the index in two.
Traditional desktop sites in one, pure mobile content in the other. Interestingly the mobile index is to be the primary index and the desktop index secondary.
Google knows where its bread is buttered and that’s increasingly on mobile. We now see more online activity and searches on mobile than desktop. It makes sense that Google would make the mobile index the primary index. It sees the most activity.
So Google will look at the mobile version of your site to figure out how to rank it. That will create its ranking when pulled from the mobile index. Google will look at the desktop version of the site when you perform a desktop query.
Remember back in 2015 Google ‘Mobilegeddon’, the much talked about and panic inducing update? In the end that basically gave well optimised mobile pages a boost in rankings over poorly optimised pages in a mobile search. Similarly, this change is just aimed at providing the best possible user experience for the majority of searches.
The mobile index isn't live just yet, but it's happening. This is a conversation between a couple of Google employees on Twitter...
@KazushiNagayama we're missing the memos like a boss ¯\_(ツ)_/¯— Gary Illyes ᕕ( ᐛ )ᕗ (@methode) December 27, 2016
Whether Google does officially announce when it has or will be going live remains to be seen. Usually infrastructural changes like this are announced, but not until they are either in progress or rolled out.
Another mobile-focused feature, AMP is way more than just an update. AMP or Accelerated Mobile Pages is an Open Source Project, although heavily supported by Google (the lead engineer is also a senior engineer at Google).
AMP content is more stripped down and does not allow for many of the more complex elements we have got used to seeing. Pages are actually loaded from Google servers as well. This means the pages will load far quicker but AMP content will have a more uniform look across the web.
The aggressive caching allows for quicker loading times but also favours more static content. Google also have the Accelerated Landing Pages (ALP) project which ties into AMP. This allows for ads to be loaded quicker when clicked on from an AMP page. This solves the problem of having a page that loads very quickly but the ads which monetizing it loading much slower. Combined, this gives Google much greater control over mobile content and the ads served on it.
Looking at the mobile index and AMP, it makes sense that these should go hand in hand. Google will split out mobile and desktop in the index, allowing for the development of separate mobile pages, such as those using AMP.
Google having a focus on mobile is nothing new, in fact look through any new year trends/prediction piece for digital marketing from the last 10 years and mobile will more than likely be in there. However something a little more significant is going on here.
Through mobile Google can now connect with people on the go within the decision-making process. Instead of researching the restaurant before we go out, we now just get to where we’re going and look up nearby restaurants on our mobile. This shift from desktop to in the moment mobile searches is what Google has termed as ‘micro-moments’.
“Mobile has forever changed the way we live, and it’s forever changed what we expect of brands. It’s fractured the consumer journey into hundreds of real-time, intent-driven micro-moments. Each one is a critical opportunity for brands to shape our decisions and preferences.”
These searches are highly actionable and easily commercialised, allowing you to allocate a greater max Cost Per Click, meaning higher bids and more revenue for Google. If the keyword is closer to the end of the buying cycle it’s seen as more valuable, especially in last touch attribution models, allowing for a higher spend whilst maintaining a positive Return On Investment.
Mobile search will differ even more
There will likely be growing differences between the mobile and desktop indexes. As mobile becomes more widely adopted the difference in how it is used over desktop will become more apparent.
It makes sense that as behavioural differences between mobile and desktop become clearer those will be reflected as changes in how the different indexes work. Micro-moments are clearly important to Google, it will want to push technology to further empower those searches.
For webmasters this may mean further divergence between mobile and desktop sites. As the behavioural differences between desktop and mobile becomes clearer it makes sense that the user journey through a site will differ more significantly depending on the device type. Therefore the site architecture itself will need to be different.
Peak mobile in 2017?
In the UK and US smartphones have reached saturation or are at least very near that point. With over 70% penetration in pretty much all the key markets (Europe, US, China), growth in mobile is going to be relying more on changing user behaviour of existing device owners. Therefore we can expect more focus from the search engines on user behaviour.
Don’t forget Google’s mobile search market share is much higher than desktop as well. They are well ahead of the game and will want to stay ahead.
Mobile is opening markets for Google that were previously inaccessible due to lower internet adoption. Emerging markets such as those in Africa have seen smartphone adoption and correspondingly, internet access, skyrocket in the last few years.
“...smartphone ownership rates in emerging and developing nations are rising at an extraordinary rate, climbing from a median of 21% in 2013 to 37% in 2015”
Google has access to brand new markets and a shortcut into markets they were previously struggling with. Desktop would never provide access to these as there are way too many barriers to ownership rates rising so dramatically (such as cost and internet infrastructure).
Mobile has solved a key problem for Google. 99% of revenue for Alphabet comes from Google and 77% of that comes from AdWords. That mobile traffic is key to this figure and they are going to be doing their best to keep pushing it.
We need to get used to treating desktop and mobile separately
Desktop and mobile have officially split. We need to catch up within SEO and fast. How we create, implement and track campaigns needs to also split. Still doing a single ranking report? That's a great starting point for diverging mobile and desktop in your campaign. Identify core keywords for desktop and mobile and track these rankings in separate reports. Most rank checkers now allow you to specifically request mobile or desktop results to allow for this.
Start using the segments in Google Analytics to separate out Desktop and Mobile traffic when you pull reports? Get a sense for which keywords convert well for each and how user behaviour through your site changes depending on device.
SEO has for a long time been desktop focused with mobile optimisation secondary. This needs a complete reversal in thinking, especially if we are meant to be taking our cues from Google, who have dropped a pretty big hint in making the mobile index the primary index. It's not unlikely that in 2017 we'll see separate updates to the mobile and desktop indexes.
As we're already seeing web pages designed specifically for mobile through AMP we should start seeing more content strategies designed specifically for mobile. Instead of creating an additional mobile version of desktop content, mobile only content strategies may well emerge - AMP lends itself best to shorter-lived high volume content. With fewer design options pages will need short and snappy headlines and bold titles to engage readers and differentiate themselves.
The fundamentals are still the same
Google is a problem solver. You give it a problem ("what’s the best smartphone", "next train to London", "where is the closest restaurant"?) and it delivers a range of possible solutions. What generates the revenue is that some of those solutions have paid to be there. That is the fundamental model that’s been in place for the last 19 years and it’s not about to change.
Nothing Google has done in 2016 indicates that there is any shift in how they connect problems to solutions. It's now becoming a process of making it increasingly nuanced. At some point there will have to be a major shift, but it seems a long way off at the moment. For now Google appears to be betting it's future on controlling that model on mobile, to an even greater extent than desktop. So far it looks to be succeeding.