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The Future of Mobile SEO

Adam on 17.03.2016 in Mobile SEO

This is the first part of our presentation “From On-Page to On-Screen Optimization in the Mobile Era” we gave at the SEO Campixx in March 2016. 

SEO Campixx Vortrag über App Indexing

Lars & Adam auf der SEO Campixx

Mobile searches on Google have long overtaken those on desktop. In reality this is a big challenge for Google, in particularas apps become more popular and the app store is used, a web search loses relevance. If Google wants to remain the one stop shop for search, then app results have to play an important role in the mobile search results. With app indexing the first steps have been taken. What comes next will mean a massive shift for mobile search, the SEO industry and our jobs as SEO managers.

The mobile era is placing a lot of pressure on Google. Smartphone usersare going to Google less and less for searches, why?

Google’s Challenge #1: Smartphone users want apps

In order to present the best results in the mobile era, app content needs to be integrated in the search results.

  • Smartphone users have gotten used to native apps, und often prefer these to mobile websites (85% of smartphone use takes place in apps). Due to this strong user preference, a lot of apps are executed in the app store.
  • Due to this user preference, the prevalence of app-only or app-first players has increased, where web properties skip the creation and maintenance of a website altogether. As a result “the best” result for a search is sometimes only in an app, which would otherwise be a blind spot for Google.

Based on this, Google needs a strategy to index app content.

App indexing 2016: How to get started today

Already today it’s possible to find app matches in the mobile search results. However these are restricted to app screens, which have a web page equivalent. If the user has an app installed the site has the rel alternate tags in place, the app result will be shown. Users withouth the app, will see an offer to download the app.

Als App- und Website-Betreiber hat man verschiedene Möglichkeiten, seinen App-Content zu indexieren. The current recommended implementation for app Indexing  from Google can be summed up as follows:

  1. The app should be able to open web URLs (http and https) or in other words support deeplinking
  2. Establish the link between the app and website (via Google Play store) so Google can find the corresponding app content
  3. Add the app indexing API to the project and set up API calls. The goal is to send an API call for every user action (for instance a “screen view”). This function communicates the app content associated with the appropriate URL as well as the title and description.

Currently this doesn’t work for app-only content. However Google is dependet on indexing this content in order to show the best results in the future.

App indexing and app streaming: towards a better app search experience

The app indexing API should probably be called the “app usage API”, because it’s function and features go far beyond indexing app content. With the API Google receives information about usage freqeuncy and length from specfiic app content.

For example the app for a hotel search contains information about “hostels in Berlin”. The more often users interact with this content (the more API calls Google receives), the more relevant this content is. Google can use these signals, to rank the app content, and this without the correlation to a website. When some searches for “hostels in Berlin” Google can recommend an app download.

Let’s assume a user search for hostels in Berlin and the result set include web and app results. How likely is it, that a user downloads and installs an app for this query? According to Google, app results are only being user sparingly. The reason for that is pretty obvious: the user wants the information right away – “I want to see the price and not wait to download and navigate through an app”. It’s a split strategy, on the one hand Google is emphasizing page speed with the AMP project, on the other hand app needs to be part of the mix.

Enter app streaming! It’s only a beta test but in November of 2015 Google started offering the ability to stream an app. Clicking on the specially marked app stream result would stream the app content from a Google server, similar to the way a YouTube Video is streamed. The user can open the app, without having to download it. It looks like this:

Google’s challenge #2: How do you compare (and rank) web and app content against one another?

With the app indexing API and app streaming Google will be in a position to show app results and potentially stream the content to make it more user friendly. An important question still hasn’t been answered, however.

How do you find the right balance between web and app results, and which result should rank? How do you determine when an app is the best result – for users with the app installed and for those who would have to have it streamed on their device. I would put forward the following hypothesis: Google is planning to develop a common index for web and app content. That means app packs and caroussels will become a thing of the past. This would naturally have consequences for the entire ranking algorithm.

How App indexing could change Google’s Ranking system

A number of “classic” ranking singals are not available to evaluate app content – in particular the number of backlinks. In order to compare app and web content Google will need a set of ranking criteria that is applicable for both. For this reason I think that user signals will take on more importance – or become more important than they already are. So if the two are competing for the same coveted set of 10 blue links, the following factors will play the largest role:

  • CTR
  • Bounce Rate
  • Time on web property (site or app)

A shift towards one set of ranking factors would mean loss in importance in another. Online reputation building as in Links and Brand Searches for a site could be mirrored for apps in the number of brand searches in the app store, the number of organic download and number of downloads after app-streaming. Nevertheless the user signals will likely be the deciding factors – if for all your hard earned brand awareness the app still doesn’t get clicked or serve the needs of users then it will be buried in the SERPs.

Where there are winners, there are also losers. Especially web-only players, who are competing with app players, could potentially lose visibility, depending on their segment or industry. Google has quickly come a long way towards indexing app content and thanks to streaming and deep linking taken the necessary steps to making this integration user-friendly. I think that, not only will users get used to this experience, they will begin to expect it more often, which will reward apps more in the future, at the expense of websites. 

Google’s challenge 3: the problem with Apple

App indexing, ranking app content based on user signals and app streaming: what sounds promising, has one caveat. It doesn’t work so great on Apple devices. Google knows far less about iOS users than it does about its own Android users. In order to offer the best integrated search experience, the search engine needs to know what apps are already installed on the device – otherwise the deep links, app streaming options and download links are superfluous.

On top of that, Apple is making strides in search with its own “spotlight” search engine. From iOS9 onward the Spotlight search function allows a user to search through the calendar, contacts and e-mails on the device. Apple’s goal is likely to turn Spotlight into a universal search engine, which is embedded in the operating system and doesn’t bother users with annoying ads (see the great blog post from Jason Calacanis). To this end Apple has been running its own web crawler called “Applebot” since 2015, which has stepped up its activity massively in 2016.

At this point it’s worth taking a closer look at Apples app indexing solution – essentially it is similar to Google’s. Via a number of different APIs the in-app activity is passed on to Apple. This allows Apple in the Spotlight search (and its auto-complete function), to show users the app content they’ve already accessed. One step further, it can also make download recommendations if there is no matching internal results.

Is it possible that Apple, with its own app indexing solution and web crawler, is planning to ban Google from its ecosystem? It wouldn’t be surprising:

Plant Apple mit eigener App-Indexing-Lösung und eigenem Crawler, Google nach und nach aus seinem “Ökosystem” iOS zu vertreiben? Es würde mich nicht wundern

  • If Spotlight soon becomes a unversal search engine, which returns web and app content
  • If Spotlight is made the standard search engine in Safari (despite the fact that Google supposedly pays 1 billion dollars a year, in order to be the standard search engine on Safari)
  • If Apple develops its own app streaming service
  • If the universal Spotlight search soon offers a very good user experience, including app deep links, recommendations, web results and an internal device search

This could finally break Google’s hegemony in the mobile search space and make mobile SEO that much more complicated – given there will be 2 strong players on the market.

From on-page to on-screen: what is changing for SEO Managers

Will we as SEO managers soon be doing not just on-page optimization but also on-screen optimization? Will link building continue to become less important? User signals may very soon be playing an even bigger role, and we might be looking more at “eye-catchy” snippets, user friendly entry points for user from Google search, low bounce rates and high conversion rates. In the end this is the vocabularly we already using for on-page optimization. However our focus will soon include more than pages but screens in apps, thus the term on-screen SEO. This would mean a closer alignment of the SEO with a “traditional” product manager role.

What else could change for SEO managers?

  • Will SEOs have to finally broaden their horizons and skillsets? We tend to be focussed only on the big G, but soon as mentioned earlier, we could have two large players on the market, on the mobile device which is more often user for search than desktop. Already we have had to add ASO, rankings and conversion rates in app stores, to our repertoire.
  • Will SEOs soon be thinking of content strategies for apps? Especially for app only providers the question will be, how to get landing pages, or better yet, landing screens, to pull the right users into their app. In the traditional SEO field landing pages are often created specifically to offer a more appropriate entry point to the website. How this will look in the world of apps will be something SEOs will likely be dealing the next couple of years.
  • Is this the beginning of a new black hat era? The history of SEO has shown that for every update, a new form of Spam has developed: keyword stuffing, link spam, cloaking and PageRank sculpting are only a few examples. For app indexing both Google and Apple will be reliant on user signals from their respective APIs: the frequency of app content interactions, but also the time on app screen will influence rankings. Currently this is a new system and one potentially open to manipulation. Will black hats soon begin to generate fake screen views and send theses to the API?

The combined web and app search is still in its infancy. Nevertheless, it is worth starting with app indexing now. In the second part we offer practical tips for app indexing, based on our own experience. 


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