What Google isn’t telling us about their current (and future) mobile ranking algorithm

There’s something very important about Google’s mobile ranks you may not know. It could determine the next evolutionary phase of SEO and Google’s basic ranking rules, and you may have never even heard about it.

What you’re about to learn is virtually unknown, and yet it’s a major part of how Google determines mobile ranks.

Google’s ranking algorithm is constantly evolving, and in turn, the search results we see are more personalized (tailored to suit the user’s data that’s always being collected). There are multiple layers to this process: the first one checks what location the search is coming from and which UI language is being used, and the second one checks if the search is from mobile or desktop.

But as our R&D team discovered, there are actually another two layers of filters. These additional filters seem to be more active than ever and even more influential over the ranking results.

The known layers

Location – The first layer of filters is location based, which we’ve discussed here many times (links to helpful articles are at the end of this post). It’s one of the first personalization filters Google introduced to improve search results. Although the way they began gathering location data might be controversial, this move on the surface makes a lot of sense and helps local businesses have a better fighting chance. For example, let’s imagine a casual search on Google for a bicycle repair shop. If you were to search from Queens, New York, it would make sense to give you search results with businesses near your location ranked higher in the SERP than others due to awesome SEO but with less relevance to you. Essentially, this idea marked the dawn of local SEO, which is one the standards today.

Mobile vs. Desktop – The second layer that determines search results is the type of device we use to search: mobile or a desktop PC. It’s common knowledge by now that mobile ranks are different than desktop ranks. Since mobile searches are done on mobile devices, by definition the user might be on the go. Mobile users practically ooze location data, which is why the search results they see are much more geo targeted than desktop search results.

The biggest Google announcement on the subject was two years ago when they officially revealed their mobile-first approach. Ever since, websites that have aligned to mobile-friendly guidelines are more positively influenced in ranks on the mobile SERP. They also announced plans to develop their algorithms further, making mobile and desktop SERPs distinct from one another to offer more relevant content. Mobile searches on Google outnumber desktop searches by almost 2:1, which also influences ad targeting.

If you aren’t familiar yet with Google’s mobile-first approach and what it means for SEO and rank tracking (or you just want to refresh your memory), we recommend you read our article on the subject:

International version page indexing – These layers are also used to determine what specific page will be ranked and indexed. Websites that target audiences from multiple countries or in different languages will have several versions of the same source material suited for those audiences. To get the best results for the audience, and in the way designated by the website owner, Google will index the pages according to the user’s location and UI language. The instructions are taken from the HTML <head> element. For example:

<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en-US” href=”http://example.com/” />

This indexing principle also applies to websites that have a separate mobile version.  Google will index and display the mobile version of a webpage on mobile searches. Example of a mobile-version website URL: m.frenchfries.com

The additional NEW layers Google isn’t telling us about

Now, this is where we dive deeper than ever into Google’s personalization filters. A few years ago, PRT discovered Google was making the distinction of not only desktop vs. mobile, but also which mobile OS and mobile device type were being used. Google therefore showed different search results based on all these variables. As soon as we discovered it, we incorporated the ability to track these ranks into our SERP tracker, and PRT users have been able to keep track of all these layers ever since.

At first, these changes were subtle—a difference of maybe 1-2 positions apart at most—but now the gap seems to have increased to spaces as wide as 40+ positions. Not only that, but different page indexing has been observed, just as for alternate international versions of a page.

Surprisingly enough, almost no one in SEO talks about this phenomenon, but clearly some are in the loop about it because, as you are about to see, there are hints of highly advanced targeted SEO happening to influence those layers specifically.

Here’s what we know so far:

Apple vs. Android

Red is iPhone rank and blue is Android rank

 

What we see above are web pages being ranked differently by mobile OS for the same exact location and language, with the widest gaps spanning double digits and fluctuating wildly – sometimes to the point of not showing in the top100 for a particular mobile OS.

If it happens to any of your websites, it will pose a real problem: Apple, on average, takes 20% of the mobile market share[1], and depending on which OS the ranks drop in, it could mean the loss of up to 80% of potential mobile traffic plus half of all organic traffic!

Even if the lesser of these evils happen and it’s “just” Apple ranks that suffer, it means losing high-end customers that are often more financially stable (vs. Android users) and who have high brand loyalty.

Tablets vs. Phones

red is iPhone, blue is iPad

 

With Apple and Android, we can see even wider gaps searching from the exact same location and with the same language, but showing phone vs. tablet. The final image shows the range and size of the possible gap.

A tablet SERP might be seen as a hybrid somewhere between mobile and desktop because of the screen size. It’s reasonable to assume certain websites will perform better on a tablet than a smaller mobile device, and therefore be ranked higher, and vice versa.

Indexing

In addition to ranking a web page differently depending on OS and type of device, we can also see Google indexing a page for the same keyword, location and language as they see fit. The decisive factor for this indexing appears to be OS and device type.

The big concern here is how the website owner intended for his webpages to be indexed for these keywords. This could be by design of the SEO expert or simply Google’s algorithms “knowing better” which webpage’s content seems more relevant. It could be beneficial for all sides, or it’s possible people will see irrelevant information — and that could end up damaging the website’s business. Each case needs to be individually examined, and this is why it’s important you take action.

Current applications

This may not be a full-blown phenomenon yet, but it’s more important than ever now to follow it. Here are some benefits to tracking those layers, even if your ranks aren’t currently influenced by them:

  • Covering all bases – If this starts happening, you might as well catch it in time. Indexing issues can show pages you didn’t intend, and you might suddenly lose traffic. For example, you could drop out of top100 positions for all Apple users. Being prepared will keep you from scrambling.
  • ASO – App Store Optimization is a unique field that targets the ranking algorithms of Google’s Play Store and iTunes. If you’re doing ASO, you will need to know how well your apps rank on Google’s search. If you’re optimizing for an iTunes-exclusive app, it might be a good idea to track any iPhone and iPad ranks.
  • Researching and experimenting with future SEO – If this turns out to be the next big SEO leap, you can be a pioneer in the emerging strategies.
  • Full accuracy – If you have a high-quality approach to monitoring your SEO campaigns, even slight gaps in ranks might be relevant for you.

How to track those layers

Luckily, we’ve been researching and tracking them for more than two years, and we can fetch these ranks with 100% accuracy, just like all the other ranks on the search engines we support. So now that we know the ‘why’, now it’s time for the ‘how’.

Let’s say you’re tracking an Apple-exclusive app called “siphon” that sends even more sensitive user data to Apple on users. The website for the app is siphonmydata.com.

Before you start tracking, you need to choose the ranking elements that are relevant for you:

  1. Device type – Check both organic local (desktop) and mobile. In 2018, mobile and desktop ranks will be different 99% of the time, which is why you MUST track both! You don’t want to end up discovering that you’re missing out on more than half of your organic traffic because you didn’t monitor your ranks properly.
  2. Mobile OS and device type  – This is what we discussed today. Simply add Android Phone, Android Tablet, iPhone, and iPad, and you’ll be able to monitor the differences in those ranks! We even include the nearly extinct Windows Phone OS, just to be thorough.
  3. Indexing – To find out which webpages get indexed and ranked highest within a website for certain keywords, leave Exact Match at “no”. That way, you’ll be able to spot the indexing issues we mentioned.
  4. Search engine – You need to fit the Google domain to the country that you track, so if you track the US, you need to choose Google.com, and if you track France, then choose Google.fr.
    It’s a healthy practice to optimize for Bing and Yahoo! as well, so be sure to track them:
  5. Choose a location – Every search result is geo-targeted, and the ranks you will see will correspond to the ranks people from that area see. You need to choose the location that’s the most relevant for your business. You can track several locations at once if you target a wide area or simply want to see the most accurate picture of how you rank.
  6. Language – the ranks that someone with that Google UI language will see. This is important if you track specific webpages translated for that language.
  • Additional ranking types:
    Physical location listed on Google – you would need to track Snack Pack and the top 100 map results as well (called Local Finder):

    If you’re tracking a YouTube video, you can track it both within YouTube’s own search index and also inside Google’s video carousel SERP element. If you’re tracking an Amazon product, you can track it within Amazon’s unique search index.
    Cool fact! Snack Pack rank tracking is free and won’t cost you any terms for your quota.

Here’s a preview of what proper rank tracking of a single keyword and website should look like:

The future of mobile ranking

Blogs and forums were actively developing strategies around local vs. mobile SEO long before Google officially announced it was personalizing results based on location and device type. There’s a hive mind of SEO specialists monitoring changes and phenomena all the time. Often, SEO tools on the market discover strange shifts in Google, only to discover they are precursors for a major Google update.

It’s not clear if these are signs of an upcoming major Google update or some desired effect of an SEO strategy those websites are implementing. While the trend is unmistakable, and ranks dropping off the SERP altogether for iPhone or Android users can’t be ignored, there’s no need to be alarmed yet. The ranking differences are still insignificant for most cases.

We believe including mobile OS and device size will at some point become standard SEO practice. Whatever the ranking future may be, we guarantee we’ll keep a close eye on any changes Google makes and continue to innovate our rank tracker to stay ahead of Google.

Whatever the future for Google may be, we will be there to track it!

Helpful links and further reading


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PRT is an industry-standard SERP tracker with features (like the one we mentioned today) that no other tool offers. We guarantee the freshest and most accurate ranks you can get on the market – we update ranking data at least once a day and up to 3 times on demand. The ranks you get are 100% accurate and are collected from Google, Bing, Yahoo!, Yandex, Amazon, and YouTube with all the required ranking factors for 2018.

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