What to watch for in 2018: Mobile SEO predictions

As we wrap up 2017 and look forward to 2018, many SEOs will speculate about what to expect in the year to come. Since my focus is mobile, I wanted to share my unique expectations for 2018 by outlining what we know and what we suspect on the mobile SEO front.

This past year brought a lot of changes to the mobile ecosystem, though we are still waiting expectantly for the launch of Google’s mobile-first index. We have been assured that it will launch sometime in 2018, and we hope this is true.

For this article, I plan to focus on a few of my key predictions for 2018: the blurring of the lines between app and web, cross-device convergence and the increased reliance on schema markup in HTML, JSON and databases. I will then tie all the trends together with unique speculation about what mobile-first indexing will actually be and what strategies you can start incorporating now to create an immediate SEO benefit.

This background information about mobile trends and the long-term expectations about mobile-first indexing should help you prioritize and plan for a more successful 2018.

Blurring of the app/web lines

The biggest trend in 2017 that will continue to grow in 2018 is a movement toward Progressive Web Apps, or PWAs. You can expect them to be an even bigger focus in 2018.

Just as a refresher, Progressive Web Apps are websites that enable an app shell and configuration file to be downloaded to a phone, which allows it to take on all the best characteristics of a native app while living on the web. Remember, “web apps” are basically just JavaScript-heavy websites that look like native apps, so making them function as a PWA just entails adding a couple of extra files and a little more functionality.

The great thing about PWAs is that they allow for an app icon, full-screen display without an address bar, speedy on- and offline functionality and push notifications. They are a good way to help companies build a bridge between the discoverability of the web and the engagement and satisfaction that users experience with apps, all while minimizing overhead. They can be used directly on the web or installed like a native app on Android devices (and iOS devices soon, too). That means there is a lot less to maintain, optimize and promote, so they are incredibly attractive to savvy companies of all sizes.

The app development trends will start to shift away from native apps and toward PWAs as more companies begin to understand the value that PWAs can provide. The Android OS now treats PWAs almost exactly like native apps, showing their resource consumption and specs in the exact same places, displaying them in the app tray, and soon, adding them to the Google Play Store. Google has also begun to transition many of their specific-interest web resources into PWAs, including Traffic, Sports, Restaurants, Weather, Google Contribute, Maps-Go and Weather PWA.

You can see this trend in action below. The first screen shows a web search result for the local weather. The next screen shows the same search result with a different presentation and the option to add it to the home screen. The third screen shows the dialogue where you accept addition of the PWA icon to your home screen. The final image shows Google’s native weather app and its weather PWA app icons side by side. The two apps do the exact same thing and have the exact same interface.

[Click to enlarge.]

PWAs are also important because they remove the need for companies to set up deep links from their websites into their apps and vice versa — a process that has proven complicated and sometimes impossible for large companies that don’t have exact parity between their app and website content. Google always prefers to recommend and reward the least error-prone options, and in our experience, deep linking the old fashioned way is very error-prone. Every time something changes in the app or content moves on the website (individual 301 redirects or a full migration), app indexing and deep linking is at risk of failing or completely breaking down.

And even when your deep links are working correctly, referral touch points and attribution can be nearly impossible to track without the assistance of third-party services. This is a stark contrast to the simplicity of linking on the web. PWAs are self-contained apps that are already indexed on the web, eliminating all that complexity.

If everything that happens in your company’s app can be achieved in a PWA, it makes sense to focus efforts on the PWA — especially if the company is struggling with deep linking. As long as your PWA is well indexed and delivering a great user experience, Android deep links will be irrelevant.

Since PWAs will be in Google Play with native apps, Android users likely won’t be able to tell the difference between a native app and a PWA. On Android, it is important to note that Google may eventually change how they treat deep links when a PWA is available. Google may begin to prefer PWA content over deep links (especially if the app is not installed), just as they have done for AMP content.

This is less of a concern for iOS, especially if deep linking is happening through iOS Universal links rather than any Firebase implementation. Since Universal Links are executed with the iOS operating system rather than the browser, it seems likely that iOS will continue to honor Universal Links into apps, even if a PWA is available.

Just remember that, in both cases, if the PWA is replacing the website, the app deep links will need to match up with the URLs used in the PWA. If the PWA is in addition to the main website, only the web URLs that are associated with app URIs will trigger the deep links.

As Google begins adding PWAs to Google Play and indexing them on the web, this could make it easier for it to add app logos to SERPs for both Android and iOS, improving the appearance, CTR and engagement of the PWA links. Regardless, there may still be a push for all app deep links to be moved into its Firebase system, to help Google improve its cross-device, cross-OS reporting and attribution. Depending on how quickly Google is able to finish launching mobile-first indexing, this is something that may be a big push for the company in the second half of 2018.

We are seeing similar changes on the app store optimization (ASO) front as well. The Google Play algorithm is historically much less sophisticated than the Google search algorithm, but recent changes to the Google Play app algorithm show a much larger focus on app performance, efficiency, engagement and reviews, and a relative decrease in the importance of app metadata. This could be considered a signal of a potential impending merge between Google Play and regular SERPs, since we know performance is an important ranking factor there. When PWAs are added to the Google Play Store, native Android apps will be competing against PWA websites in terms of performance. Conversely, this will likely mean that PWAs may also be subject to ranking fluctuations based on user reviews and star ratings.

Though it is less prominent for SEO, the same may be true in the Apple world of technology. Historically, Apple was resistant to allowing their Safari browser to support PWAs, but recent announcements make it seem as though the company’s perspective has flipped. In 2017, Apple finally made it clear that Safari would soon support the Service Worker files that make PWAs so useful, and just this month (Dec. 12, 2017), in its quest to eliminate the use of app templating services, Apple seemingly endorsed PWAs as a better option for companies with limited budgets than templated native apps!

Apple’s sudden and emphatic endorsement of PWAs is a strong indication that PWAs will be supported in the next Safari update. It may also indicate that Apple has developed a scheme to monetize PWAs. Apple could also plan on adding them to its App Store (where they can exercise more editorial control over them). This is all yet to be seen, of course, but it will be interesting.

Cross-device convergence

The next major theme to expect in 2018 is cross-device convergence. As the number and purpose of connected devices continues to expand, mindsets will also need to expand to take on a wider view of what it means to be “cross-device.” Historically, cross-device might have meant having apps and a website, or having a responsive design website that worked on all devices. But in 2018, people will start to realize that this is not enough. As the line between app and web merges on mobile, it will also merge on desktop and the Internet of Things (IoT).

As more information moves to the cloud, it will be easier to seamlessly move from one device to another, maintaining the state, history and status of the interaction on all devices simultaneously. The presentation layer will simply include hooks into a larger API. Developers will be more focused on testing data integrations of one app across many different devices, rather than testing multiple, device-specific apps on multiple devices (somewhat similar to the transition to responsive design on the web).

There is a store for Google Home and a store for Google Actions, Google’s Voice-First and Voice-Only channels, but these will probably merge into the same store — possibly when the mobile-first index fully launches, but more likely soon after. You can expect an eventual convergence of mobile and desktop app stores, operating systems and search utilities, though this won’t all be completed or even initiated in 2018. It is just the direction things are going.

We have already seen this happening in some places. The convergence between mobile and desktop is most obvious when you look at the changes that happened in Windows 10. The desktop OS incorporates an app store and looks much more like an Android phone, even including customizable widgets in the “Start” screens. Microsoft announced just this month that Service Workers, push notifications and local cache will all also be enabled by default in Microsoft’s new Edge browser, which is intended for both desktop and mobile.

PWAs and Android apps are already available in the Windows app store, which means that PWAs are already available and partially usable on desktop. In that same vein, Microsoft has now made a point of making some of the top software, like Outlook, Excel and Word, available on Android devices, without a license.

There are also indications that Google may begin to test sponsored App Pack rankings. Since App Pack rankings happen in the regular SERP rather than an app store, this could be important for desktop, too. As companies begin to realize how useful PWAs are, they will have a visual advantage over other sponsored results on both mobile and desktop.

Google and Microsoft/Windows have always been more willing to coexist without walled gardens, while Apple has always leaned toward proprietary products and access. If Safari mobile will support PWAs and Service Workers, then it may also be true for the desktop version of Safari, meaning that the line between mobile and desktop will be merging in the larger Apple universe, too. The MacOS has had its own app store for a long time, but the Apple teams, like the Android and Windows teams, have also reported that they will be merging the MacOS and iOS stores into one in 2018.

This cross-device, voice- and cloud-oriented model is already being pursued with Cortana’s integration in Windows 10, where the mobile and desktop app stores have already merged. Similarly, Siri, Safari and Spotlight work cross-device to surface apps and websites, and Google has added voice search to desktop — but they have both yet to really push the assistant to the front and center as a means of surfacing that app and web content on all devices.

There were rumors that iOS apps would also be available in the Windows app store, but that looks like it has fallen through, at least in terms of 2018 planning. Instead, Apple may have decided to extend or merge its own iOS App Store with the desktop version of the store and could also have decided to include PWAs for the desktop experience.

The last thing to watch out for in this trend is changes with Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP). AMP was designed to make webpages fast and mobile-friendly, and even though these enhanced pages can work on desktop and probably could integrate easily with voice, Google has reportedly struggled to integrate them into the mobile-first index. While it does provide a lot of advantages, AMP will probably have to make major changes or face a reckoning in 2018. There are still significant problems that need to be resolved in terms of UX and measurement.

Increased reliance on structured data markup in more places

The final thing to watch for in 2018 is Google’s push for webmasters to mark up everything with structured data, including social profiles, corporate contact information, books, events, courses and facts. Structured data, and specifically markup that is formatted in JSON-LD to provide semantic understanding, is what allows Google to understand “entities.” (The “LD” in JSON-LD stands for Linked Data.)

We know that structured data will be a big deal because it helps Google figure out what is going on without having to rely so heavily on crawling and parsing all the content on the web — which has become quite a monumental job with no end in sight. This is why Google has switched to requesting most data-rich assets in the JSON-LD format, including Google Action markup, Web-app manifests, and the files saved by Service Workers.

Last year, before Google I/O, Google made a big point of creating a structured data testing tool that gave specific implementation instructions for a variety of different kinds of markup. The kinds of schema included there, not surprisingly, are specifically good for interactions with Google Home, Google Assistant and Chromecast — things like restaurants, reservations, travel plans, music, TV, movies and recipes.

Content that is well marked up with structured data can be easily parsed and presented on non-traditional devices through voice search and interaction (like with Google Assistant, Google Home, Android Auto). This is also a big deal for non-Google products like Amazon Alexa, Siri, Fitbit (which launched its own OS-specific partner apps) and voice-enabled TV remotes.

The one thing in Google’s structured data documentation that has not gotten due attention is the database or data set markup (i.e., instructions for how to add structured data markup to your database). Databases don’t necessarily have URLs or need websites, and this is core to the theory that the mobile-first index will not require URLs for indexing and that it will rely on schemas and entity understanding.

Let’s look at an example of how markup is creating “entity” understanding. Below, you can see a search result for a specific boot. Rather than showing all the web locations where you might find that boot, Google has aggregated it into a utility that can give users a lot more information directly from the SERP.

The result shows the full name of the boot, as well as what stores have it in stock and at what prices. It also shows the star ratings for the boot and lets me toggle to different sizes and colors. If I click the tabs, I can see more details about the boot and read reviews that have been aggregated from all the places that sell it. Since this information is an aggregation of information from all over the web, it actually does not have a static URL, so Google includes a triangle “share” link so that the aggregation itself can be shared.

This sharing functionality is something that you can expect to see much more of in mobile-first indexing. It is an indication that Google views a topic as an entity and thus has stored, aggregated or assimilated information on the topic as a whole (the entity). Dynamic links are links that Google generates on the fly, for content that it understands, but that does not naturally have a URL.

It is important to remember that Google’s very first (unsuccessful) attempt to encourage app deep-linking used Dynamic Links, as part of Google Now On-Tap. Then, they were used as a unified link that united the same piece of content on the web, in an iOS app and in an Android app. They allowed one link to trigger the right experience on any device, and if the appropriate app was not installed, the link would fall back to the web version of the content. Now, Dynamic Links are still included as an important part of Google’s app indexing platform, Firebase.

In the next example below, you can see how the linked data helps support entity understanding in a search result. The query is for a popular author, so the result shows pictures and a brief biography at the very top. There are only minor differences between the Google Now result and the Google Web result — one has a dynamic share link, and the other offers the ability to “follow” the entity or concept.

In both, the result aggregates information such as quotes and movies attributed to the author, lists influences and links to a Wikipedia page. Below that, Google displays a carousel of his most popular books, with pictures of the cover and the date they came out. Below that, it shows a “People Also Searched For” carousel, which is full of authors who write in the same genre.

We believe Google is using clicks on these bottom two carousels to verify and vet the linked data that it has assimilated about this author. The more clicks a carousel item gets, the more likely it is linked to the topic of the query.

A new way to think of mobile-first indexing

Knowing these trends should help you understand how mobile-first indexing fits into the larger SEO picture. Inclusion of the word “indexing” in Google’s official title for the update is telling. It indicates that this is not just an algorithm update, but an update to the fundamental architecture and organization of the system. Remember, an “index” is just a repository of ordered information that is easy to query or search. Indexes can be created for all different kinds of information and ordered in a variety of ways: alphabetically, numerically, or in Google’s case, historically based on URLs.

Since native apps and progressive web apps don’t require different URLs to show different content, we believe the method of indexing and organizing content has to change. Forcing URLs into those new technologies has proved untenable, so Google needs a new index — and it will be one that prefers “portable” content that lives in the cloud and is well marked up with structured data. It will probably be an “entity index” based on unique “entity concepts” that include domains (with URLs), native app entities and their content, PWA entities and database entities that need no design elements at all.

Use of the phrase “mobile-first” in the name is also interesting. With both the mobile-friendly update and mobile-first indexing, Google repurposes phrases that were previously used to describe design elements — but in both, Google mainly focused on the technological back end that made the design changes possible. For the mobile-friendly update, Google did provide guidelines on how content should look on the page, but based on their testing tool, their main focus was really on the crawlability of dependent files on the site (specifically, the CSS and JavaScript).

The mobile-friendly update was an important precursor to mobile-first indexing because it gave Google what it needed to feed and train its machine learning programs about how they should ingest and interpret JavaScript. As SEOs, we all endured the mobile-friendly update, which preferred sites that qualified as such and awarded them with a mobile-friendly icon when they appeared in search results.

Similarly, the phrase “mobile-first” was originally used to describe a design principle in which responsive design website frameworks were established with the most essential elements of functionality first, and these were meant for mobile devices with the smallest screens. Only later were designers able to add in other, less necessary elements of the design and UX for larger-screened devices that had more room.

It now appears that Google has also co-opted the term “mobile-first” to mean something slightly different, with implications that are much larger than just design. Rather than focusing on mobile devices and screen sizes, Google will put the focus on content accessibility and the cloud and focus much less on the presentation.

This is an important trend because “the cloud” is where Google has been focusing most of their time and innovative energy. Content that is hosted in the cloud, without being formatted specifically for any one device, is exactly what they are after; it is the easiest for them to process with AI and the easiest for them to redisplay on any screen (or read out loud, in voice-only contexts). That is where Google Now and Google Assistant come in.

Google Now was Google’s first attempt at a predictive search engine that anticipated queries before a user even submitted them. It used all the information it knew or could detect about your habits to anticipate information you would want and displayed it in an interface to the left of the home screen on Android phones. It was also available as the Google App on iOS, but it was never as good since they weren’t able to aggregate as many personal habits and preferences from iOS users. Google Now included a voice search capability, but it just translated voice queries into text.

There are minimal differences in most search rankings when you compare regular search in Google.com and a search in Google Now. The primary differences happen when there is a PWA available (like the Weather PWA). There are also some minor variations in the “share” and “follow” functionality, which probably also hint at what to expect in mobile-first indexing. You can see the differences below.

Google Assistant is a bit more sophisticated in that it can sometimes answer simple questions directly rather than just returning a search result. It also uses passive and active signals about a user to ensure that it is giving the most accurate and useful information possible. Google Assistant is the critical element of a Google Home device, which operates primarily with voice but can cast results to connected TVs or phones if visual review is required.

Google Now and Google Assistant are obvious precursors for mobile-first indexing and give us a great deal of insight into what to expect. The two utilities are very similar and may simply be combined for mobile-first indexing. One of the strongest endorsements of this idea is that Google has recently gotten much more aggressive at pushing Android users into the Google Now/Google Assistant world. They moved the query bar from the Google Now interface (one swipe left of the main phone screen) to the standard layout (accessible on all versions of the home screen).

The new search bar just says “Google,” so most users won’t realize that they are accessing a different experience there than in the web-oriented version of Google (google.com).

Google’s most recent blog post about the mobile-first index didn’t really add anything new to the equation, so our best guess is still that the new index will probably also lean heavily on Google’s existing semantic understanding of the web (which is based on Knowledge Graph and its historical incorporation and build-up of Freebase). It will also use cards and AI, like we are used to seeing in Google Now. This concept is backed up by Google’s retirement of the term “rich snippets” and the launch of the new Rich Results Testing Tool on December 19.

The image below shows the different methods Google is using to inform the Google Assistant about an individual user’s preferences, which will help further personalize individual search results. But this data could also be aggregated — in a “Big Data” way — to determine larger patterns, needs and search trends so that it can adapt more quickly.

On the left, you can see a Google Cloud Search, which draws together information about assets on all of my devices that are logged into a Google Account. This includes emails, calendar entries, Drive documents, photos, SMS and apps. Though this has not been the focus of any Google marketing, it is part of Google’s Business GSuite package, which is turned on by default for all GSuite users.

On the right, you can see the Google My Activity tracker. This is another feature that is turned on by default. It is similar to the Cloud Search function, but instead of just being a searchable database, it organizes the information in chronological order. It breaks out my daily activity on a timeline and a map. The data includes the amount of time I spent walking and driving. It also shows the businesses that I visited and the times I was there. It also places pictures that I took on the timeline and associates them with the locations where the pictures were taken.

Elements like this are meant to help Google Assistant have a greater understanding of personal context so that it can respond when surfacing search results, either to an explicit search or to an anticipated want or need (e.g., Google Now).

In the long run, Google Assistant may be the new entry to Google search on all devices, forcing people to log in so that their state and history can be maintained across different devices, and so that a personal history and index can be developed and built out for each user. The beginning of this personal history index is already in Google Now for Android users. It uses active and passive machine learning to track and compile all of a user’s cross-device activity in Google Cloud, then translates that information into predicted needs in Google Now.

Google has already begun promoting a “one-click register and form “complete” and “one-click sign-in” that works and transfers credentials across different devices. This functionality is all currently made possible by Google’s Credential Management API, which means that it relies on a cloud-hosted shared “state” managed by coordination of local Service Workers that pass state changes to the cloud-hosted Google Account. If and when this takes off, it will be a huge boon to engagement and e-commerce conversion because it eliminates the main friction.

Conclusion

From a search prospective, data that lives in one state, regardless of the device, is great — but assimilating all the different types of potential search results into an index is hard. The new mobile-first index will mix together websites with apps, PWAs and other data sets that don’t all have URLs, so this is where structured data markup will come in.

Just as advertising systems profile individual users with device fingerprints, Google will have to organize the new index with similar unique identifiers, which will include web URLs and app URIs. But, for content that does not have an existing unique identifier, like a page deep within a PWA experience or an asset in a database, Google will allow “Dynamic Links” to stand in as their unique identifier so that they can be indexed.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

The upcoming mobile app Monday: Be prepared

The season is upon us: mobile download season. Christmas falls on Monday, and if history holds true, Christmas and the day after will be the top mobile app download days of the year. With less than a week left, your app store optimization (ASO) activities should be in full swing.

Becky Peterson heads up our app store optimization at Walgreens. Becky was looking to be on the nice list, so she put together some optimization tips for new and existing apps to help you maximize the download season.

Optimization essentials

Title: Choose a title for your app that is creative but concise. If appropriate, take advantage of the character limit to include relevant keywords that describe your app’s core functionality. (Just don’t overdo it — you don’t want to appear spammy!)Icon: Create an eye-catching icon that is clean and easily recognizable. A recognizable icon can make the difference when customers are searching specifically for your app.Keywords & description: Conduct keyword research to determine the most valuable and relevant terms for your app. Utilize the keyword field in iTunes Connect, and use your keywords throughout your description and in your creative assets.Video: Create a preview video (or three for iOS!) that walks through your core features and provides visitors an overview of how to use your app. On iOS 11, your previews will autoplay in search results and on your store page; in Google Play, they will underlay the Feature Graphic. Create videos that are engaging. Test, test, test to determine which video version generates optimal downloads prior to the top download days.Screen shots: Create clean and visually appealing screen shots that capture the essence of your app and encourage visitors to continue scrolling through the gallery.

Additional tips

Take full advantage of free app store intelligence platforms, such as App Annie or Sensor Tower, or invest in an app store analytics platform that will provide you with keyword ranking, competitors, Top Chart and download data.If applicable, seasonalize or incentivize your store listing! Use your description to highlight how your app is seasonally relevant and provide offers (i.e., shopping deals, products and more), and update your creative assets to showcase a holiday theme.Respond to your app reviews. Demonstrate to your users that you appreciate their feedback and are constantly working to improve your app. Some reviewers may even choose to update their original review simply because you responded in a considerate manner. Prospective users are more inclined to download an app when it is clear the app owners take feedback seriously.

Capitalizing on the top download days of the year can be the difference between an average app and a top download. Keep your content fresh, do not over-optimize, and remember that the goal is to assist customers in finding the right app for the right purpose. Put in the effort, set download goals, and allocate plenty of time to respond to the flurry of reviews that occur soon after installation and use.

Remember to document your lessons learned once the season is over. Download season will be back before you know it, and those valuable lessons can be the difference-maker next year.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

Apple launches 'set it and forget it' Search Ads Basic for the App Store

Apple says it will bring more installs with less effort “at a predictable cost.” That’s how the company is pitching its new Search Ads Basic offering.

Apple rolled out Search Ads for the App Store in September 2016. Since that time, Apple has seen significant adoption by developers seeking to drive app downloads. Search Ads Basic is a simplified version of Search Ads that eliminates keywords and bidding.

Apple won’t appreciate this analogy, but it’s kind of like AdWords Express for the App Store. Search Ads Basic is designed for developers who don’t have the time, interest or expertise to manage search campaigns. Currently, it’s available for the US only.

However, Search Ads is available in selected non-US markets, so over time, we can probably expect it to go international. The current product now becomes “Search Ads Advanced.” Beyond the differences in bidding and keywords, the two have different dashboards, with simplified data available for Basic and more granular data available with Advanced.

To get started with Basic, you specify a monthly budget and a cost-per-install (CPI) maximum. As with Search Ads Advanced, Apple generates the creative.

Using its data and analytics, Apple will recommend a CPI amount, but developers can set their own. Regardless, the company will seek to optimize campaigns to bring the actual cost in under the daily CPI. Apple is offering a $100 credit for new campaigns.

Users pay only for taps (clicks). I was told that Apple is seeing a very high average conversion rate of 50 percent. However, some campaigns perform even better. The company also indicated that many developers are achieving CPIs of less than $1.50 and some well below $0.50.

The move toward greater simplification is also happening at Google. Earlier this year, the company decided to turn all app-install campaigns into Universal App Campaigns.

Google facing $1 billion in potential liability with UK class action

In 2012, Google paid $22.5 million to settle an FTC claim that the company “misrepresented to users of Apple Inc.’s Safari Internet browser that it would not place tracking cookies or serve targeted ads to those users . . .” The company bypassed Safari’s cookie-blocking settings, it said, to deliver a “signed-in” user experience.

Google explained that it “used known Safari functionality to provide features that signed-in Google users had enabled,” adding that “advertising cookies do not collect personal information.” Critics took a more skeptical view.

This same conduct is now the subject of a class action lawsuit in the UK. The potential UK class includes 5.4 million people who owned iPhones between June 2011 and February 2012. Google’s hypothetical liability in the matter could exceed $1 billion — considerably higher than the settlement in the US action.

The UK lawsuit is being framed as a privacy case about the “misuse of personal data.” Google says that it believes the suit is meritless and will contest it.

The group pursuing the case is called “Google You Owe Us.” On the group’s website it makes the following statements about the case, called a “representative action” in the UK:

We believe that Google took millions of iPhone users’ personal information illegally in 2011 and 2012. Google did this by bypassing default privacy settings on the iPhone’s Safari browser . . .

We want to ensure that big companies like Google respect our privacy in the future. Our personal information is valuable and it must be used it in a way that is trustworthy and fair.

This case can be seen in the broader context of European privacy complaints against US internet companies. Google and Facebook specifically have been the subject of numerous complaints in different countries.

Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation is coming in May, which will create strict new privacy rules and significant potential liability (millions of euros) for companies that fail to comply or violate its provisions.

Siri, Safari and Google Search: What does it mean for marketers?

Apple has recently made some significant changes to both Siri and Safari, with potentially far-reaching implications for digital marketers.

First, Apple has announced that results for its AI-powered digital assistant, Siri, will now be provided by Google rather than Bing. This interesting development encompasses two of the most important areas of modern search marketing: voice search and mobile. As such, SEOs will be paying close attention to how this might affect their strategies and their reporting.

The launch of the latest version of Apple’s Safari browser also brought with it controversial updates that could significantly impact the digital media industry. By introducing stringent new measures that will prevent third-party cookies from tracking Safari users for more than 24 hours, Apple has made a clear statement about the importance of consumer privacy.

Equally, it has forced some advertisers to rethink their approaches to tracking — and reporting on — digital marketing campaigns. Given the prominent positions of voice search, mobile SEO and data privacy in many industry discussions today, it would be fair to say that Apple has taken a stance.

Apple moves Siri searches to Google

Google has been selected as the default provider of search results via Apple’s voice-enabled digital assistant, Siri, although image search results will still be powered by Bing.

With voice search now accounting for over 20 percent of searches (a number that will likely increase dramatically in the near future), this move will undoubtedly bring a sizable number of queries to Google. Apple’s stated reason for switching is that it will provide a “consistent web search experience” for consumers alongside Safari results, which are already provided by Google by default. Bing and Google process queries and rank organic search results using different algorithms, so we should expect that the answers provided by Siri will change as a part of this development.

If Siri’s answer does not respond adequately to the query, Apple device users will now be sent through to a Google search results page to browse other links. Once a user clicks through to a Google results page, the data can be processed and shared as it would via any other Google SERP. While Google does not share its keyword-level organic search data with site owners, this will still provide welcome insight into other areas of the SEO traffic that brands receive via Google.

How does this affect search marketers?

There will, of course, be an inverse correlation between the number of Google searches and the number of Bing searches that marketers see in their reports, to a greater or lesser degree depending on how much of their audience uses Siri. For paid search, this may mean a re-evaluation of budgets for both Google and Bing. For organic search, the focus should be on providing the most relevant answer to a query, to increase the likelihood that Siri will select your content.

Although this could be seen to represent a seismic shift in how organic search marketers optimize for Siri, the reality is that the core principles of voice search and mobile SEO remain constant:

Micro-moments — revealed in I-want-to-do or I-want-to-go queries, for example — are vitally important.Optimize for longer, natural language queries, as consumers are more likely to search in this manner via voice than via text.Speed is of the essence; mobile users expect content to load quickly, so marketers need to incorporate this as an essential strategic consideration.Hyperlocal searches, driven by implicit location-based intent, are on the rise as consumers come to grips with the capabilities of their mobile devices.Constantly refine the approach as more data becomes available. This is still a nascent area of search marketing, and we need to be prepared to adapt based on consumer feedback.

In fact, as SEOs and content marketers strive to answer the underlying intent of a query rather than simply responding to exact queries through keyword matching, we can safely say that the days of chasing the search algorithms are coming to an end. As a consequence, Apple’s move from Bing to Google for Siri results should not require much adjustment from a sophisticated SEO strategy.

Furthermore, while this is certainly not a positive move for Bing, Microsoft’s search engine does still retain an important share of the market that search professionals cannot afford to neglect.

As mentioned above, Apple’s principal reason for switching to Google was to bring results in line with its Safari browser, which has also been the recipient of some radical overhauls of late.

Safari updates

Apple has primarily updated its Safari web browser in ways that affect the capturing, processing and sharing of user data, with the ultimate aim of improving the user experience. The three most noteworthy changes for marketers are Intelligent Tracking Prevention, Autoplay Blocking and Reader Mode. You can read more about these specific changes here.

Safari accounts for a sizable portion of web traffic, with a 14.22 percent share of the global market and a 31.5 percent share of the US market. With Google planning its own measures to tackle invasive advertising practices in the upcoming Chrome browser update, it is becoming clear that both parties want to protect consumers from irrelevant content and intrusive advertising.

Consumers are increasingly in control of what they see online and how they see it. According to Google, a majority of search traffic worldwide now comes from mobile devices. Combined with the 40 percent of US consumers that have used an ad blocker, the picture becomes clearer still. Brands and publishers are all striving to provide the best possible experience, with a mobile-first slant on everything they do.

Apple’s focus on a fast, user-friendly experience certainly does not exist in a vacuum. Pervasive ads can contribute to longer page load speeds, which is to the detriment of Safari. Apple wants to attract as many users to its browser as possible; removing elements that only detract from the user experience seems a sensible way to achieve that.

Moreover, Apple is not the only company taking measures to this effect. For example, Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) initiative strips back HTML into leaner source code that can be displayed faster, with an increasing amount of SEO-driven content now created for this standard.

Where Safari will not block ads, Google may go one step further with its upcoming Chrome update. Due for launch early next year, the latest Chrome has included an ad blocker in some early tests. We are therefore beginning to see browsers act as intermediaries between websites and consumers, rather than conduits for information.

How should SEOs prepare for these changes?

Apple’s recent updates serve to further consolidate the position of mobile SEO as the cornerstone of organic search marketing today. All of the recent changes have been driven by a desire to improve the consumer experience by delivering the fast, seamless loading of content. Moreover, Apple is at pains to ensure that this is content its customers actually want to see and engage with.

This will not sound revolutionary to many SEOs, who will by now be very familiar with these concepts. However, we should be cognizant of the fact that SEO affects many other marketing disciplines and understand that our work is pivotal as brands adapt to this new landscape.

Those that embrace this new ecosystem — where consumers are increasingly in control and the onus is on brands and advertisers to create experiences that draw engagement — will reap the very significant rewards. We have been taught many lessons and had to adapt to many trends over the past few years in SEO, through the many transitions the industry has seen. The focus on creating genuine connections through data-driven content is one that may soon apply to many other areas of digital marketing.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

Apple Search Ads expanding to Canada, Mexico & Switzerland

The Apple App Store has announced it is expanding support for Search Ads into Canada, Mexico and Switzerland.

Apple released Search Ads for the App Store a little over a year ago, with previous support limited to the US, the UK, New Zealand and Australia.

Apple’s Search Ad product is the iOS version of what Google Play has offered in its store for Android devices since 2015. Both are aimed at driving app discovery by users.

Search Ads are generated automatically from app metadata, with advertisers setting a daily or total campaign budget. Ads appear based on keyword searches specified by advertisers, along with demographic segments such as gender, age and location. Advertisers can also separate bids by device: one bid for iPhone users, another for iPad users.

A hands-on review of Apple’s Search Ads upon its release in the UK outlines the pros and cons of the platform, along with some items to look out for.

Apple is still offering a $100 USD credit for first-time advertisers. The newly-added countries will be available on the platform starting October 17.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

Amazon just upped the ante in the battle of the virtual assistants

Yesterday, at a pre-emptive event in Seattle, Amazon introduced new Alexa devices to keep its lead in the battle for the smart home. Google is having its own hardware event on October 4.

Amazon introduced six products. First and foremost, it presented a more compact, cheaper Echo with better sound. It comes in six different colors or skins. It starts at $99, which is much cheaper than the original Echo’s price ($179). Many people will likely compare this price to Apple’s forthcoming HomePod and opt for the less expensive device.

The company also introduced Echo Plus, which is being marketed as a smart home hub. The device looks like the original Echo but is also less expensive at $149 and includes upgraded speakers. The $99 Echo also works as a smart home hub, but the Echo Plus includes additional hardware that reportedly makes smart home device connections easier and entirely voice-activated.

The novel Echo Spot is a rounder, smaller version of Echo Show. It’s like a Dot with a screen but looks like an Alarm Clock that would sit beside your bed. It has a 2.5-inch screen to provide visual information and will cost $129. It will also support video calling.

Speaking of which, the Echo Connect is a square black box that looks like Apple TV. It allows Echo devices to make calls to any phone and is designed to play catch-up with Google Home, which can already do that. Current Echo devices can only call other Echo devices or smartphones with the Alexa app.

It will cost $35 and is a kind of retrofit for current Echo owners. Next-gen Alexa devices will have this capability built in.

Perhaps the most curious of the products unveiled are Echo Buttons, which connect to other Echo devices but enable families to play games together. They will cost $20 each and are reportedly the “first of many Alexa Gadgets” that will connect to and extend Echo devices in “fun and playful ways,” according to the company.

The final two announcements yesterday were an enhanced Fire TV with 4K support ($70) and Alexa integration into BMW vehicles. Even though Amazon doesn’t have a successful smartphone, it’s trying to keep pace with distribution of Apple and Google virtual assistants in the car.

Google is expected to make a number of virtual assistant-related announcements next week. On October 4, Google will reportedly be introducing its answer to Echo Dot, the $49 Google Home Mini. It will also be rolling out a Home device with improved sound called the “Home Max” that will compete with these improved Echo devices and Apple’s forthcoming HomePod.

Amazon has had great success with Alexa devices and is getting more aggressive by rolling out many devices at more price points. In this way it’s like the anti-Apple, which would be more careful and selective about what it introduces, wary of potential failure.

Amazon is innovating quickly and trying things. Some of these new devices will fail, but some will succeed. There are as many as 20 million smart speakers and virtual assistant devices already in US homes, with predictions that the number will grow to 30 million by the end of the year. With all these competing new offerings, I suspect 30 million may be conservative.

Looking narrowly at just these smart speakers, one might find all the new Amazon devices frivolous, unnecessary or amusing. But in the larger context of the smart home, the stakes and the strategy become clear. Research from Consumer Intelligence Research Partners shows how Google Home and Echo are accelerating the adoption of smart home devices. In its most recent research release, the firm said:

The growth in smart home devices has promoted the connected accessory market. In home lighting, more than 70% of Amazon Echo and Google Home owners with smart lighting in their home, report purchasing the system after owning an Echo or Home device. Over 80% of smart thermostat users reported installing and setting up their connected accessories themselves. Over 70% of smart door lock and smoke detector systems report using Echo or Home to control the system.

For years, the “smart home” has been hyped and consumers have yawned. With the advent of Echo and its competitors, consumers are becoming more interested in controlling lights and thermostats with their voices.

In other words, voice-controlled smart speakers are becoming the front door to smart home adoption. And while companies making smart-home accessories can design them to be compatible with multiple systems, the winner of the smart speaker market will control the smart home market — literally and figuratively.

Apple, Microsoft and Samsung are all well behind Google and Amazon, but especially Amazon, which has perhaps a 75 percent market share of the smart speaker market today. Microsoft has been the historical proponent of smart-home gadgetry. Now, the company risks being marginalized unless it can create its own compelling new devices/software or convince more small appliance, electronics and other hardware companies to make Cortana (and not Alexa or Google Assistant) the virtual brain inside.

Amazon’s powerful sales channel and its crazy quilt of devices at a range of price points — an Echo for every budget — give it major advantages against competitors. It’s also innovating, iterating and responding quickly to competitor device features (like better sound and landline calling). Think of these many Echo and Alexa devices like Campbell’s Soup flavors dominating shelf space in the supermarket — capturing mind share and pushing others out of view.

Google iOS app now makes related content suggestions

AmsStudio / Shutterstock.com

Google has long tried to make it easier for users to do follow-up searches or search for related content as they browse (examples here and here). Now, Google has updated its iOS app to make suggestions for related content at the bottom of the page.

The animation below indicates how it works (I was not able to reproduce the functionality on my iPhone). A carousel at the bottom of the page can be expanded and browsed. Tapping on any of the tiles will launch new sites/pages.

The feature is currently US only but will be available in other languages and markets in the near future. Users need to download the latest version of the app.

Report: Google to debut 'Home Mini' smart speaker for $49 on October 4

Google is set to reveal the Pixel 2 smartphone and potentially other hardware at an event on October 4, in time for holiday shopping. While the Pixel 2 is set to be the star of the event, a prominent supporting role will be played by the new “Google Home Mini.”

This is apparently Google’s answer to the low-cost Amazon Echo Dot. According to Droid Life, it will be priced comparably at $49 and be available in three colors.

Image credit: Droid Life

The device will support the Google Assistant and reportedly will provide the same functionality as Google Home. It’s all but certain the sound quality won’t be as good. And there may be other hardware compromises to bring costs down. It will very likely broaden the market for Google Home and the Google Assistant.

Amazon has created multiple Alexa devices for different budgets:

Dot — $49Echo Tap — $129Echo — $179Echo Show — $229

Amazon often discounts the devices and offers multiple purchase incentives, including on the Dot. To date, Google has only introduced the Home, which retails for $129 but is often discounted to $99. Apple’s Siri-powered HomePod is going to retail for $349 and is positioned as a higher-end smart speaker for the Sonos demographic.

According to one estimate, Amazon dominates the US smart speaker market today. It has also been projected that by the end of 2017, there will be 30 million of these devices in US households. Assistant-enabled smart speakers are the cornerstone for the smart home ecosystem, and we’re in the midst of a land-grab right now.

ComScore has projected that roughly 50 percent of US search queries will be voice-initiated by 2020. More smart speakers in more American homes will help accelerate that trend.

Google responds to Apple's Intelligent Tracking Prevention with AdWords tracking update

Starting this month, Google is making changes to the way it captures and reports on conversions in AdWords in response to Apple’s coming Safari update.

In June, Apple introduced Intelligent Tracking Prevention, an initiative aimed at limiting third-party trackers from capturing cross-site browsing data, in the next version of Safari, coming out this fall. The move has implications for ad performance tracking for Google and others. On Thursday, Google sent an email to AdWords advertisers outlining changes it is making in response to Intelligent Tracking Prevention.

What is Intelligent Tracking Prevention?

In short, with ITP, third-party cookies that are determined to be able to track users across sites can only be used for 24 hours from the time a user visits a website via Safari. After 24 hours, the third-party cookies can only be used for log-in purposes. The cookies are purged entirely after 30 days.

This means that unless a user converts within 24 hours of last visiting an advertiser’s site after clicking an AdWords ad, for example, the conversion attribution will be lost. With Safari accounting for nearly 50 percent of mobile web traffic share in North America, ITP has the potential to wreak havoc on mobile ad conversion attribution.

What changes is Google making?

ITP is aimed largely at limiting pervasive retargeting practices rather than disrupting advertisers’ ability to track ad campaign performance. Google is addressing ITP with a method in keeping with Apple’s guidance around ad attribution, which states, “We recommend server-side storage for attribution of ad impressions on your website. Link decoration [ e.g., padding links with information] can be used to pass on attribution information in navigations.”

Namely, Google has developed a new Google Analytics cookie that will be used to capture campaign and conversion data from Safari in a way that conforms with ITP.

“We are updating our measurement tools, consistent with Apple’s recommendations for ad attribution, to help our customers continue to accurately measure ad clicks and conversions,” said Chi Hea Cho, a Google spokesperson via email. “These changes are designed to work for all browsers, but are timed to adapt to the new settings Apple is introducing. Our goal is to limit interruptions to our users’ experiences and to preserve our partners’ ability to evaluate their investments in digital advertising. As always, giving users choice and control of their data and how it’s used is a top priority for us.”

From Google’s email:

To help ensure conversions are reported accurately in your AdWords account, we’ll be making three changes, consistent with Apple’s recommendations for ad attribution:

    If you have auto-tagging enabled and a Google Analytics tag on your website, we’ll begin to set a new Google Analytics cookie on that site’s domain, which will store information about the ad click that brought a user to your site. If you have linked your AdWords and Google Analytics accounts, the AdWords conversion tracking tag will be able to use that click information.AdWords will continue to report conversions for users who have recently interacted with Google services and domains.AdWords will also use statistical modeling to estimate website conversions that could not be measured from Safari, and include them in your AdWords reporting

TL;DR — What do the changes mean?

The short version of the implications of this change:

    Advertisers that have AdWords and Google Analytics accounts linked: There is no change. Google will report observed conversions from Safari as it has been doing via this new cookie.Advertisers that don’t link their Google Analytics accounts or disable the new cookie: AdWords will use modeling to account for Safari conversions that may occur 24 hours after a user last visits an advertiser’s site from an ad via Safari.

How does this new cookie work?

The new Google Analytics cookie — called the _gac cookie — extends the usage of Google Analytics (GA) tracking to include AdWords conversion tracking. It will be used to store the ad click information when auto-tagging is enabled. From the support page, “Analtyics writes campaign information to the _gac cookie when a user opens a page on your site via a URL that employs AdWords auto-tagging.”

The big difference is how the cookie is handled.

Today, the conversion cookie is set on the Googleadservices.com domain, which means it is considered a third-party cookie. With this change, the new _gac cookie will be set on the advertiser’s domain, becoming a first-party cookie and acceptable to ITP. That means ad data associated with the user will remain intact for attribution and conversion reporting.

Impact on AdWords conversion reporting

To reiterate the above, advertisers that have linked their AdWords and Google Analytics campaigns will see no change because the new cookie acts as a first-party cookie and can continue recording conversion data from Safari traffic.

For those that don’t link their accounts or disable the new cookie, Google will be able to record conversion activity that occurs within the initial 24-hour period. It will use modeling based on historical conversion activity to record conversions from Safari in AdWords. Those modeled conversions will be included in AdWords conversion columns. The company says, “It may be a few days before you start seeing these conversions in your AdWords reporting.” Advertisers can opt out by updating their Google Analytics tag at any time.

Related reading on our sister site Martech Today: On Thursday, Sept 14, the major advertising industry groups responded to the Apple Safari update in an open letter. They aren’t pleased.