Mobile first indexing: How can AMP and PWA change your ranking?

08 Sep 2019 6 minutes

It’s no secret that, when it comes to Google search rankings, speed is of the essence.

In September 2016 Google revealed how 53% of mobile website visitors would leave a webpage if it didn't load within three seconds. The message was loud and clear: improve your loading time or lose customers.

Nearly two years later Google put its words into practice when it launched the Speed Update, effectively penalising pages that deliver the slowest experience to users. While the Speed Update promised to affect only a small number of sites, Google urged developers to "think broadly about how performance affects a user's experience of their page and to consider a variety of user experience metrics."

Our need for faster browsing is of course directly linked to the rise in mobile usage: most of us spend considerably more time searching on our phones than on desktop. Google knows this and responded by introducing mobile-first indexing - which indexes the mobile version of a website higher than the desktop version - in November 2016.

Fast-forward to July 2019 and mobile-first indexing is now default for all new, previously unknown domains. The message has evolved: make your websites faster and prioritise mobile.

AMP

For content-rich, heavy websites this throws up a significant challenge: how to keep relevant content that's essential for SEO while still providing a fast and agile user experience? Google's response was to launch Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) in 2016: an open-source platform aimed (initially) at news organisations to enable stripped-down mobile versions of their sites that would rival Facebook Instant Articles and Apple News.

Consisting of AMP HTML, the AMP JS library, and the Google AMP Cache, AMP creates a much lighter copy of a typical content page that's consequently faster to index and load. The results? Higher ranking and a better user experience. Within a year all major news organisations switched their mobile to AMP (in reality, they had little choice if they wanted their stories to appear at the top of mobile search results).

Since 2017, millions (literally) of other mobile-reliant sites have turned to AMP. In particular: job boards, events sites (including Eventbrite) and e-commerce stores like eBay, and Lancôme USA.

To demonstrate how AMP can work for e-commerce, case studies such as this dummy shop called cAMPmor are beginning to spring up. Though rather light in content, with some pages still under construction, cAMPmor gives some idea of what a stripped down, lightweight AMP e-commerce site feels like - clean and fast.

Faster speeds, better conversions

The benefits of AMP for e-commerce sites are clear: faster loading speeds than non-AMP pages (on average) and easy conversion to mobile for sites built using WordPress, Drupal and Magento. Faster loading speeds means better user experience, which means lower bounce rates and... more time for sales conversions. According to one Google study, e-commerce websites using AMP had a 20% increase in sales conversions compared to non-AMP pages.

But not everyone's convinced. AMP critics argue that its purpose - to provide simplified mobile-friendly pages - prevents AMP versions from displaying useful features like chat boxes, Apple Pay and filtering. AMP doesn't allow forms either; there's no option for a user to log in to see recommended or recently viewed products. So for sites reliant on chat boxes or filtering, AMP might not be the right option - which brings us on to PWAs.

PWA

Coined by two Google engineers in 2015, Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) are simply mobile websites that look and feel like native apps. And in an age where users will happily engage with an app for hours, but with a mobile site for just a few minutes (if that), making a mobile site feel like an app could be a very good thing.

With PWA sites, once a user has spent a few moments browsing the site a message will prompt the user to save the PWA to its home screen - providing a far more seamless journey to downloading an app than the traditional app store route.

Once saved to the home screen, users can access the cached version of the PWA irrespective of connectivity (great for users experiencing poor network or looking to save data), but it's the lower barrier to adoption that really makes PWAs shine. A user doesn't need to proactively seek out the app from an app store to download it; they come across the app organically while browsing the mobile version of the site (because the site is the PWA).

Mobile browsing, App experience

From a user experience perspective, PWAs often don't have all the functionality that make native apps so strong (and addictive), but they're not far off - with particularly strong examples demonstrated by Forbes, Trivago and Starbucks.

However, as with AMP, PWAs do have several drawbacks. The big one is iOS, which doesn't yet support the prompt functions; look up Forbes on your iPhone and you won't get the "save to home" message, though Apple recently made an announcement suggesting this might be changing.

Typically, PWAs also don't provide access to many of a phone's key features, such as calendar, alarms, browser, task management, camera, and contacts. As for PWAs versus AMP, the differences are clear: PWAs lacks the speed of AMPs sites, which lack of course lack the functionality of PWAs.

PWAMP – the answer?

So it's perhaps unsurprising that more and more companies - particularly in e-commerce - are turning to PWAMP: a combination of the two technologies. Put simply, PWAMP uses the shell of a PWA to upload AMP pages - thereby gaining both functionality and fast loading speeds.

Alex Russell, Google software engineer and author of the Infrequently Noted blog, once described PWAs as “websites that took all the right vitamins”, and PWAs offer significant advantages from an SEO standpoint. Whether Google will go so far as to rank PWAs higher is unclear, but one thing's for sure: if it does, you'll need to respond fast.

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