SMX Advanced keynote: Google explains mobile-first, featured snippets data & more

Good morning! Day one of our SMX Advanced conference is here, and it begins with a change of pace: Our traditional Google keynote conversation kicks things off today, rather than being the final session of day one.

Our founding editor, Danny Sullivan, will be chatting for the next hour or so with Gary Illyes, Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google. We’ve got a front-row seat for the Q&A, so if you’re not here with us in Seattle, plan on following along as I try to keep up in our live blog below.

It’s due to get started at 9:00 a.m. PT, so I’ll be back then with more from SMX Advanced. Stay tuned! (Update at 8:55 AM PT: We’re hearing that Gary is fighting Seattle morning traffic, so we may be a little late in starting.)

Okay, and at 9:05 AM, after some welcome/housekeeping announcements, we are ready to go! I’ll use DS to refer to Danny Sullivan and GI to refer to Gary Illyes.

DS: What’s the secret to ranking on Google?

GI: The same it’s been for the past 20 years. First you create great content. Then you want to get some links. Then you want to market your content. People forget about that last step. Get your friends and network to tweet your content.

DS: So if you get people to tweet, you’ll rank number one on Google?

GI: [incredulously] Yeeeeahhhhhh.

DS: What’s the status of the mobile-first index?

GI: There’s going to be a session on that later. If you join us there, you’ll get an answer to that.

DS: Just tell us now.

GI: No.

DS: Do you guarantee you’ll tell us during that session?

GI: Maybe.

DS: Why do you even need a mobile-first index? Why not just have one index?

GI: Because everything is mobile. It sounds very weird, but now we have a desktop-first index. The mobile index is a mobile-first index.

DS: Is it going to replace the desktop index?

GI: That’s the goal.

DS: What’s up with the Fred update?

GI: It was a close-to-standard quality update. It is very closely related to the Quality section of the webmaster guidelines. If you were hit by Fred, that’s the place where you want to look. Other than that, we’re not going to say much about it because for us, it was a standard quality update.

DS: Are we going to get more updates — Wilma, Barney, Betty?

GI: I told Barry (Schwartz) that every single update will be called Fred from now on. But we don’t want to talk about what we’re tweaking in our core algorithm. When there’s a change that will affect publishers, we will talk about them.

I can confirm that we had at least two updates today to our core algorithm. I can confirm that we’ll have two updates tomorrow to the core algorithm. The day after we will have at least two updates.

DS: I understand that. But some updates make people freak out more than others. How do people know when there’s a significant shift that people should pay attention?

GI: We’re not really doing major changes. When we measure our changes, the shifts are really minimal in our testing methods. What we do see is that people who were hit by these changes, they’re going to be quite loud. But as soon as we make another change and they recover, they won’t be quite as loud.

DS: Let’s move on to featured snippets. Are we gonna get more of them in search results?

GI: I honestly have no idea what’s going on with featured snippets. They’re obviously important for us, for various reasons. We’re working hard to make sure the quality of the snippets is really high. The snippets and answers we provide may be read out loud on Google Home, so it’s really important.

DS: Can we get some stats on featured snippets in webmaster console? (Asks audience if they want stats. Lots of clapping in the affirmative.)

GI: To be frank, we are not actively working on that. We have something that we think would answer those questions, but we cannot release it.

DS: Why not?

GI: Because we have bosses. And those bosses have bosses. And some people don’t want to see this feature this launched for various reasons. What we do really need is to understand how people use this feature, because the one thing that ??? does with search analytics. Now we have a similar problem with my higher ups about a feature that would give you insight about how your content might show up as a featured snippets in search results. The proposal to launch something like this was rejected by the higher ups. What we need is to go back with something to explain how publishers can use this feature to improve their content in the featured snippets.

We are looking into being able to show data to publishers about when their content is used in voice search situations.

DS: Can you stop doing that thing where an image from one site shows in the featured snippet next to content from another site?

GI: I have no idea why that’s happening.

DS: Did the mobile interstitial penalty roll out?

GI: I can confirm that it did rollout.

DS: Is there an over-optimization penalty?

GI: Think about when you put makeup on in the morning. If you put too much on, your face ends up over-optimized. Over-optimization isn’t the right word for it. We couldn’t come up with anything that describes it better. Think back to keyword stuffing — that’s one kind of over-optimization. You shouldn’t do it. There’s very little great content on the web because most people aren’t professional copywriters, but we still have to rank their content.

DS: It sounds like you’re saying, don’t do things in excess.

GI: Yep.

DS: AMP, apps and PWAs. Which do you want us to do?

GI: For some, native apps make sense. For others, they don’t. PWAs can give you some functionality that wasn’t available to native apps in the past. If you want to use those features, you probably want to go with PWAs. The other problem with native apps is that it’s freakishly hard to get people to install them. I think I read a stat that said people in the U.S., on average, install zero apps each month on their phone. If you have a PWA, you don’t have that friction. I’m a PWA fan. It’s too bad that people mess it up. PWAs can be done wrong and hurt your search visibility.

AMP is completely different. When you want to use AMP is different from PWAs. If you’re a news publication and you want to get people to your content fast, and you want to monetize your content, then AMP is what to use.

DS: What’s happening with Rankbrain?

GI: I don’t think there’s anything new. It allows us to understand better which result would be best for a user’s query based on historical search data. It tries to make sure that the resuls which are predicted to do well with that query are then ranked higher. I think Rankbrain is now launched in all languages. We’re looking at other ways to use machine learning in search, but we don’t have plans to launch anything new anytime soon.

DS: Let’s do audience questions now. First up is asking for an update for HTTPS.

GI: As soon as we see a document that begins with HTTPS, it gets a small boost.

DS: (Another question about voice search data.)

GI: The problem with featured snippets data is politics. We have to convince someone that the data would be useful.

DS: I have three questions from people asking about site speed and its ranking impact.

GI: We do have a ranking component that looks at page speed. Problem is that it looks at desktop page speed, but we don’t really care about that anymore. We care about mobile page speed. We’re going to fix that and we’ll blog about it, tweet about it, because we want people to understand how important page speed is.

DS: If we do well with page speed, should we still consider PWAs?

GI: PWAs aren’t about speed. Think of them as something that improves the user experience from something other than speed — geolocation, for example. AMP is more interesting from that perspective. We advertise that as something that can speed up your site.

PR will kill me for saying this, but if someone’s site as already really fast, I typically don’t recommend switching to AMP. To me, the main selling point of AMP is speed. I’m sure there are other reasons why AMP could be beneficial to a site. I’m just note aware of them. I love AMP, by the way.

DS: When we migrate our site to HTTPS, what do we need to think about?

GI: The size of your site is important. There were quite a few big media sites that switched recently. What we recommended to them is to switch in sections, because that gives you the ability to do damage control if you have problems.

I know quite a few sites that switched in the past couple months and they had no trouble at all.

DS: If we 301 our entire site to a new URL for a rebrand, will all our rankings follow? How long should it take?

GI: Yes, all your rankings should follow. If not, we have a problem. How long? It depends. It’s an awful, I know. The team pushing HTTPS migration these days wants to say it takes up to two weeks, but I’m not sure. If you have a site with URLs that we only crawl every couple months, it won’t take just a couple weeks on our end.

Use the site move tool in Search Console if you’re moving domains. It really helps us know what you’re doing. You don’t need to use it for HTTPS moves, though.

And now they’re doing the lightning round, which will be impossible to keep up with. (Ugh.)

DS: How important is schema for an e-commerce site?

GI: Very.

DS: Do you look at user engagement for determining rankings?

GI: We look at user engagement metrics a number of ways. One is measuring how our algorithm experiments will affect users. Another is in personalization.

DS: Top 3 or 5 things webmasters should be thinking about?

GI: Mobile-first index. Then, how can you improve user experience. Think about how you can target other countries — there are a ton of countries that don’t have enough content. These are the top three for me. I’d also think more about PWAs. I’m thinking about their limitations and how we can support them better in search.

And with that, the keynote conversation is over. Thanks for following along!

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