To find out more I spoke to Tom Anthony, head of research and development at Distilled

Read on to discover what he had to say, and for more on this topic read our posts investigating the importance of local SEO and highlighting compelling mobile search stats.

What are the best ways to optimise for mobile/local search? 

The consensus seems to be that Google will be pushing forward more with some very mobile-specific ranking factors, but these all seem to be around ensuring that it delivers the searcher to a good result, which is a combination of the correct content given the user’s intent, and the best experience considering the device they are on.

If you are doing SEO right, and you are providing a good mobile experience for your users, then you don’t need to worry about doing any ‘mobile SEO’.

It is a little bit reminiscent of SEO pre-Panda in some regards; the people who were just doing their best with content got rewarded as Google caught up with identifying that correctly.

Google is getting a lot better at identifying good mobile experiences, so you should focus on doing that well, and Google will come to you, so to speak.

For brands with chains of locations, how can you get all of these physical locations ranking for mobile search? 

Please please stay away from the cookie cutter ‘local content’. If I am looking to rent a lawn mower in Oxford then I almost certainly have no need or interest to read about the history of Oxford, the landmarks and how beautiful the city is etc.

To a degree this is Google’s fault – it pushed hard on the unique content front but was still ill-equipped to understand what good ‘local content’ consisted of or how to identify it.

Find a way to leverage your people on the ground – empower the managers at each location to be able to craft content.

That should definitely contain useful information about that location beyond the usual NAP and opening times info; they should be able to add imagery, and specific information that is actually helpful to people looking to visit the store. This is hard to do well!

We have experimented with helping clients gamify this process, or by revealing stats to each location such that they can understand better how they might have an impact.

With Google’s recent moves around optimisation and mobile search, will mobile SEO now require a focus on user experience? 

I’d reiterate my point from earlier – if you are doing SEO right, and you are delivering a good mobile experience to your users then you are already doing it right.

So yes – that does involve paying careful attention to the user experience, because Google wants to send users (both mobile and desktop) to a page that will provide the best possible experience.

One area to pay attention to is that providing a good mobile experience does not mean simply having a website that displays well on a mobile device; you should also pay attention to the fact that mobile users might be looking for something different from your website than a desktop searcher.

You should try to think about the different intents that might exist and ensure you are serving those.

Why do you think that SEO will require a greater focus on user experience?  

There is a familiar and established pattern with Google over the last few years; it has increasingly been able to tune its algorithm to better keep up with the ‘rhetoric’ (for want of a better word!).

Before the Panda update there was quite a divide between what Google said you should do to succeed and what the reality was. Panda was not perfect but it went a long way towards closing that gap. The same with Penguin and several of the other smaller updates. 

Google has always wanted to get users to what it calls the ‘long click’ where a user does not bounce back to the search results to look for an alternative response.

In a world of increasingly complex and dynamic websites, landing on a page with a good user experience is going to be pivotal to reducing bounce rate (and this is likely of more import for mobile users). Google knows this, and so it isn’t hard to see where things will be going.

Google has spoken about this on several occasions. In mid 2013 it said it would be penalising sites in mobile search results that were misconfigured for smartphone users.

Then late last year Google spoke of its intention to start rewarding sites that deliver a good mobile experience, and finally it has started adding the ‘mobile friendly’ icons to mobile search results to indicate to users where they might find a better mobile experience.

Google already looks at factors such as site speed and mobile usability – what other UX factors will/could Google look at in future? 

I don’t think it is a coincidence that a lot of this mobile focus is coming not that long after Google announced it is now better able to render Javascript dependent pages; any sort of automated assessment of usability requires that step.

So as an aside, I think people start needing to pay attention to whether they previous blocked Googlebot from crawling Javascript and CSS files, and whether they are using any such files hosted on CDN or third party sites which might blocked — Google needs to be able to crawl those files to properly render your pages. You can check this in the Googlebot section of webmaster tools.

I think Google will likely be rendering pages on different screen sizes (virtually), and trying to assess whether there are hidden or inaccessible elements.

It will do more in-depth analysis of page speed based not only on downloading your HTML source but all the source files, and combining that with the processing time until the page is fully loaded.

Google will be trying to tap into any and all user-metrics it can, which will include taking old school metrics like bouncing back to the SERPs up a notch (maybe by segmenting those bounces by desktop / tablet / mobile to understand the user experience people are getting on different devices).

How will/does Google measure these UX factors? 

For things like site speed, time until page loaded, or bounce rate by device the answer is relatively straightforward.

For the more complex and subtle factors, I’d be surprised if it didn’t also try the Panda-like approach of surveying large numbers of users for their assessment of the user experience of large numbers of pages (broken down into different factors) and then trying to apply Machine Learning to extrapolate the relative importance of those factors to new pages.