https://pds.blog.parliament.uk/2019/10/14/why-we-at-parliament-need-to-care-at-about-search-engines/

Why we need to care about search engines

At Parliament, around 60 to 70% of traffic to our website comes from search engines and most of these online experiences start with Google. Like it or not, Google is important to the success of what we do with parliament.uk. If we want to get our content in front of people, this means using tools, products and guidelines that Google provides and favours.

Because search engines matter to Parliament, I recently headed to BrightonSEO, the UK’s largest search marketing event, with my colleague Alasdair. We wanted to find out what is happening in the industry, learn from search professionals and get practical tips, tricks and advice to help our web pages and products perform better in online searches.

One thing is clear. Search engine optimisation (SEO) has come a long way from the bad practices of the past when websites were overflowing with spam, keywords and gimmicky tactics to improve their rankings in search engines.

What matters now is original, high quality content, not dubious quantity. How a website page ranks today in search engines is more closely linked to user experience, accessibility, website speed and performance, and device and technology trends, including mobile use and voice search.

What this means to us is that by following SEO best practice, we can not only build better online experiences but we can also grow our audience, so this should be integral to all content and product strategies.

What is happening in search? 

It would be impossible to cover everything thing that happened at BrightonSEO, there were two of us and over a hundred speakers. Despite this, some clear themes emerged from the talks we attended: 

  • Users expect fast websites 
  • Mobile first is on its way  
  • Searching by visual reference and by voice is here 
  • Google has loads of tools to help and we should use them.

Users expect fast websites

Users expect fast websites so search engines reward speed in their listings. However, many websites have a long way to go before they can claim to be quick to load and this is hurting their search rankings: 

  • 75% of mobile sites take over 10 seconds to load 
  • 53% of mobile visitors leave a site if they wait more than 3 seconds for a page to load.

Google’s guidelines say that a website should load in under 2 seconds on a 3G connection. In his talkFili Wiese, technical SEO expert and ex-Google engineer, detailed the steps he took to speed up his own website beyond Google’s requirements.   

By taking an iterative approachhe explained how you can build really fast websites. He focused on breaking up the various elements of a website and used the metaphor of building a house: 

  • Structure  - HTML 
  • Decoration - CSS 
  • Appliances - JavaScript.

The key insight was to optimise for speed at each stage of the building process. Speed-wise the savings might seem small in each area, but when combined they shave precious time from page loading. Google has comprehensive documents and guidelines to help users improve site speeat each stage.

As Fili reminded us, “it is our responsibility to make our sites fast, not the user’s”. We should not expect users to have the latest tech or fastest connections to access our website, but instead we should be going out of our way for users to access our content or product, and fast.

There’s an opportunity for the user centred design team to implement these learnings in the next version of Parliament Live TV. By baking in this approach, with speed as a focus, we can make considerable improvements in search to keep up with competition from the BBC and YouTube. 

Mobile first is on its way 

Google is moving away from looking at desktop versions of web pages and switching to mobile. All new websites have been measured using 'mobile-first indexing' since July 2019. ‘Mobile-first indexing’ is simply how Google crawls and indexes the web. Instead of looking at the desktop version of the page, Google looks at the mobile version as the primary version of a site. 

“The mobile version of your website becomes the starting point for what Google includes in their index, and the baseline for how they determine rankings,” says Bridgett Randolph of Moz.comThe message is that the mobile version takes priority. If the mobile version is poor, it could affect the rankings of the website.

Parliament is actively working to make the website’s 2 million pages mobile responsive by upgrading to an up-to-date content management system (CMS) in the next few months. The work that’s happening will help us transition into the mobile-first world.

The headline here is that a successful move to mobile is based on the similarity of content on the mobile and desktop version, making sure users on either device have the same experience. We should be mindful not to impair the experience of our content or products based on device.  

Visual web and voice searches are here

With users expecting a better-quality mobile experience, Google is seeking to improve search results using visuals or voice. This means more accurate voice results and faster, more appealing visual results.

More than 1 billion voice searches were recorded by Google in Jan 2018 and there are predictions that by 2020 half of all online searches will be done using voice.

So how do we cater to these seemingly different methods of search using voice, visuals and text? Solenn Boulic, technical specialist at Google said, “think about your topic pages as a product”.

For us, this topic might be ‘Big Ben’ and rather having two separate pieces of content, one targeting an audience using visual search and the other for those using voice to search, we should consolidate the information and offer it on single page, then use all the tools possible to enhance this ‘product’ for these audiences.

Tool for quicker loading pages

A simple tool which helps optimise for the visual web is accelerated mobile pages (AMP). These are light versions of website content, which load more quickly and are served as priority for mobile users. The positioning in search - right at the top of the search page - is a great way to promote content such as breaking news and gives readers a more visual entry point when they are searching for stories.

To improve the same content for people using voice search we could implement speakable schema (beta) on the page. This lets you mark-up sections of content that would be suitable answers for voice searches and points search engines to the parts of the page which are relevant to voice search.

By using both tools on one page we are giving our content the best chance of being found by users, no matter what their favoured method of search may be.

With the advances in these two different methods of search, we should start considering our best content as products - thinking about what our users might need from the content and the best ways of serving them in that search.  

How to whisper in a search engine’s ear

People and website pages don’t necessarily speak in the nicely organised and structured way that search engines need them to. To solve this problem there is a way of marking up web pages so that a search engine can understand instantly what the page does, and what information it is trying to convey.

This ‘structured data’ sits behind the scenes and is never seen by a user. But users get to see the effects. If you’ve ever tried to search for a book and got a rich mix of reviews, purchase links, cover art, and questions with responses, structured data powered all of that in the background. 

So how is this relevant to Parliament? Parliament sits on a vast resource of information on a huge variety of topics, lots of it on obscure topics that only become interesting when a subject is thrust into the limelight.

In the last few weeks you might have tried to search for information on ‘prorogation’. You wouldn’t be alone, thousands of people have done it and ended up on our website. What if that page was marked up as frequently asked questions (FAQ) so Google would knothat the page contained commonly asked questions, and their definitive answers? For most of our users this would give them all the information they needed, rather than having to read paragraph 8.5 of Erskine May.

SEO strategist Charlie Norledge spoke at the conference about the recent development of FAQs for structured data and how sites like thetrainline.com have used this to great effect. They drive users on to their site to buy tickets with popular, very human questions (“when is the next train to Brighton?”), making use of the question and answer format to appear high up in search results pages.

Parliament is not there yet. But offering our vast information resources in a format that search engines can use to connect people with answers to their questions is something we should be aiming for.

Email Thomas Sadler if you'd like to know more about the topics in this blog post.

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