Do Progressive Web Apps Help Organic Search Engine Optimization?

progressive web apps search engine optimization
Progressive Web Apps and Search Engine Optimization

Progressive web applications are popular with the search engine optimization crowd because they offer great promise for online marketing.

But how are PWAs good for SEO?

I and my business are firmly planted in developing progressive web apps and helping business succeed online through organic search marketing.

This gives me unique advantages sharing how the two relate and don't relate.

Like anything in web development there are a lot of misconceptions floating around that cause confusion for developers and stakeholders. I want this article to set the record straight, so no one makes mistakes that cost their business customers.

Much of the confusion focuses on the assumption that progressive web apps are single page apps (SPAs) or rendered in the browser using heavy JavaScript frameworks.. This is not true and you should read my article if you want more details about how they differ.

SPAs can technically be PWAs, any site can be a PWA. The requirements to be a progressive web application boil down to 3 ingredients.

  • Use HTTPS
  • Have a Valid Web Manifest
  • Register a Service Worker with a Fetch Event Handler

That's it!

Well sort of.

They are the 3 core requirements to be a progressive web app. Of course, there are other 'expected' PWA features, like loading fast, working offline, being platform integrated, etc.

I think many in the SEO and development worlds have confused progressive web applications with single page applications because Google published an article about PWA SEO. What they were really addressing was single page apps and SEO.

The messaging in that article has scaled across both the online marketing and development worlds. So generally when I read, watch or listen to anything related to PWAs and SEO the message quickly changes from that topic to the topic of JavaScript and SEO.

They are not the same thing!

In that article the Google Search team really talked a lot about web page best practices and addressed many issues single page applications have as it relates to search.

Historically, websites would always generate or render their HTML on the server which is the simplest way to ensure your content is directly linkable. Web applications popularized the concept of client-side rendering in which content is updated dynamically on the page as the users navigates without requiring the page to be reloaded.

See, the Google Webmaster blog starts off assuming you will render your pages on the client, not the server. Nothing about a PWA requires client-side rendering.

In fact I recommend websites render as much on the server, ahead of time, as a static web page. Then either rendering on demand server-side as much as possible and leave the last bit for client-side rendering.

Unless you are developing a business application there is little to no reason you should need heavy JavaScript to render content in the browser.

When it comes to pages that need to be indexed and ranked by Google this means almost 100% of the page should be pre-rendered on the server. Google likes this because it can consume the content and score the page for search results.

Too much JavaScript and they put the page on a queue and will get around to it if they have time, later. Sort of like a teenager doing their homework.

Progressive Web Applications And SEO

So back to how PWAs relate to search engine optimization. Can a progressive web app improve SEO?

Well they don't really.

Google's John Mueller has publicly stated this is the case.

PWAs currently don't have any advantage in Google Search (and as far as I know, there are no plans to change this).

John Mueller

Before you give up and stop your service worker development, lets see why. Plus I promise there is a reward at the end.

The hope is when you go to the trouble of creating a progressive web application you take the care to craft your website using best practices.

This is the core essence of what a progressive web application really is.

You know, the attention to detail that makes your website stand out against the competition and really makes the web a better place.

To me a progressive web application applies SEO best practices by design. They are naturally better websites that consumers want to visit.

  • Mobile-First Responsive Design
  • Include all Meta & Structure Data
  • Load Fast (< 3 seconds on 3G)
  • Canonical Tag
  • Keywords in Headings

These are just places to start. Read my SEO Tips article for more best practices. You can also use automated tools to audit your pages for PWA compatibility and other web best practices.

When they visit your site and appreciate the user experience visitors will trust your brand and be more inclined to add the PWA to their homescreen.

But launching a PWA from the homescreen has little to do with organic search, in fact it is traffic that comes from the customer relationship, not search.

Don't get me wrong that traffic is the goal, so go get it. And you should not discount the effect direct traffic can have for your SEO.

Set your goal to leverage progressive web applications to engage your organic visitors and push through your sales funnel to a more engaging point.

Nurture that relationship so you get more and more traffic directly and a good progressive web application is the best way to do that.

You just have to do it right.

Now that I have defined PWAs let me take a moment to clarify what search engine optimization is and is not.

Defining Search Engine Optimization

SEO is about optimizing your website and web pages for better human and search engine consumption. This means you take the time to make sure site is technical sound and your on-page copy and content communicates well to your visitors.

The goal is two fold, earning better search rankings and engaging visitors.

Some will tell you it is about link building, and while that is important it is not SEO per se. Linking building is important if you want your pages to rank well in Google, Bing and other search engines. But the technical health and the content on your site are what really set you apart.

I see lots of sites on page 2-10 in the search results that have more links than the page 1 results. I also see pages with fewer links out rank others on page 1. Over time the pages with the best content for the user's search intent bubble to top of the rankings.

Progressive web applications won’t help you write better copy or use better photos, but a proper PWA has a strong technical SEO profile.

SEO Technical Best Practices for a Progressive Web App

Let me circle back to the Google Webmaster article on building indexable PWAs. The article highlights a series of do's and don'ts. Let me summarize some of the important points.

  • Make Your Content Crawlable: Use real URLs, not hash fragments and follow SEO URL best practices by including keywords in the URL and keeping them short.
  • Use Mobile First Responsive Design: Google and everyone else focuses on mobile first, you should too. PWAs were designed to be great on mobile, so be great there first, then worry about desktop.
  • Be Secure: 80% of the web uses HTTPS today. If your site doesn't support HTTPS yet, then migrate today.
  • Use Progressive Enhancement: Service workers are great, but PWAs utilize progressive enhancement. This means they should work well, even when the browser does not support modern functionality, you know like a search engine spider.
  • Test with Search Console: Use the 'Fetch as Google' tool to see how Google reads your pages
  • Provide a Sitemap: Add a sitemap to your site and make sure you register it in the Google Search Console for your site. This is the first thing Google uses to know what pages are on your site.
  • Measure Page Speed: Google measures every page’s load time. You should to. Use WebPageTest and Lighthouse to determine your time to first interaction, the key page speed metric Google uses to measure page speed.

Why a Progressive Web Application Won't Help Your SEO

As a PWA practitioner I probably should not be sharing they don't affect your SEO. But from a purely technical perspective they don't help SEO. The magic is in making a great web user experience.

What many don't understand is how service workers work. They think they magically make web pages faster, they don't, especially the first time someone visits the site.

That's because a service worker has to be registered and is not active by default the first time a page is loaded. And while service workers can cache web pages and the resources required to render pages there is no benefit if they are not already cached.

When the page assets are cached before someone loads the page it does not mean the page renders fast. Too much JavaScript is too much JavaScript afterall. And time to first byte is not the main page speed factor, it is the time after the HTML document loads that really matters.

Organic search traffic is often traffic that has not visited your site yet. And if they have not already visited the target page, they most likely don't have that content cached. They may have the CSS, some images and JavaScript files cached, but they all need to be loaded, parsed, executed, etc before the page reaches the time to first interaction.

How Progressive Web Apps Help SEO

Don't give up hope yet. PWAs will improve your organic search profile.

How?

By making your user experience better than your competition. Well at least better than it was before you upgrade to a progressive web app.

Look past the three core technical requirements to be a progressive web application and focus on the intent of the movement, to deliver great user experiences.

When you deliver a great user experience people want to visit your site over competing options. When they see your brand in the results they will recall you gave them what they wanted and the experience was positive.

SEOs know click through rate influences search position. More clicks or votes by searchers for a result and over time it moves up.

But that is just one metric you can measure. All the little things you do to make your site the best create the experience that rises above the information.

This will indirectly and directly influence your serps and typically in the positive direction.

Wrapping it Up

Progressive web applications are great for SEO because they are meant to deliver the best web experiences. But like anything else, developers and marketers can mess things up.

Follow the web's best practices and you will reap the benefits of great organic search traffic. This means make your site mobile first, fast on mobile, usable on all screen sizes and has sound on page SEO.

PWAs help you build long lasting relationships with customers. That is a great reward, but you will also experience a universal lift, like organic search, because your site puts user experience first.

If you follow all these best practices then you will be successful, even if you are not targeting organic search traffic.

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