Mobile Wins: Google Using Mobile-First Indexing

In November, Google started using mobile-first indexing. This move is the first stage of the death of the desktop in terms of ranking sites. Under this process, Google looks at the mobile version of your website first to determine the ranking, and then falls back to the desktop version when it cannot locate a mobile version. Marketers and SEO professionals have known this was coming, as Google made hints at it more than a year ago, but they made the announcement on their own blog. As time goes on, the search engine will continue to place more importance on mobile-friendly sites.

Why? Google gets more queries from mobile devices than it does from desktop devices every day. Before the shift, Google used the desktop version of a website to determine the ranking, but as more mobile searches come in, it just makes sense to evaluate the mobile version in determining what ranks when and where.

After all, there are a lot of mobile pages out there with less content than the desktop version. When the crawlers are evaluating the desktop versions, rather than the page the user actually sees, that can lead to some quality issues with the results – and thus degrades the user experience for the searcher. We preach all the time about how you have to have a stellar user experience online, regardless of industry or niche – and Google is making this change to keep their user experience a good one.

What does this mean for you?

Google will look at mobile websites first to determine ranking, and serve those results to users regardless of whether they are using a mobile or desktop device to initiate the search. There won’t be any [additional] mobile-friendly adjustment, and if you don’t have a mobile-friendly website, your rankings will be affected even with desktop searches.

Right now, this is a testing phase for Google, but eventually, it will roll out for everyone. That means you need to make sure you have an optimized mobile presence so you’re ready for when the changes become the new norm.


I Don’t Have a Mobile Website?

If you don’t have a mobile website, there’s no need to panic because the algorithms will rely on your desktop version. But, you may want to consider investing in a mobile website just to make sure you can address your users’ needs. Take a look at your analytics data to determine how much of your audience is coming from a mobile device. If a significant portion of your audience uses mobile devices, then you want to make sure you have a mobile-friendly website.

There’s no need to spend a lot of time and money building a completely separate mobile version since responsive design takes care of it for you. It automatically adjusts everything to the appropriate screen size for the querying device. If you’ve already got a responsive design, or a site that otherwise sends dynamic content with equivalent markup regardless of device, there’s nothing you need to do.

If you are building a mobile version of your site rather than opting for a responsive design, don’t launch it until it’s ready. Since your desktop site will be indexed in the absence of a mobile site, it’s better to allow a full desktop site to index than a partially built or broken mobile site to be indexed in its place.

Once you have a mobile website, if it’s not a responsive website, make sure the content and links remain similar enough to maintain the correct rankings so it can be ranked the same way as the desktop version will be. You’ll also want to make sure you’re serving structured markup for both versions of your website. You can use the Structured Data Testing Tool to make sure the structured markup is equivalent for both desktop and mobile versions. Type the URLs of both versions into the tool and compare the output. As you add your structured data to the mobile site, avoid adding large amounts of irrelevant markup. Use only what’s appropriate for the specific information in each page.

If your mobile site has less content than your desktop site, it could affect the ranking of your site simply because there’s no guarantee Google will see both versions of your site when it crawls. The basic theory is that if the content isn’t important enough to be on your mobile site – then you likely aren’t the best result for that query or content.

This is why the responsive design approach is best – all pages remain the same in terms of content and links. You can use the Mobile-Friendly Test tool to determine whether or not Google thinks you have a mobile-friendly website. If you do, but the testing tool thinks you don’t, take steps to remedy the issue, like making sure the crawling bots aren’t blocked in your robots.txt file.


My Website Has Expandable Content… How Will I Be Affected?

If your desktop site has content hidden in tabs, expandable boxes, or in accordions, it won’t be weighted highly. But, on the mobile version of your site, as long as the expandable content is done in such a way that it is necessary for, or enhances the optimal user experience, it will be weighted fully. The reason for this is because expandable content makes more sense on mobile devices than on desktops.


When Will the Full Roll Out Happen?

The roll-out began in November 2016, and will take months before it is complete. There is not a date for when the full roll out will occur, simply because the company is still testing code. Google will increase the number of searchers once they know the mobile user agent crawler is working well. As more information becomes available, I will update this post accordingly.


Mobile Website Optimization Tips

  • Speed: Though recent news suggests speed isn’t going to be an initial factor in the mobile-first indexing, it’s still worth considering overall. According to this YouTube video, you should aim for a site that loads in under half a second. If it goes over two seconds as an e-commerce site – you’ve got work to do. Optimize images, compress your code, cut down on the number of redirects, and make use of browser caching to improve your site speed. Test it with the Mobile-Friendly Test Tool, here, or here.
  • Mobile Design: While I’m a huge fan of responsive design, regardless of which mobile design approach you take, here are a few pointers: stop using popups – you’ll frustrate users, leading to a higher bounce rate and decreased ranking; don’t use Flash – it won’t work on Apple devices. Use HTML 5 or Java instead; and make sure your design is “finger-friendly.” People are scrolling, zooming, and clicking with their fingers, not a computer mouse. Remember that.
  • On-Page Optimization: There’s less room to work with on mobile screens, so keep titles and descriptions concise. This helps the bots understand your site faster, and helps users, too. As such, you’ll likely end up with higher click through rates, which can help improve your rankings.
  • Local OptimizationIn September, Google released the Possum update, which was a major change to the local search algorithm. Mobile search plays a major role in helping businesses bring more foot traffic into the store. Research from the search engine giant itself shows that local searchers are ready to act. Half of people who conduct a local search on their smartphone visited a store within a day, as do 1/3 of the people who use a computer or a tablet. Local businesses stand to gain a great deal from mobile-first indexing. If you’re a local business and you want to increase mobile visibility, make sure to include your business name, phone number, and address. You’ll also want to include your city and state in the:
    • Title tag
    • H1 heading
    • URL
    • ALT tags
    • Meta description


Will Mobile-First Indexing Cause Major Ranking Changes?

Google representatives have said this really shouldn’t cause any major ranking changes. The company hopes the changes will be minimal, but it’s too early to tell. Their goal is to not have the change in indexing to impact rankings much.

If you’ve followed the advice thus far – Mobilegeddon in April 2015 greatly penalized sites that were not mobile-friendly – then you should be in good shape over the course of the index change. Because of the ranking boost mobile-friendly content has already been given, if yours isn’t already, you’ve likely already suffered the ranking hit you were going to suffer.


How Can I See What Mobile-First Indexing Bots See?

Use the Fetch and Render tool in the Google Search Console. Make sure to specify the mobile:smartphone user-agent, as this is the mobile bot. Look at what displays after the fetch and render is complete. What you see here is likely what the mobile bot (Google) sees and indexes from your site. If you notice content is missing, take steps to fix it. Once it’s fixed, run the tool again and see what changes. You are aiming for a desktop and mobile experience that is nearly identical, for best results for not only search ranking, but overall user experience, as well.

You can also test your robots.txt file, to make sure the mobile agents aren’t blocked from crawling your code. Use the Robots.txt Tester Tool. Submit URLs – as there may be some you don’t want the bots to index – to see whether or not the robots.txt file has them properly blocked or crawable.


Will the Desktop and Mobile-First Indexing Converge?

Right now, and for some time in the future, there will be two separate Google indexes – one for mobile-first, and one for desktop-first. Some people, though it will be a relatively small group, will get results from mobile-first indexing, while others will get results from the desktop-first index. Users will have no control over which index their results are served from.

As Google starts to see the mobile bots and index as useful and reliable, we expect to see the mobile-first index become the only one in use. However, if the results of the mobile-first experiment don’t work the way Google wants – it’s possible they’ll go back to a desktop-first index as the only option. In their blog post, they say they’re only experimenting with mobile-first at this stage.


Don’t Wait Until the Change is Official

There’s still a great deal to learn as Google continues their experiment with mobile-first indexing. But, taking action now can help ensure you have great visibility in mobile and desktop search, regardless of whether there are separate indexes or not. There’s no need to wait until an official change to take action.

Has the shift to mobile-first indexing created any havoc for you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo credit: iStock

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