UPDATE: Google announced on the 26th March that the mobile-first index has now begun to roll out. Read the latest here
In the increasingly mobile-first search world, it is no surprise that Google is adapting to the changing behaviours of its users.
In recent years we’ve seen two specific algorithm updates focused on mobile friendliness, indicating that it was only a matter of time before Google started to index sites based on the speed, performance and user experience on a mobile device as opposed to desktop. That time appears to be now.
What Is a Mobile-First Index?
Talk of a ‘mobile-first index’ has been around for a number of years, but it now appears Google is close to rolling out its mobile-first index, with many in the SEO industry anticipating its arrival in Q1 of 2018. In a post published to the Google Webmasters Blog on 18th December 2017, Google described this new method of indexing as follows;
“Mobile-first indexing means that we’ll use the mobile version of the content for indexing and ranking, to better help our – primarily mobile – users find what they’re looking for”
Essentially, Google will now crawl your site as if it were a user on a mobile device and index it accordingly based on the content, user experience and technical aspects of the mobile version of the site.
If your site is responsive this may not present much of an issue, but if your site does not have a responsive design, or you operate a separate mobile and desktop site, there is a greater risk to your organic presence.
When Will Mobile-First Indexing be Implemented?
As with many Google algorithm updates, there is no hard and fast date set for this to roll out. Back in June at the SMX Advanced conference in Seattle, Gary Illyes, Google’s Webmaster Trends Analyst, stated that Google was “probably many quarters away” from launching its mobile-first index.
However, just prior to Christmas 2017, Google did announce on their own Webmaster’s blog that the mobile-first index had rolled out across a number of sites and that they were closely being monitored by their search teams. This, along with industry chatter lead to speculation that the rollout would happen in Q1 of 2018. Understandably, Google is unwilling to commit to a date, so it is a case of sitting and waiting for an announcement.
Who Will the Mobile-First Index Affect?
As with most Google algorithm updates, it’s hard to predict the exact impact. However, all signs point to this being a significant update. In his same SMX Advanced talk, Google’s Gary Illyes stated: “It’s going to be a big change, but don’t freak out”. While we’re trying not to fear the worst, it’s clear Google is expecting this to cause a shake-up.
Irrespective of what percentage of your traffic comes from mobile devices, it is imperative that you offer a great mobile user experience, as this will now determine your visibility to both desktop and mobile users.
If your site is responsive you have less to worry, providing your content doesn’t vary based on the device the user is accessing the site with. It is perfectly normal for a responsive site to serve your content in a different style on mobile and desktop to suit the size of the device. However, if your site removes, hides or serves vastly different content based on the device, you could potentially be at risk of losing organic visibility.
Non-Responsive or Mobile-Specific Sites
It is vital that all the content the user can access on a desktop is also accessible on a mobile device. Sites that are not built with a responsive design and sites that have a separate mobile and desktop version are those most likely to see the greatest impact of the mobile-first index. If you are running a separate m-dot site for mobile users, then now may be the time to consider switching to a responsive site. It is perhaps no coincidence that Google published their own guide to switching from an m-dot to responsive site late last year.
If your site isn’t responsive, or you do currently operate with separate mobile and desktop sites, then there are steps you can take to ensure any negative impact is minimised.
What Can You Do to Prepare for Mobile-First Indexing?
The easiest (though perhaps not the most convenient) solution would be to migrate your site or sites to a responsive design. This is a large undertaking and not one you are going to want to make a snap decision on, as rushing through the process presents its own risks. However, this is likely to be the best long-term solution.
For those with m-dot sites or separate mobile sites, there may be some work to do to ensure your mobile site is ready for this change. To begin with, ensure you have the same content available on the mobile site as you do on a desktop. Tabbed or hidden content that can be opened or expanded to create a better mobile user experience is fine, so make sure there isn’t content on the desktop version that isn’t also available on the mobile version.
Next, think about any optimisation you may have done on the desktop site that might not have pulled across to the mobile version. Consider your title tags, meta descriptions, image titles and alt-tags, schema markup and internal linking. If it differs greatly from the desktop version, understand that your organic visibility will soon be based off your mobile site. If your mobile site isn’t equal to (or better than!) the desktop version, you’ll likely feel an impact when the mobile-first index rolls out.
Other Mobile-First Index Considerations
Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP)
There are other considerations too. Consider implementing Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) to strip down the code required to serve your content to users in a fraction of the time it takes to render a normal page. Again, this isn’t a decision to make lightly and will incur some costs to implement, but for publishers in particular, this is the next step in delivering users the best mobile experience.
Set up Google Search Console Accounts
There are some simple steps from a technical perspective that you can take too. If you have separate mobile sites, ensure you have a Search Console account set up for that version of your site too. This will enable you to monitor the crawl rate, indexation and other technical aspects of the version of your site Google is using to determine your organic visibility.
Mobile Page Load Speed
Another significant factor in the mobile user experience is page load speed. No one wants to be waiting for an age whilst pages load, eating up their mobile data. Use Google’s own Mobile Speed and Usability tool to understand how quickly your site loads, what kind of mobile experience it offers users and what you can do to improve this.
Mobile Organic Visibility and Rank Tracking
Many companies will also be tracking rankings of keyphrases as a way of determining the effectiveness of their SEO campaigns and organic visibility. Historically, a lot of tools have only focused on the rankings based on desktop searches, but with this shift, it is now crucial to understand the rankings on both desktop and mobile devices separately. Luckily our tool of choice, SEOmonitor already offers this. If your tool of choice doesn’t offer mobile rank tracking, now may be the time to look for an alternative.
This change in the way Google crawls and indexes sites should be the catalyst for changing the way you view your own site and the way you develop your site going forward. As the name says, it’s mobile-first, so design for mobile and scale to a desktop, not the other way around.
If you need some assistance in determining whether your site or sites are ready for this change then get in touch and the Anicca Digital team will be happy to help.