Google’s mobile-first index means that the search engine giant will soon be organising its search results based on the mobile version of websites, only calling on desktop versions when there isn’t a mobile version to index. Whether you’re searching Google on a desktop, laptop, tablet or mobile, you will soon be presented with the same mobile-first index.
The implications of this for search engine optimisation are potentially significant, especially for those without a mobile-friendly version of their website, so let’s explore the whens, whys and hows.
When is Google launching its mobile first index?
The launch date is still uncertain with Gary Illyes from Google stating that it is ‘unlikely to launch before 2018’, partly due to issues around maintaining ‘quality neutral’ search results, something Google is very keen to keep. It’s also likely that the Mobile-First Index will be released in ‘batches’ as opposed to one big switch over, with Illyes claiming the SMX Advanced conference in June 2017 that the launch could be ‘many quarters’ away.
Why is Google implementing a mobile first index?
Google has always crawled websites to present results for the benefit of its desktop users, but as mobile search has long outweighed desktop search (and continues to grow), the Californian tech giant has decided to switch things up. The aim is to deliver the most comprehensive and efficient experience for the majority of its users; that is mobile users.
Another issue is the potential discrepancies between mobile and desktop versions of the same website. As mobile versions of a website sometimes contain less content than their desktop version, Google has recognised this can cause issues for mobile users. Mobile search results displaying results garnered from desktop-oriented sites may indicate that a particular website contains the information a user needs to access, but when they click through and are redirected to the mobile site, those key pieces of information may be missing. By introducing a mobile-first index, pages that appear on a desktop but not on mobile will no longer appear in the SERPs, ensuring mobile users get more accurate search results.
What if I don’t have a mobile website?
The good news is that there’s no need to panic. If you don’t have a mobile version of your website up and running, Google’s crawlers will still automatically crawl and index your site. In a 2016 blog post, Google released guidance relating to website owners on the introduction of its mobile-first index. It states that it is in fact more valuable to have a fully functional desktop-only website, than an incomplete mobile version.
As if to confuse things though (and Google does like to do this from time to time) it looks like Google may use some desktop signals in its mobile-first search results, at least to start with. Gary Illyes has confirmed that the company may ‘smear’ search results, as a result of fewer links on mobile sites, something that could throw Google’s Pagerank signals all over the place and undermine ‘quality neutrality’.
All this being said, it makes sense to have a mobile responsive website design, as non-mobile-friendly sites will continue to rank more poorly compared to their mobile-friendly competitors.
What happens if my mobile site doesn’t have as much content as my desktop site?
This may be an issue that you will need to address sooner rather than later, as crawlers will just index the content on your mobile site, without ever seeing your more comprehensive desktop version. Google strongly recommends opting for a responsive design that will ensure that each page of your mobile site will contain the same information as your desktop site. There are, of course, other ways to implement a mobile site, but with a responsive design, there is less room for error (which is always a good thing).
If you have decided against a responsive design and are using separate mobile and desktop versions, it will be a good idea to consider the mobile version of your website as your primary focus, moving forward. When updates are required, focus on ensuring there will be minimal disruption, and that it is as optimised as possible, to help you secure those all-important high rankings.
How is the mobile first index going to change website rankings?
While it may sound like a huge change, Google has said that it doesn’t expect search results to change very much, if at all. As it takes the process indexing of websites seriously, it is keen to ensure these changes are beneficial across the board.
So, although it is likely you won’t see much change (or even any) to begin with, it is still extremely important to keep up to date by ensuring you keep on top of any changes relating to mobile website ranking. As Google has a track record of moving the goalposts constantly, you don’t want to be caught out, should the direction Google is taking with mobile search catch you off-guard sometime in the future.
OK, so what does all this mean for my business?
There are always a number of different areas you can improve upon, in order to maximise the benefits your website brings your business and focusing on the mobile version of your site, seems to be the way things are going (without compromising on the desktop version of course). I’ve listed some areas you need to be looking at now when it comes to ensuring your site maintains its mobile search presence.
1. Improve your loading speeds
Google has been pretty ambiguous on to what extent mobile page speed load times will affect rankings in the mobile-first index. Traditionally Google’s search algorithm has relied on desktop page load speeds but signs are this is going to change. Good page load times across all devices is always important, but especially so for mobile users. If your website doesn’t load in less than two seconds, it’s time to make some changes. Large images are a no-no and ensuring your code is as streamlined and efficient as possible is imperative.
2. If you don’t have a mobile responsive site, plan for one
Whilst you could build a separate mobile site to sit alongside your existing site, the consensus is now to have a single website that can work across all devices. Search results aside, a mobile responsive site is one of the best things you can build for your small business, as it is a more accessible and user-friendly way for your potential customers to access your business on a mobile device. With increasing numbers of searches conducted on mobile, by not having a mobile or mobile responsive site, you’re missing out on a large number of possible conversions, as frustrated users click off your site and go to your competitors. User experience is crucial so get it right first time.
3. Equalise your content
Although the smearing of desktop and mobile indexes will water down the immediate need for equalising content, creating a unified and consistent website experience for users across devices is still important. As I’ve already discussed in point 2, the best way to do this is to create a single mobile responsive website.
4. Check your mobile content is being indexed successfully
This may sound obvious, but it’s amazing how many people don’t do it. It’s incredibly simple to check, by searching ‘site:mywebsite.com’ on Google, via your smartphone. If nothing is visible, then you will need to work on creating a mobile sitemap, if your mobile and desktop sites are separate, or if your URLs are the same, check your robots.txt to double-check you aren’t inadvertently blocking Googlebot.
5. Evaluate your smartphone errors
Using Google Search Console to check errors will help you to iron out any mistakes and, in turn, will ensure Googlebot will be in a better position to correctly index your content.
What does the future hold for mobile search?
Although not a feature that will benefit from Google’s mobile-first index, it is fairly safe to predict that apps are likely to become more important for businesses as Google continues to push for a fully mobile-friendly internet. My advice is to keep on top of new developments and make small improvements to your mobile site where possible. Do this and you should be on track to ensure your website is future-proofed for an internet that is increasingly being accessed on our mobile devices.
Over to you…
How are you preparing for the mobile-first index? Are you still yet to make the change to a mobile responsive site? Let us know how you’re getting on in the comments section below and if you need help preparing your website then get in touch to find out how we can help you.