For years, search engines have been our go-to tools on desktop to find the information we need quickly. To accommodate this, Google has primarily focused on developing their crawler based on desktop first to give the best experience. But in the past years, things have changed dramatically. We have started to use our smartphones more prominently to access knowledge. So much that as of 2015, market share for mobile browsers have surpassed desktop browsers for the very first time.
Google is very much every of this behavioural change. That’s why they’ve set out their plan to prioritise mobile browsing first, by using websites’ mobile versions to index them and rank accordingly. This fundamental change in Google’s web crawler is still in the making, with no confirmed date for the overhaul. As Google rarely announces changes to their algorithms upfront, we highly recommend you try to digest the significant changes that will come with mobile first index and prepare to take action.
What is Changing with Mobile First Index?
As more and more people are reaching out to their smartphones to find information online, Google wants to optimise their search engine so that indexing is done with mobile users in mind.
This means that mobile versions of websites which has significantly less content than desktop versions will have disadvantages when Google crawls them. This inherently forces web developers to develop their websites around the mobile first index strategies to prioritise usability on mobile devices.
Do I Get Penalised If I Don’t Have a Mobile Site?
Google recommends that even though mobile first index will prioritise mobile versions of websites, it won’t have any negative effect on websites without a dedicated mobile version. It will still be crawled as usual based on the desktop version.
If you do have a mobile version, you will need to make sure that the content on the mobile site is similar to the desktop version and there aren’t any significant differences between the two to have a detrimental effect on your SEO rankings.
If you don’t have a separate mobile site, but still want to benefit from mobile first index; the best course of action would be to implement responsive design on your site. The responsive design ensures that the same content is appropriately displayed on mobile devices while offering the optimal user experience on small screens; where finger touch is the primary input tool.
When is Mobile First Index Rolling Out?
Google have announced mobile first index first in November 2016; when they indicated that they are currently testing and making improvements before they fully launch this update. However there is still no set date for it. Back in March 2017, Google’s Gary Illyes have stated that they are still experimenting with it and they don’t have an exact timeline for launch yet.
We’re still experimenting. We don’t have a timeline. It could be a few months or quarters, but it’s definitely not weeks [away]. Don’t freak out, especially if you have a responsive site.
Google’s Gary Illyes on Mobile First Index, at SMX West 2017
Although there are rumours flying around that it would be launch in 2017; we will just have to wait and see any developments in the upcoming months.
How is This Going to Change My Search Engine Rankings?
Google have previously stated that non-mobile-responsive websites will not perform as well on sites rankings. This expected to continue to be the case with the new mobile first index.
Google currently provides a mobile-friendly ranking boost on the mobile compatible websites; which is applied on top of the rankings based on the desktop sites. In the new system, the websites will be indexed from their mobile versions. Any mobile-friendly pages will continue to see a boost on their search rankings.
What Happens to the Existing Desktop Index?
During the rollout of mobile search index, we expect Google to continue using desktop index parallel to the brand new mobile index. A subset of users will be provided with mobile first index. This will give Google a chance to iron out the bugs out of the new index system.
Once the mobile first index is fully launched across the entire user base, however, Google will gradually phase out desktop-first index to fully focus on mobile. Of course, as it is heavily emphasised that mobile-first index is still in its ideation phase with heavy experimentation, Google at any point could shelve the new index and default back to desktop index.
How Do I Make Sure My Mobile Pages are Correctly Indexed?
The best way to ensure that your mobile pages are crawled and indexed just as normal is to use Google Search Console. The Search Console provides a Fetch and Render tool that enables you to manually fetch any page on your website, check how Google sees your pages and manually send it to Google to be indexed.
By using the Fetch and Render tool, you can keep track of the indexibility of your website and make necessary changes to verify that all your content is indexed appropriately.
How to Optimise Your Site for Mobile First Index
Speed matters more than ever
According to Google, for a typical e-commerce website, the acceptable page-load time is 2 seconds; after which the chances of the visitor abandoning the website increases. For mobile, speed is even more fundamental to optimise user experience. It is recommended that you continuously monitor your page load speeds on mobile to comply with mobile first index requirements. You can use a variety of tools such as Google PageSpeed Insights, GTMetrix and Pingdom to test your load speed to ensure the following problems are fixed:
- Optimise the images to make sure that on mobile screens, appropriate image sizes are loaded to minimise the download of large size images.
- Minify and bundle the CSS and JS files on site to minimise the number of requests on each page.
- Leverage browser caching to ensure that frequently downloaded resources are cached locally on device.
- Reduce redirects to make sure the page is loaded swiftly without causing user experience problems.
Blocking JS and CSS is no longer necessary
Start your design at mobile
Considering that majority of your visitors are now accessing your website on mobile; with the intention of optimising their experience, it is highly recommended you start designing your websites on mobile. In addition to providing immense benefits on the SEO front, mobile first design will also benefit your visitors by providing them increased accessibility on smaller screen sizes.
However, when designing for mobile, make sure you avoid these:
- Get rid of Flash. Google won’t be able to index any Flash content and it’s highly discouraged by leading tech companies due to security and speed issues.
- Get rid of pop-ups. They will distract visitors from their main purpose on your site, to view your content. Google actually started to penalise sites that use full-page pop-ups, so this might be the best time to oust them.
- Design around input methods. On mobile, it is imperative to keep in mind that the primary input method is fingers, which has much less target accuracy than a mouse. Ensure the tap targets around your content is appropriately calculated and avoid squeezing too many buttons with no padding around them.
Technical SEO is still important
Because user interactions on mobile are happening on smaller screen real estates, this means that being concise about the content of your page is more important on the SERP. In order to optimise the click through rates and minimise the bounce rates on mobile first index, make sure that all your pages are appropriately titled and the meta description is an accurate representation of content.
Optimise for local SEO
In contrast to desktop search, where users could be anywhere on the decision making process; mobile search users have a much more targeted intent with their search. This also includes search for local services. Google believes that majority of mobile search users are ready to take action.
To improve the visibility of your website on local searches; make sure that you:
- Include the name of the city your services are offered in the page titles and on-page titles.
- Include the address and contact details for your company.
- Sign up to Google Business Listings to enable search on map.
- Make use of Schema local business tag to improve the visibility on search results with Structured Data.