Have you wondered about the buzz surrounding Google’s mobile-first index? Today, let’s clarify what it is and what action you need to consider to keep your site’s pages relevant in Google’s search results.
Although rumors and hints have been circulating all the way back to 2015, in early November, 2016, Doantam Phan, Product Manager at Google, published a post on Google’s Webmaster Central Blog. In it, he discussed what mobile-first indexing means and when it might be implemented by Google with regard to its organic search rankings of websites. Here are the highlights.
What is Google’s Mobile-First Index?
- In its ongoing efforts to make its search results “more useful” to its users, Google has been experimenting in the area of mobile content versus desktop content.
- Once it’s confident its experiments result in returning sites with a great mobile user experience, Google will adjust its algorithms (the secret sauce to getting your site high organic rankings) and will most often use the mobile version of a site’s content to rank pages from that site.
Why the Change?
The growth of mobile device usage for search is clearly a key driver in this change. Mobile search has surpassed desktop searches since 2015. Some estimates place mobile search usage at 75% of total search activity during this year.
Consider that mobile site content often differs considerably from the content available on desktops. So, does it make sense to return content that only exists on the desktop site when most people are searching using mobile? Apparently Google believes that may not be the ideal response.
Will it Affect My Site?
Google has indicated if your site’s content is responsive (friendly for mobile users) – and if the primary content and markup is the same for both mobile and desktop users, you should be OK when the mobile-first index is fully implemented. If you’re not sure about your site, you can check it here – https://search.google.com/search-console/mobile-friendly.
An important takeaway from this is: since Google will continue to only have one index that includes both mobile apps and desktop pages, if your mobile pages aren’t up to snuff, the rankings of your desktop pages could suffer. This could occur no matter how optimized your webpages are or how relevant your content is to searchers on desktops.
How Much Time Do You Have to Prepare for This?
As recently as last month, when asked directly when the change would be fully implemented, Google Sr. Webmaster Trends Analyst John Mueller said he didn’t have any dates, but he guessed it would be “later this year (2017) sometime.” He also said, “We will inform people as we get closer, as we have a date, so there is sufficient time for people to resolve issues that they might need to resolve.”
So, while you don’t need to panic, you should start making plans and getting your site ready so it doesn’t experience sudden drop-offs in organic search traffic.
What Steps Should You Take to Prevent a Drop in Site Visitors from Organic Search
First, you will want to make sure your site’s content is as relevant to mobile searchers as it is to desktop users. Since we always advise to create content for users first (not search engines) it only makes sense that you will want to make sure your mobile users get what they came for when they come to your site. However, we understand there can be challenges in providing the same content for a good experience on mobile devices.
By all means, you should make sure your site is designed to be responsive (where the code behind the pages is the same for both mobile and desktop sites, just styles change based on the display size of the device) or dynamic serving (where both the code and styles differ depending on the device detected when the visitor arrives).
If your site content is different for mobile and desktop visitors (such as when you have different URLs depending on the device), Google further suggests:
Provide structured data markup for both sites. Structured data markup describes things on the web, along with their properties. Many content management systems generate the structured data for you, or have available a plug-in or add-on module for doing so. Google’s Structured Data Markup Helper can generate the necessary HTML for you once you provide the URL to the page. The tool displays alongside the page at the URL you specified and you can then select data items that do not already contain data and provide information (or edit existing information).
Once the code is in place you can check it using Google’s Structured Data Testing Tool to make sure it is the same for both mobile and desktop. Many web designers and developers pay attention to structured data for the desktop version of the site and ignore it for mobile. The tool will check to see if it’s present on both.
- Use the robots.txt tool within Google Search Console to make sure that search spiders aren’t being prevented from crawling any of your important mobile pages. You should also check Smartphone 404 crawl errors in Search Console to identify issues search crawlers and visitors may have in trying to access your mobile pages.
- If you’ve already verified ownership of your site in Google Search Console, you’ll also want to verify the site’s mobile version there as well.