Mark Munroe, founder and CEO of SEORadar.com, explains how to prepare for the imminent arrival of Google’s Mobile-first Index.
One of the biggest events poised to shake up the mobile marketing and SEO world in 2018 is the roll-out of Google’s Mobile-first Index. Though an exact timeline has yet to be revealed, Google has indicated that the Index will launch sometime in 2018.
For those who may not be familiar with it, the Mobile-first Index will change the way Google delivers search engine results. Historically, Google has reviewed websites from the perspective of a desktop user. It looks at hundreds of signals from content quality to links pointing to your site to load time (and many more) to evaluate millions of web pages. With the rollout of the Mobile-first Index, the search engine will index the web from the point of view of a mobile user, using the mobile version of a site as its primary search engine index.
It’s a move that makes sense, given the incredible and fast-paced growth of mobile search in recent years. It was back in 2015 that Google announced that more searches took place on mobile devices than on computers in 10 different countries. More recent studies have shown this number to be as high as 60 per cent for some industries and topics. As a company that makes its users a priority, it follows that Google would need to adapt to this clear shift in how people are searching.
Google is already testing the Mobile-first Index in the wild, so it could be just a few months before a full implementation. Are you ready? How should you prepare your website? Here are the key technical issues you should check to ensure you don’t lose search visibility under the new Mobile-first Index.
Mobile site delivery
How are you delivering your mobile site to user? This is the place to start, as different configurations require different preparations for the Mobile-first Index. Generally, there are three different approaches to the mobile site experience:
Responsive Web Design (RWD) is the technique of creating a single web page that can identify the device being used and provide an appropriate user experience using CSS. If your site is responsive, your task of preparing for the mobile index is pretty simple. Generally, you will reformat or hide content that would not fit on the smaller form factor.
Adaptive Web Design (AWD) dynamically adapts the site based on the user’s device. The device being used is detected server-side and then the server delivers the appropriate version of the page. Multiple versions of the site are typically created to suit different devices. Like responsive, this has the advantage of delivering lightweight pages, making it easier to deliver unique value to a particular device based on the user’s needs. In this case, there is a single URL (but different content) for desktop and mobile.
Distinct Mobile URL (m.dot) is a distinct website (and URL) for mobile users. This has similar advantages to adaptive, but adds the complexity of mapping mobile and desktop versions of the pages.
In addition, there is also the option of AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) which can add another layer opf complexity. These pages are built with a stripped-down version of HTML, designed for fast loading. Currently, Google recommends that AMP content be comparable to the (original) canonical page content of the desktop version.
Prioritizing the user experience
Depending on your mobile site configuration, different actions may need to be taken to improve user experience. Let’s take a look. If your site is responsive, there isn’t too much tactically to do, but optimization of your mobile experience should be a priority no matter how your mobile site is configured.
Keep in mind that Google rankings are not simply based on relevance, but also on satisfying search intent. The content may meet the user intent, but the experience may not. Let’s look at a few common issues that primarily center on user experience.
Too much content – Cramming a desktop’s worth of content and UX into a tiny phone can kill the user experience. The mobile screen severely limits the user’s ability to find content and the solution to their search. Google was not paying attention before, now it will be.
Slow load time – Site speed is a part of Google’s algorithm. People expect quicker responses on their phone. Google recommends sub-second response time on mobile.
Mobile standards come first – Google has said that mobile sites will have distinct performance measurements. This is because users have different expectations when using mobile; they’re less patient, want to find information fast, and don’t want to click around to find a simple answer. A sluggish or poorly-designed desktop site may be a fatal disaster once it’s judged by mobile standards.
Ad intrusion – Aggressive monetization or conversion techniques can kill the mobile experience. Google has already put an interstitial penalty into place for mobile. Of course, business goals are important, but there must be a balance between user experience and pushing product/services.
Considerations for distinct mobile sites
Of course, user experience issues apply to distinct mobile sites as well. Besides that, if you have a distinct mobile website, all your optimization efforts will essentially double. Why? Chances are you have spent months, if not years, optimizing your desktop site, including key SEO elements like titles, headings, content, link structure, and more, which you’ll want to duplicate on your mobile site.
Sync key on-page elements – Since Google will be looking at your mobile site, the content on the desktop and mobile site needs to be the same (or as similar as possible) if you want to rank for the same keyword and phrases. You can use a crawling tool to create a spreadsheet of key SEO elements on both desktop and mobile sites. Or better still, use a tool that can give you an explicit comparison. Then, determine what needs to be updated to match. Titles and meta descriptions especially should be identical for both versions of the site.
Linking structure – This may be a struggle for distinct mobiles sites. You need to ensure that all your content that is accessible via click-path on desktop can also be accessed on mobile. Typically, mobile sites have far fewer links than their desktop counterparts. Implementing that click-path is now a necessity.
Missing content – You may also find that content is stripped down or completely missing from the mobile site. If that’s the case, you certainly may be at risk. You will need to perform a site audit to determine if key pages are missing from the mobile site.
Hidden content – Desktop sites often utilize tabs or other hidden design features to more dynamically display content. This doesn’t work for mobile sites and should be removed.
Structured data and hreflang – Google recently posted about these two topics as the mobile-index gets closer. They recommend making sure structured data that’s present on desktop versions are also on the mobile site. URLs within the structured data should be updated to the mobile version on the mobile pages. If your site utilizes hreflang links, check to be sure mobile pages link to the mobile version of the international page.
Increased crawl rate – Google also made an additional note about ensuring your hosting servers have enough capacity to handle potentially increased crawl rate. This is only applicable to sites with separate mobile addresses.
I mentioned the importance of site speed above, but it really warrants its own section. If Google’s focus on AMP pages over the past couple of years is any indication, speed will be a critical ranking factor for the mobile-first index. So find out where your site stands. Use Google’s Test My Site tool to gauge site performance. This tool provides an analysis of mobile-friendliness and mobile page speed. Another great – and free – tool from Google is PageSpeed Insights. It offers specific optimization tactics (listed by priority) for mobile (and desktop) sites.
Secondly, streamline your content and design. If site speed isn’t up to snuff, consider eliminating unnecessary page elements and images (and/or compressing large images/files). This not only streamlines the look of a page, but it’s been shown to increase conversions.
And finally, use browser caching. Larger files/images can be stored on modern browsers so return visitors don’t have to completely reload the page when they return.
Not only will you have to sync up your mobile and desktop sites to prepare for the Mobile-first Index, you will need to consistently work at keeping the key elements in sync. As site changes happen, remember they need to happen on both sites!
Furthermore, monitoring your mobile performance will be even more critical. You may start to see rankings dramatically drift. If you are not yet distinctly monitoring mobile SEO performance, you will need to do that now.
Google’s Mobile-first Index is a milestone in the search community – and for mobile marketing in general. It’s a tangible recognition of the importance and value of the mobile experience for consumers and search users worldwide.
Google has said its goal is not to drastically alter the current search engine results page, yet it stands to reason that sites with a strong mobile user experience will do better in the long run. Use these remaining months before a full rollout of the Mobile-first Index to focus on your mobile site and provide an improved experience (desktop and mobile) for your visitors.