Google's Mobile-First Index | Chillibyte
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Google’s Mobile-First Index

Google’s Mobile-First Index

Google’s new indexing policy, Mobile-First Index, has been on the horizon for a while now. With 2017 flying past, and the recent talk from Google of this new venture being implemented in batches, the Mobile-First Index could be upon us before we know it.

Do we know any more about the implications of the Mobile-First Index now than we did when it was first announced back in October 2016? What exactly does this change mean for businesses, SEO strategies and the future of desktop search? What, if anything, should we be doing to prepare?

How things have been

Google gathers information on every web page in a huge catalogue, known as an index. This information is then used to decide which search results are displayed for a specified query. Currently, Google’s ranking systems usually use the desktop version of a page’s content to work out and therefore rank its relevance to the user. With that said, Rankbrain and Machine Learning is a post for another day.

How things will be

Perhaps the most important thing to come from Google’s Mobile-First Index announcement is that it would be splitting its index between mobile and desktop. Creating a separate mobile index means that the mobile index will become the primary Google index and that the desktop index will not be kept as up-to-date as the mobile one.

So, historically, Google has used what’s known as a desktop user agent to look in on websites. But, with the introduction of the Mobile-First Index, Google will instead make its way across your site to check relevance and so on, as a mobile user.

Mobile Search

  • Google revealed back in 2015 the changing situation in terms of mobile versus desktop search. They announced that more than 50% of searches globally are done on smartphones and that more Google searches take place on mobile devices than on computers in 10 countries, including the U.S. and Japan. (Google, 2015)
  • 65% of smartphone users say when searching via their smartphone they go for the most relevant information irrespective of the company providing the information. (Google, 2015)
  • 5% of mobile sites take over 10 seconds to load.
  • 53% of mobile users abandon the site 3 seconds into loading.

These stats tell a story. If your mobile site isn’t up to scratch, and you’re not supplying a good mobile user experience, you will lose potential customers to competitors who are.

All about mobile

This move towards a Mobile-First Index is no surprise. Over the years, Google has been adapting the way in which it works, based on user behaviour and focused user experience.  Over half of all searches happen on mobile, but the technology has to be in-line with this obvious trend towards mobile search.

As the stats illustrate, although over half of all searches are on a mobile, at the same time, many mobile users abandon a search if the page is taking more than a few seconds to load. We, particularly as mobile users, know what we want to see and we want instant gratification.

Therefore, Google has been concentrating on improving the mobile search user experience with features such accelerated mobile pages, which brought site speed into the ranking factors. Changes have (and are) being made. All developments are focused on making the mobile search experience better. The Mobile-First Index will go one step further in ensuring mobile users are getting the latest information fast. As Google put it, ‘To make our results more useful.’ This is great news for mobile search. But what does this mean for desktop search?

The future of desktop search?

Where does this move towards mobile leave desktop search? Is Google pushing a trend towards mobile search by improving this and leaving desktop search out in the cold?

This ‘all about the mobile’ approach has presented Google with a problem that’s recently come out of the woodwork. Because mobile sites usually have less links and less content than their desktop equivalent, when Google searches sites primarily as a mobile user, it stands to reason that less links will come up in the search results. Less links can potentially play havoc with ranking fluctuations. We all know rankings fluctuate, but searching from a primarily mobile index is a sure-fire way to mix things up.

To combat this potential problem Google’s Gary Illyes announced, on June 13 during the SMX mobile-first panel, that they might “smear” a certain number of desktop signals into the mobile-first index. It is expected that Google will still use some information collected in their desktop-first search after the mobile-first index is up and running. It does all sound a bit confusing but this has come to be expected when such huge changes are implemented. Furthermore, it’s always a good idea to wait a little for the water to settle before making any hasty site changes. This said, there are some suggested actions you may wish to take in preparation for this forthcoming indexing change.

What can webmasters do to prepare?

If you’ve already been implementing best practice for SEO, you shouldn’t need to change your SEO strategy as such. There are, however, some preparations you may wish to make in light of this indexing change if you haven’t already done so.

Mobile friendly

Mobile friendliness is a core ranking factor and it’s definitely worth putting the extra work in to get your website as mobile friendly as possible. Mobile friendly websites are one thing, but considering mobile UX to enhance your current mobile site could give you that competitive edge.

But just what is mobile friendly? It’s quite simple – web pages that view “correctly” on a mobile device. Users can load all content on your page, read the text without having to zoom or scroll, and interact with any buttons present; just like they would be able to on a desktop version. Designing your site to function responsively is the best way to go. For example, designing a site that automatically moulds or flexes to suit the device used to access it.

You can test just how mobile friendly your site is with Google directly:

Essentially, if you have a responsive site or a dynamic serving site where the primary content and markup is the same on both mobile and desktop platforms, you can allow yourself to sigh in relief and give yourself a big fat pat on the back. You should be able to sail through this imminent change to a largely mobile focussed index and shouldn’t need to make any major changes.

Get your desktop site right

If your mobile and desktop sites are separate, it’s worth noting that if you’re building a mobile version of your site, it’s important to make sure your desktop site is perfect and good to go in every way. A clean, fully functioning, and Google friendly desktop-oriented site is worth getting right first and better than a broken or incomplete mobile version of the site. As the Google gurus themselves advise “It’s better for you to build up your mobile site and launch it when ready.”

Site equivalence

It’s important to ensure complete equivalence between your mobile and desktop site. It’s a good idea to set your mobile version as your “primary” version, and ensure it’s always updated first in future revisions, enabling compatibility with how the Mobile-First index will function. If users find content on the desktop version of your page but not the corresponding mobile page, your site could fall down the rankings ladder quite significantly and lose search traffic relevant to the content that’s missing from the mobile site.

Structured data and Site configuration

If your site is configured so that primary content and markup is different on mobile and desktop platforms, it’s time to implement some changes. You’ll need to deliver structured markup for both the desktop and mobile platforms. There is a standard markup definition for document structure in the Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML).

  • Sites can check how their structured markup matches across desktop and mobile by typing the URLs of both versions into the Structured Data Testing Tool and comparing the output.
  • When adding structured markup; it should be specifically relevant to the information content of each document.
  • If you are a site owner who has only verified their desktop site in Search Console, Google urge you to add and verify your mobile version.

Mobile Search features

Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP)

It stands to reason with sites soon to be ranked on their mobile version, that mobile search features such as AMP will become increasingly more popular and necessary to ensure your mobile site is slick, aesthetically pleasing, and functional.  Mobile search can be frustrating and not the best user experience due to slow loading; unresponsive pages; and content pushed out by ads. AMP is a mobile search feature introduced in February 2016 to “dramatically improve the performance of the mobile web.” In other words,;to speed up mobile search and make super speedy mobile pages. Pages made with AMP can link with other platforms so they appear on Bing, Pinterest, and Twitter, for example. AMP supports design flexibility and, also, a broad range of ads.

Rich snippets

A snippet is a result Google shows to the user in the search results. A normal snippet in a search result gives the title in blue, the URL in green and a description of what the page is about. A rich snippet provides additional information in the results, which shows up between the URL and the description. Rich snippets give much more information and can include photos. Rich snippets generally are more eye catching and usually produce a higher click-through rate. With more people clicking on your result, Google will see that people are liking your page, which will eventually help where you rank in search results. This won’t happen immediately but will prove fruitful certainly in the long game.

It’s important to ensure your structured markup is equivalent for both the desktop and mobile versions of your pages. If it’s not, you could lose any featured or rich snippets that your site currently occupies in the search engine results pages (SERPs).

Just how will Mobile-First Index affect ranking? What to expect?

Google have said that eventually, algorithms will pretty much only use “the mobile version of a site’s content to rank pages from that site, to understand structured data, and to show snippets from those pages in our results.” If this sets alarm bells ringing, Google went on to say that “while our index will be built from mobile documents, we’re going to continue to build a great search experience for all users, whether they come from mobile or desktop devices.” These words of reassurance were given by Google back in November 2016. It remains to be seen just how this huge index change will impact the desktop platform. According to Google, there’s nothing to worry about and, if you only have a desktop site, for example, Google say they will “continue to index your desktop site just fine, even if we’re using a mobile user agent to view your site.”

Fundamentally, if you want to ensure you have a fighting chance in the rankings game you really need to ensure your mobile site and your desktop site are essentially the same and as good as each other, in terms of content, links, ads and so on, as well as the obvious usability. We all want fully functioning, fast loading pages that are easy and quick to navigate and use, where we find the content we are looking for.

The impact of mobile-first indexing will hit hard if your mobile and desktop sites are significantly different. If the mobile version of a page of your site has dramatically less content than the desktop version, it is this version that rankings will be based on. This could have a big impact, not only on how your site features in search results, but also on how your brand and site are viewed by those visiting via mobile.

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