Google’s Mobile-First Index: What Does This Mean for Your SEO Strategy?
Google first introduced the idea of mobile first indexing almost a year ago in November 2016. This was in response to new search norms, where most people today, rely on mobile devices for the majority of their online activities including web searches. Mobile web browsing has overtaken desktop as the device of choice for internet users and Google wants its index to represent this shift.
So what impact will this change have? What does it mean for your SEO strategy?
A brief introduction to Mobile-First Indexing
A search engine index is a collection of data that the search engine has collected primarily through crawling web pages for purposes of facilitating fast and accurate information retrieval.
Traditionally, Google has always prioritized the desktop version of a website and viewed the mobile version as supplementary.
The shift to mobile-first indexing means that Google’s algorithms will primarily use the mobile version of a site’s content to rank pages from that site, get snippets to show in the results page and to understand structured data. The search index, however, will continue being a single index of websites and apps.
This shift is bound to be a game changer for search engine optimizers and webmasters especially those who are yet to implement responsive web design.
Google’s stance on mobile friendliness
Google has for the last seven years given indications that this shift was imminent. In 2010, the then CEO Eric Schmidt announced that Google was adopting a mobile-first mindset predicting that smartphone sales would soon surpass PC sales.
In 2014, Google added the Mobile usability report to Webmaster Tools to help webmasters looking to implement a mobile-friendly site. They also unveiled snippets alongside regular mobile search results to indicate whether a webpage is mobile friendly.
In 2015, after announcing that it would be expanding its use of mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal in mobile searches, Google launched the mobile-friendly algorithm update. This came to be referred to as “mobilegeddon” by the SEO community.
Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP), the follow up of the update was released in 2016. AMP is an open source initiative designed to aid publishers to build lightweight web pages that perform better on mobile devices. AMP is now available to all brands and content creators. Anyone can now AMP-enable content and have it surface in the main organic area of Google’s mobile search results.
Google began testing its mobile-first index in November 2016. Google’s Gary Illyes claims that while the team behind mobile-first index wants it launched this year, it is still in the testing face. There is no formal timeline for its release and it may take a while for Google to be ready. He quelled concerns by insisting that no one should be freaked out by the looming change.
Google has in the meantime given several revelations of what to expect. They have also given recommendations to help website owners prepare for the move to a more mobile-focused index.
What will change?
1. The index will prioritize sites that are ready for it
The mobile-first index seems to be gradually rolling out to sites based on their preparedness for the update. Sites mostly unaffected by the update will be the first to receive the rollout before the sites that need to make important structural changes.
Typically, Google rolls out algorithmic changes in transitory, major phases affecting all sites simultaneously and giving out rewards and penalties appropriately. A shift from this approach is good news for sites that are not ready for mobile-first.
2. Insufficient mobile optimization could hurt your desktop ranking
If your mobile version has inferior content to your desktop site, your desktop’s site ranking for desktop searches will be hurt. Since Google will look at the mobile version of your site, it will crawl the inferior content and use it to rank both versions of your website. You should make sure that the links and content on the mobile site are similar enough to the desktop version.
3. Google will not notify mobile-first sites of their status
If you have a mobile version of your site, you better be ready for the transition since Google has no intention of informing website owners when their mobile sites are being indexed first.
Recommendations to get your website ready for mobile-first index
Is your site ready for the switch to mobile first index? Google has given a few recommendations to help webmasters prepare. As you prepare for Google’s mobile-first index, you should also keep in mind that the largest percentage of web traffic is coming from mobile devices. As such, improving your site’s mobile experience is in your best interest.
1. Optimize your images for mobile
Most sites are yet to optimize their sites’ images in preparation for mobile first indexing. Images need to be embedded in the mobile version of your site for them to appear in mobile image searches. Alt text, correctly describing the image should also accompany it.
2. Use SSL to encrypt communication on your mobile site
Most SSL certificates do not support mobile browsers especially on Symbian or Windows Mobile. Some mobile browsers may display an error message when they fail to understand an SSL certificate. Use an SSL certificate on your mobile site that functions with most mobile devices. There are a number of reliable, cheap SSL certificates available to choose from. Our friends at Kinsta prepared an in-depth guide about how to migrate from http to https.
3. There is no need to rush to create a mobile site
If you do not have a mobile site, Google will continue to crawl your desktop version and index it just fine. As such, throwing together a mobile site in haste is going to hurt your SEO more than help it. Take time to design a mobile-friendly site and only launch it when it is ready.
There is no need to worry about the mobile-first index. Google says that the change will have minimal impact on the rankings. In addition, considering that it is only the sites that are ready for mobile-first indexing that will be affected first, preparing for the transition shouldn’t be your top priority.
However, it pays to have a responsive site or one that mirrors your desktop version. Make efforts to optimize your images for viewability and search, use a cheap SSL certificate that is compatible to most mobile browsers and make sure to submit and verify the mobile version of your site on search console.