Google has always insisted that businesses deliver a good user experience. An increase in mobile web browsing has prompted Google to turn its focus to mobile-friendliness and how it should impact search engine rankings.
- In October last year, website visits on mobile devices surpassed that on desktops (StatCounter).
- Between 2011 and 2016, smartphone ownership in the United States increased by over 40%, with 95% of Americans owning a cellphone. (Pew Research Center).
- Since 2015, over half of all Google searches are occurring on mobile devices.
As online activities on mobile devices spiral, Google believes it is time to make significant updates to emphasize the importance of optimizing websites for mobile. Enter the mobile-first index, which aims to improve web browsing for mobile users.
What exactly is the mobile-first index?
Currently, Google has one desktop-based index, which is basically a catalog of information from every webpage the Googlebot crawls. Googlebot, so far, has been creating signals from the perspective of a desktop browsing experience. Though there is a mobile Googlebot that gathers mobile-friendly signals, it isn’t creating an index based on the mobile site.
The ranking is therefore based on the desktop index, and further adjustments to the rank are done by factoring in the mobile signals. The issue is that a large number of mobile webpages don’t have the content and links that users may otherwise be able to access on the desktop version (there are, of course, other signals such as ease of reading the text without zooming or scrolling, which determine the overall mobile-friendliness of a site).
With the mobile-first index, Google wants to ensure that the mobile version of a webpage isn’t so bare-bones that it adversely affects user experience. If this is the case, then the mobile version will be considered as the primary index and results will be ranked based on the mobile content. On the other hand, if you already have a mobile responsive website, you won’t see much change.
What immediate steps should you take?
To reiterate, there are no need for changes if the primary content and markup is identical across your mobile and desktop websites. In any other scenario, these tips should help you respond effectively to the mobile-first index:
1. Ensure that your mobile website has structured data. Use the Structured Data Testing Tool to check for equivalence in structured markup across desktop and mobile. However, it is best to avoid adding detailed markup as not only is it resource intensive but it may also interfere with the design elements on the page. Only serve the markup that is relevant and significant to the content of each page.
2. As the mobile version will gain first preference, it makes sense to optimize web pages for mobile devices to get more visibility and improve chances of better rankings on Google Mobile. If you want to develop a separate mobile website, you can incorporate elements that provide a fully mobile-centric experience. Make sure that the mobile version resembles the desktop site so there isn’t a discrepancy between rankings. Consider adding some responsive elements to enable your webpages to adapt to small differences in screen sizes.
3. If only your desktop website is verified in Search Console, add and verify your mobile version at the earliest.
4. Think Googlebot is blocked from accessing your site? Then it may not be crawling and indexing your site’s content, which in turn will impact your ranking. Use the robots.txt tester tool to confirm if Googlebot can access the mobile version of your business website.
5. No changes to canonical links from desktop to mobile are needed. However, do maintain the correct alternate tags on the mobile and desktop versions.
Now would be a good time to take a second look at your mobile website to verify if it has the content your customers are looking for and the content you want to rank for. Ensure that the most important information and topics are prioritized on the mobile site.
Will mobile website speed matter?
Last week, Google’s Gary Illyes said that a mobile-specific speed measurement system was in the works as the process used to calculate page speed for desktop couldn’t be used for mobile. Page speed will most probably be a ranking signal, so it is recommended that you enhance your mobile website speed if it hasn’t already been optimized. Use the Page Speed Insights tool to check mobile speed. If slow speed is detected, consider implementing Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) to make your existing mobile-friendly page load quicker.
Google hasn’t announced a tentative date for their mobile-first index, only saying that it could be launched in a couple of months or quarters. The time can be used to brainstorm on making your website more mobile-friendly and giving your content a good shot at being accessed and read easily.
Image credit : Pixabay