Google’s Mobile-First Index Is Changing the Rules of SEO

Simply put, the mobile-first index is a reversal of how Google indexes websites. Rather than crawl desktop pages, Google will crawl mobile pages instead. Desktop pages are only crawled when websites lack mobile versions. What does this mean for business owners and webmasters?

Mobile-first indexing essentially means Google has done a 180 on which face of your site matters most.
Mobile-first indexing essentially means Google has done a 180 on which face of your site matters most.

Smartphones are everywhere. Roughly three-quarters of Americans now own smartphones, which is incredible considering less than half as many owned smartphones just six years ago, according to the Pew Research Center. Perhaps even more striking is that 92 percent of 18 to 29 year olds own smartphones. The dominance of mobile devices over traditional desktop computers — both in the present and future — couldn’t be clearer. So Google’s new mobile-first index should come as no surprise.

Simply put, the mobile-first index is a reversal of how Google indexes websites. Rather than crawl desktop pages, Google will crawl mobile pages instead. Desktop pages are only crawled when websites lack mobile versions.

What does this mean for business owners and webmasters? Google Webmaster Trends Analyst Gary Illyes tweeted in November that “we’re aiming for a close to quality-neutral launch,” meaning the mobile-first approach isn’t meant to dramatically shake up the search rankings. It’s clear, though, that websites that struggle in mobile browsers could get left in the dust. Google’s mobile-first index is changing the rules of SEO. Here’s how to stay ahead of the curve.

Create a Responsive Website

Hands down, the easiest way to thrive in the year 1 A.D. (after desktop) is to have a responsive website. A responsive website doesn’t have a desktop and a mobile version. Rather, the site is coded to display based on how it is viewed. Someone viewing a responsive site from a desktop might see an expansive home page with a lengthy navigation menu, a sidebar and all kinds of images and content blocks. View the same website from a smartphone, though, and you’ll see a streamlined layout that’s optimized for mobile browsing.

Until now, efficiency was the biggest benefit of having a responsive website. Why spend time optimizing desktop and mobile websites when you could focus your efforts on just one? Now, thanks to Google’s mobile-first indexing, having a snappy mobile website is more critical than ever. Investing in a responsive website makes perfect sense.

If your website is built on the WordPress platform, then creating a responsive design is easy. Most up-to-date WordPress templates are responsive by default, which means you might already have a responsive website. If your WordPress theme isn’t responsive, then you can alter your style sheet to determine how your website displays on differently sized screens, although this requires a familiarity with HTML and CSS coding.

If you have a traditional website (and some experience with web design), you could follow online tutorials to give your site a responsive layout. If all else fails, just hire a web designer to do the job. It’s well worth the cost, unless you don’t mind falling in the search rankings as mobile-friendly competitors pass you by.

Optimize Your Mobile Content

Do you have a responsive website? If so, this isn’t a big deal. But if you’re website has independent desktop and mobile versions, then you might need to optimize the content on your mobile site.

Many mobile websites are designed with less content than their desktop counterparts to improve the user experience on smartphone-sized screens. This didn’t really matter back when Google indexed desktop websites first. But when mobile websites are prioritized over desktop sites, Google might interpret a slimmed down mobile version as being inadequately thin.

Fortunately, you can have your cake and eat it too. Mobile sites can use tabs, expandable boxes and other design elements to implement more content on webpages while still maintaining streamlined, smartphone-friendly layouts. Google might have considered these tactics as spam on desktop websites, but these tactics are completely acceptable for mobile presentations.

Double-Check Standard SEO Elements

For the most part, the traditional rules of search engine optimization apply equally to desktop and mobile websites. Do you have unique, relevant page titles?  Are you using variations of your target keyword in your page headers? Do you have succinct and unique meta descriptions? Is your content well-written and tightly on topic? Is your site based upon a logical site map?

These basic elements of SEO are as important as they’ve ever been. Don’t neglect them.

Make Sure Your Mobile Website Loads Quickly

Page speeds are already important factors in SEO. Now that mobile pages are indexed first, you must make sure that your mobile website loads quickly and seamlessly. If you’ve never seriously optimized your mobile website, then page loads speeds could be an issue.

You have several options for speeding up slow-loading webpages. You can reduce the resolution of images and simplify your layout, especially the “above-the-fold” portion that loads first. More complex solutions include minimizing redirects and server response times.

Get Verified in Search Console

If you have separate mobile and desktop websites, be sure to verify your mobile version in Google’s Search Console. This shows you own the site and affects how Google interprets and indexes it. Don’t forget to also verify mobile apps if you’ve made any.

Conclusion

Google’s mobile-first indexing is the clearest sign yet that mobile web browsing has thoroughly eclipsed desktop viewing. Investing in mobile SEO has been important for several years. Now, it’s absolutely critical. It’s Step 1. Google will still index desktop websites when mobile sites aren’t available, but don’t count on desktop sites getting an edge in the rankings.

Want more tips to improve your search engine rankings? Click here to grab a copy of our Ultimate SEO Checklist.

AMP-Up Your Mobile Search Efforts Now

Those who heeded the warnings of Mobilegeddon and now have pages designated “mobile-friendly” have found that users strongly prefer the mobile-friendly pages and reward them with clicks. Google has just upped the ante with its announcement earlier this month that accelerated mobile pages (AMP) would soon be receiving a special notation in the search results.

Google AMPIf you put mobile on the back-burner with the passing of Mobilegeddon in April 2015, you made a huge mistake.

First, mobile searches have continued to grow and now outnumber those done from the desktop. Mobile devices have now become the de facto tool in the hands of almost everyone. The diversity of searches on mobile reflect this.

Mobile search is no longer confined to busy individuals looking for flower shops, restaurants and pizza stores. Yes! Mobile search is still used for finding local eateries and services, but today there is a much broader diversity of searches.

Those who heeded the warnings of Mobilegeddon and now have pages designated “mobile-friendly” have found that users strongly prefer the mobile-friendly pages and reward them with clicks. Google has just upped the ante with its announcement earlier this month that accelerated mobile pages (AMP) would soon be receiving a special notation in the search results. This advance warning from Google should give site owners some time to develop their solutions before this designation is rolled out worldwide.

AMP Adds New Urgency for Mobile SEO

AMP pages are the result of an open-source initiative envisioned to help publishers create mobile-optimized content once and have it load instantly everywhere. Thousands of developers have worked on creating this project.

Google has long touted speed as a key SEO element, so savvy SEO practitioners have sought every available means to speed their pages. Users don’t abandon fast-loading pages, and Google uses reduced bounce rates as one of its algorithmic measures. Google has noted that 40 percent of users will abandon any website that takes more than three seconds to load. Mobile pages often take at least eight seconds to load.

Slow-loading mobile pages lead to user frustration, abandonment of searches and other undesirable results.

AMP pages load four times faster and use eight times less data than traditional mobile-optimized pages. This is because AMP has essentially overhauled the core elements of how websites structure their mobile pages. It allows developers to strip down the markup creating a simpler, leaner, faster Web page. AMP eliminates third-party scripts like Javascript to create a bare-bones version, cached and delivered through Google’s speedy network. The results are stunning.

Google has been showing AMP results in the news carousel for several months. This has essentially softened up the user base for the full implementation.

It should be noted that AMP implementation should not be undertaken under the mistaken notion that it will provide a rankings boost. Whether a page is AMP or not will not influence its ranking, but here is the minor rub. Page speed has long been a ranking factor, and users have been shown to prefer fast pages. To my way of parsing the logic, a faster page will result in a better user experience. A positive user experience is the ultimate ranking factor.

Not Ready Yet!

Be advised that there are already 150 million AMP pages out there. You will not be a pioneer if you get on board now. If you are not ready to jump in the AMP pool with both feet, if it’s too new perhaps or too risky, then consider AMP-ing just a few pages or sections of your site and give it a test.

Don’t wait too long — this is another fast-moving change driven by users’ preferences for fast-loading pages, and your site is all about the users, isn’t it?