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As of January 2018, the worldwide mobile population stands at 3.7 billion users. In fact, 49.7% of the total web page views last year came from mobile devices. This marks a clear shift in consumer behavior as more people visit business-related sites on their mobile devices.
As a business, it makes mobile optimization a priority for you if you’re serious about being a top-ranked result for user search queries. More importantly, if users don’t have the best experience using your site on their mobiles, they’ll jump ship.
The easiest thing to do is to optimize the desktop version of your site for mobile devices. And while this is the prevalent way of doing things, it’s no longer the best. If you want a leg-up in this game, you should consider having a mobile-first approach to optimization. Basically, develop your site for mobile and then optimize that for desktops instead.
But for this to really work, you need search engines capable of indexing your mobile web pages efficiently. Enter Google.
Google’s Mobile-First Indexing
After months of experimenting and testing, Google announced in March that they were going to start rolling out mobile-first indexing. It’s the latest bid in their continuing efforts to establish a more mobile friendly web based on users' behavior patterns.
Till now, Google’s indexing was based primarily on the usage of websites on desktop devices. But with this move, the focus has shifted to using mobile indexing for SERP (Search Engine Result Pages). This change was made because of the increasing trend of people using smartphones to search for content rather than PCs.
Here’s how it works.
Image via Moz
As mentioned earlier, Google previously crawled the desktop version of a site first. If a mobile version of the site existed, it boosted their search rankings. Google then used both to determine the rankings for both versions.
In a mobile-first indexing system, the mobile version is crawled first. If a mobile version of the site doesn’t exist, the search rankings are determined on the basis of the desktop site only. Note that the desktop version isn’t rendered obsolete, but your mobile site is the driving factor in determining your search ranking.
Thus, the lack of a mobile site or the presence of an unoptimized one can severely hamper your search rankings. Even if a user is using a desktop to run their search queries, a site with a better mobile experience will rank higher.
Their move represents a major reversal in the way Google views your web content. Thereby impacting how it prioritizes crawling and indexing. But what does this mean for your marketing, specifically your SEO efforts?
Impact of Mobile-First Indexing
The impact of Google’s new roll-out depends solely on how your site and its pages are optimized for mobile. If your web design is responsive in nature, then you won’t be impacted by it at all.
In this scenario, your desktop and mobile pages simply adapt to fit different screen sizes. It’s the kind of design approach Google recommends for mobile optimization.
The businesses that provide different versions of their web pages for desktop and mobile users are going to be most affected. As we’ve seen, above, in mobile-first indexing, your mobile pages will be crawled first. This will affect your search rankings if:
- You serve your audience different content on the desktop and mobile versions of your web pages
- Your mobile web pages lack any structured data and metadata
- The link profiles directed towards your mobile pages aren’t as strong as the ones on your desktop versions
- The mobile device versions of your web pages aren’t properly verified in the Search Console
- Your mobile web pages aren’t optimized for mobile devices altogether
Obviously, most of these aspects are a result of poor mobile optimization efforts. But if you’ve incorporated the usual industry best practices in your mobile SEO strategy, then you have no reason to fear mobile-first indexing.
Regardless, here’s a summary of how mobile-first indexing can impact certain websites:
1. Desktop Version Only
If your website doesn’t have a mobile friendly version, altogether, then there is no impact. The mobile version of your website is the same as your desktop version.
2. Responsive Web Design
Like I mentioned, earlier, if you have adopted a responsive style of web design for your pages, then you are safe. Your site will adjust itself according to the screen size of the device it is being viewed on. Mobile-first indexing will have no bearing on your search rankings.
3. Canonical AMP
In case your website and all of its pages have been created using AMP HTML, then you have nothing to fret over. Since the mobile and desktop versions of your website are the same, mobile-first indexing has no impact.
4. Different URLs
Sometimes desktop URLs have an equivalent and different URL that serves users with mobile optimized content. It’s what we call an m-dot site. If that sounds like your business, then, yes, mobile-first indexing will impact your search rankings. To best prepare for that you should try and follow some of the best mobile SEO practices there are.
5. Dynamic Serving
Dynamic serving is when you serve different web content to your site visitors depending on the kind of device they’re on. Users, however, see just one URL. Again, Google prefers to use your mobile optimized content for its indexing purposes. So you want to ensure that the mobile version is optimized for mobile-first indexing.
6. AMP and Non-AMP
Finally, if you have an AMP as well as a non-AMP version of your website, then users will see two separate URLs. Google will give preference to the mobile version of your non-AMP URL to decide on an search ranking index.
Say you’re using dynamic serving or separate URLs for this version of your website, what then? Well, as is obvious with mobile-first indexing, this version needs to be designed keeping industry best practices in mind. Otherwise, you risk not featuring among the top search query results.
Of course, just knowing what impact mobile-first indexing can have on your search rankings, is only half the job.
What Can You Do About It?
The other half of the job is realizing and then implementing certain steps that help you make the most of mobile-first indexing.
1. Test Your Site
Leveraging mobile-first indexing is all about giving your mobile site visitors the best possible experience. But to determine how you can do that, you need to know how mobile friendly you already are. To test that you can use Google’s Mobile Friendly Test and gauge that for yourself.
Image via Mobile Friendly Test
Simply input your site URL, click “Run Test” and learn the results.
Image via Mobile Friendly Test
Similarly, if your site was not mobile-friendly, then the tool also gives a list of suggestions as to how you can improve it.
Image via Mobile Friendly Test
Some of the basic elements you should to determine what facets of your mobile site need fixing are as follows:
- Dynamic elements – Can you see your site content just as easily on mobile as you can on desktop?
- Page-load speeds – Customers rarely stick around on a website that takes any longer than a couple of seconds to load.
- Responsive design – Check whether your site has a responsive design.
- Hover elements – Mobile devices don’t support hover elements just yet. If you have any, consider removing them.
- Pop-ups – Are there any pop-up elements on your site? If so, remove them as they can be very annoying on mobile devices.
- Graphics – While it’s good to have visual elements, do avoid using big graphics. They can slow down the site and don’t always look good on a smaller screen.
- Content – Your everyday rules of content optimization still apply. Check that you employ industry best practices.
- Site structure – Are you using proper title tags, meta descriptions, and structured data? Good site structure makes web crawling easier and your site more discoverable on search engines.
- Link Profile – Is the link profile for your mobile site as strong as your desktop site? If not, make this a priority.
- Flash – It’s advisable to stick to either Java or HTML5. Not all devices are compatible with Flash. The last thing you need is site visitors being greeted by the following error message.
Image via Google
2. Use Responsive Design
One of the first things you need to rank well in a mobile-first indexing world is a responsive web design. Having a website that automatically adjusts itself as per a user’s device is an absolute must.
Not only do such sites offer an optimized experience to everyone but also a two-for-one value. Seeing as they rank reasonably well on both desktop and mobile because the design adapts to fit the user’s device screen.
Some basic facets of a responsive design are:
- Have a fluid grid for your site such that the fixtures are proportionate and not fixed
- Use flexible images and texts
- Use CSS media queries to define any breakpoints in design changes
- Ensure your design is usable on non-desktop devices
- Define a default level of zoom
- Resize your site images such that they auto-adjust as per screen size
- Have a mobile menu
- Adapt your font styles and sizes
- Use fluid width and height elements
Lastly, remember that a responsive site isn’t only about a design that resizes itself according to a device. It should also be usable after the resizing.
3. Create Mobile Optimized Content
It’s well established, now, that mobile internet usage is only going to grow from here on out. More and more people are going to be consuming your content on the go. Mobile content optimization is a priority if you want to stay ahead in the game and capture these prospects.
A key and constant element, no matter how the indexing algorithm changes, is having mobile optimized content. Even if people are spending less time on your site, your goal should be to serve them as much valuable content as you can. So long as it’s engaging, they’ll consume it voraciously.
Here’s how you can go about it:
- Leverage mobile applications to ensure engagement goes beyond just your website
- Incorporate storytelling elements in your content
- Add a visual appeal to your content with memes, GIFs, infographics, videos, etc.
- Use shorter but strong headlines for faster reading and yet have grab attention
Google is still rolling out and testing the waters with their mobile-first indexing algorithm and still has some way to go. But one thing is for sure, mobile-first indexing is the way of the future. It will be prudent of you to invest in it optimizing your site for it now rather than later. Even the smallest advantage you can gain from it now will go a long way in growing your business.