Google’s Mobile-First Indexing: What it Means for SEO

Tamar Batrawi
Reading time: 6 minutes
5th June 2018

Since 2016, many of us have been hearing about Google’s plan to shift to mobile-first indexing. Although the search giant started testing then, they officially rolled it out in late March 2018. They have been taking it slow, though, and are only switching a few sites at a time. By notifying these sites one-by-one via Google Search Console, Google ensures that users are getting the best experience.

In this blog post, we will go over what exactly has changed for marketers and why, the impact that this will have on SEO, and how to prepare for it.

What exactly has changed?

To determine SERP rankings, Google used to crawl and index pages based on the desktop version of the site, and deliver the most relevant results for the searcher on both desktop and mobile. Because of this, SEO Specialists and Marketers prioritized developing important ranking factors on the desktop version, like Structured Data Markups, Hreflang Tags, and Backlinks, while maintaining lighter content on mobile for a better mobile user experience. More often than not, the desktop-specific elements would either be excluded or hidden from the mobile version entirely.

Now, however, Google will use its Smartphone Googlebot to crawl, index, and rank the mobile version of the site as well. For sites that are switched to mobile-first indexing, their cached pages will be the mobile versions. Of course, for a site that does not have a mobile version, the desktop version will continue to be crawled and indexed. In fact, Google recommends not having a mobile version at all rather than having a broken one, as that will negatively affect a site’s rankings.

Why has Google made this change anyway?

The short answer to this question is: in 2018, people search using their smartphones way more than they do on desktop. Nearly 2 years ago Google released a report,  “How People Use Their Devices” , that tracked three months of data for around 11,000 US participants, between the ages of 18-49, revealed the following:

  • 1 in 4 users search only on mobile on any given day
  • 28% of users search on two or more devices simultaneously
  • For 15 hours during a 24-hour day, more mobile searches are happening compared to desktop

So imagine how much this usage has increased in the two years since!  For some of our clients in various industries, the percentage of user sessions accessed via mobile between January 1st – April 31st went up from 30% in 2017 to around 65% in 2018. Hence, Google wants to provide the most convenient and appropriate results for the majority of users who are searching via mobile.

Great, but what does this mean for SEO?

Overall, it is important to prioritize Page Speed and Load Times, and to ensure the correct display of images and dynamic elements on mobile. Here are our top 3 steps to make sure that your site ranks well in a mobile-first world:

Step #1: On-page SEO elements

Be sure to include on-page SEO elements that were usually eliminated on mobile, including Backlinks, Structured Data Markup, and Metadata. You also want to take into account the user experience, because that highly impacts SERP rankings and conversion rates.

Many believe that Google will not crawl and index content that is hidden under drop down menus or “read more” on mobile, which is false. Google actually prefers that, as it provides a positive user experience, so make sure to take advantage of it, as illustrated by the example below. The first screenshot shows the desktop version of Evernote’s blog, where a snippet of the blog post is present underneath the image. The second screenshot shows the mobile view, which hides all of the content under “Read More”, thereby providing a better user experience while also allowing Google to crawl and index the content.

Step #2: User query intent

Take into account the user query intent and develop content based on it. Generally, mobile searches are more informational and navigational, whereas desktop searches are more transactional.

For example, let’s take the term “healthy food”. Mobile searches are most likely to be “healthy food near me” or “healthy food recipe”, whereas a desktop search could be “healthy food appliances”. It is important to optimize content to satisfy the majority of user query intent given their device category.

Step #3: Put the user first

Although mobile-first is not about mobile-friendliness, the two concepts are closely related. Google values pages that conveniently satisfy the user query—and mobile-friendly pages tend to do that. If the user doesn’t have to scroll and click endlessly to find what they are looking for on mobile, the page will rank well in a mobile-first world.

How can sites be ready for this?

To answer this question, let’s first break down sites into responsive, dynamic, and separate mobile (m dot) sites…

#1: Responsive sites

These sites have the same exact content across desktop and mobile, but the display adjusts according to the screen size.

For responsive sites, there is not much that has to be done. They will simply have to focus on prioritizing the mobile user experience. Some best practices include:

  1. Prioritizing Page Speed through reducing the time needed to load FCP (First Contentful Paint) and DCL (DOM Content Load). This can be done by avoiding redirects, eliminating render-blocking JavaScript where possible, compressing resources and optimizing images. This will keep the user engaged and reduce bounce rates.
  2. Ensuring easy navigation while placing important content above the fold. For example, if we consider an online store, this includes creating a compressed navigation menu that is expandable and includes the product categories, having a prominent search bar at the top of the page, and presenting any new arrivals or deals above the fold.
  3. Ensuring easy text readability, as well as optimizing clickable elements. This includes having a consistent font size across pages that doesn’t require the user to excessively zoom in on mobile, as well as using contrasting colors when placing text on images. For clickable elements, it is important to include them for easier and simpler scrolling while spacing them out properly for the user’s convenience.

#2: Dynamic serving and separate mobile sites

Dynamic serving sites show different content based on the device used to view the page. Separate mobile sites have a separate mobile URL altogether, and are referred to as “m-dot sites”. M-dot sites have a specific mobile URL in the format of www.m.example.com, as shown in the Sephora example below.

For these two types, there is more work to be done, as the mobile-optimized version will be crawled and indexed. These include, but are not limited to, the following:

  1. Making all content and elements available on the mobile version. This includes internal and external linking, images and videos (as long as they are easily viewable on mobile), and written content that incorporates important keywords.
  2. Checking hreflang tags in the HTML of both mobile and desktop URLs to ensure that the user is getting the correct version of the site given their location and language.
  3. Ensuring that robots.txt is working as directed on both mobile and desktop. This can be done by using the robots.txt tester for the desired URLs and checking whether the result says “Blocked”. If this occurs, then Googlebot is blocked from crawling this URL.
  4. Checking that rel=canonical and rel=alternate are working correctly. On the desktop page, the rel=alternate should be pointing to the mobile version. On the mobile page, the rel=canonical should point to the desktop page.
  5. Ensuring that any structured data markup is applied to the mobile version. This is to enhance the display of pages in SERPs on mobile by showing rich snippets under the page title and meta description.

We will also have to keep an eye out for any changes that could happen to SERP ranking factors, as this shift may make some factors more important than others or even introduce new ones altogether.

There are various opinions and views on mobile-first, particularly what it means and how to prepare for it. As a result, it has become an overwhelming topic for SEOs and Marketers, but there is no need to stress. For now, simply follow these best practices and keep checking your Google Search Console notifications, and you’ll be good to go!

For further insights, check out Ayima’s blog post by Ian Pereira which describes the different types of mobile-optimized sites.

Written By Tamar Batrawi
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