Google’s Mobile First Index is Happening
In October 2016, it was revealed that Google intends to separate its Desktop and Mobile indexes, thus ceasing to prioritise its desktop version over mobile. The search giant has yet to indicate a timeframe for this to be implemented but it has been suggested that it could be as soon as early 2017. Google has been experimenting on a mobile-only index since 2015, but now it seems the market-leading search engine is primed to make that change.
Where desktop page versions were used as rank signals for current mobile SERPs, the intended change will mean that the mobile index will be strictly for the evaluation and ranking of mobile pages. This relegates the long tradition of the desktop version taking precedence when it comes to mobile content signals.
It’s possible that Google’s thinking stems from its own data regarding mobile usage. The emerging trend is that more people are viewing and searching for websites from mobile handheld devices and are gradually moving away from the desktop. In this light, it would make sense for Google to ensure that, for the mobile index, the user experience differs from that of the desktop.
It is not yet possible to accurately estimate which signals from a mobile site would be given weight for ranking sites in the new mobile index. We can only speculate based on current actions by Google.
Content vs User Experience
Mobile versions of pages would not be able to handle as much content as their desktop counterparts without impeding the mobile user experience. It is commonly accepted knowledge that users do not like to read long scrolling pages on smaller screens. Building tabs and various scroll widgets may not be the answer either, since Google has already announced that this kind of functionality does not benefit SEO page relevancy and search user experience.
Counteracting this could mean the importance of providing detailed structured data will grow. This would involve comprehensive information that would be conveniently hidden from the user, but fully readable by search engines in a totally ethical way. Coincidentally, the new AMP test tool – released on the same day as the announcement – has a mechanism to check for the presence of on-page structured data.
Figure 1: The AMP Tool suggesting the implementation of structured data
Desktop pages with no mobile version would be at a severe disadvantage in the new mobile index, but it’s difficult to see how AMP, App and Responsive/Adaptive mobile pages would mix in the new mobile SERPs.
It has been seen that AMP pages would now rank over App indexed pages, but would this translate into the new mobile index? Since Google has been pushing AMP aggressively over the past few months, it could be that AMP might have an additional benefit. Certainly both the speed and usability of mobile pages could be given even greater algorithm scrutiny in the new index, particularly since, in this case, external link data would not necessarily be as strong for mobile pages.
What can you do now?
1) Look at mobile page content and make mobile pages faster and more user-friendly. It is possible to check mobile friendliness with the Google mobile friendly test tool. Page speed can be checked by Google’s Page Insights Tool for a broad view of speed issues. Typically, 40% of users would bounce out if pages take longer than three seconds to load.
2) Implement comprehensive structured data. There are many ways to add rich snippets to pages. iProspect suggests auditing key pages to discover or improve pages with or without structured data. A handy tool to use for this would be Google’s Structured Data Tool for detecting and correcting code.
4) Implement bi-directional annotation. Desktop being treated as a secondary index does not mean that both desktop and mobile are unrelated. This annotation currently is a valuable way for Google to discover the existence of mobile pages.
5) Consider revising current mobile content, particularly for converting high traffic pages. Provide a new keyword strategy or ensure that this is adapted for the mobile site.
At this stage , Google have only confirmed that a change is imminent with the main index. Other details remain scarce, but there is no doubt that there are further announcements to come. We have seen how important mobile is to Google and we have been monitoring their various pushes to get webmasters to upgrade and polish their mobile sites. Understandably, Google are now on the cusp of placing mobile at the heart of their new search engine strategy.