Google Splitting Index, Prioritizing Mobile

A Google Index Just for Mobile

Google has officially been prioritizing mobile-optimized websites since 2015 when it announced mobile friendliness was part of its ranking signal mix in blended search results. Now, Google is moving forward with a plan to run its ranking algorithms across mobile-optimized content to determine mobile-only rankings, rather than combined data from desktop search results. Gary Illyes, Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google, broke the news at the Pubcon digital marketing conference last week. Google is going to create a separate mobile index that will eventually serve as the primary index to respond to all mobile search queries. While Illyes did not disclose a timeline, he confirmed that it would likely happen in upcoming months. A desktop version of the index will remain, but will not be as up to date as the mobile index.

With media consumption on mobile devices surpassing traditional desktops, Illyes’ announcement that Google will further prioritize mobile content comes as little surprise. Though they have not yet provided many details about how the mobile index will work in comparison to the current desktop index, Google has provided several clues about which signals will amplify ranking factors for mobile search results, and how to prepare for a world with two indexes.

Mobile-Friendly to Mobile-Centric

Building a website that is simply “mobile friendly” is now considered the bare minimum optimization effort. As of today, brands that haven’t already begun to build a comprehensive mobile experience are officially behind the curve. When the switch to the new mobile index goes into effect, brands that have failed to optimize the entire mobile experience (including mobile search), will be wishing they had taken a more proactive approach to mobile. Now is the time to realign tech budgets for 2017 in order to optimize search experiences across dual indexes.

Here’s a list of elements critical to providing a good search experience for mobile users (but are not limited to):

  • Structured Data

  • Fast Page Speed (1-2 second threshold)

  • Mobile UX Analysis

  • Google’s Amplified Mobile Page code (AMP)

  • Progressive Web Apps and Deep Linking

Each of these elements will help shape the landscape of the mobile search results and create the new standard for organic search optimization efforts. So what does the new standard look like?

Content Strategy

Mobile search relies heavily on ranking in the first position of organic results with relevancy being the key indicator of how well a site performs. The demand for relevancy has grown due to the increase in mobile usage and users’ reduced willingness to scroll through multiple pages of results. In general, people are opting to trust the relevancy of what Google provides as its first answer to a search query. Accentuating relevancy is strongly tied to both building out a solid content strategy and also how brands leverage the technology available to provide the best mobile experience possible. Content should be optimized with a “mobile-first, not mobile-only” focus. And, while leveraging targeted keywords is still encouraged, it’s recommended that brands shift towards long-tail queries for semantic search in order to gain context on search queries.

Structured Data is a well-known but under-utilized tool for websites. With a mobile index on the horizon, implementing structured data becomes a necessity because it adds context as well as a more complete picture of what the user can expect to see when they click a link to a site. From product reviews, event dates, images, and appearing in carousel results at the top of organic results, adding more context to visually rich content is an important part of creating relevancy and improving visibility in natural search results.

In February 2016, Google launched AMP to help increase page speed on mobile devices by loading content instantly everywhere. Similar to structured data, AMP can be implemented by using Google’s markup language to give context to content. Early adopters are already seeing the benefits of using AMP including faster page-load speed, higher site engagement numbers, lower bounce rates, and instant indexing in Google News results.

Progressive web apps are gaining traction in the development world, bringing parity between the mobile web and native apps to produce an app-like experience without having to leave the mobile browser. These web apps help sites load without data conditions, enabling a better mobile experience and increased site engagement. Google conducted a case study showing the affects of adopting progressive web apps and has endorsed using the practice moving forward.

Final Thoughts 

Brands should start to prepare now for the upcoming transition to a split index. Two smart first steps are completing an audit on mobile usability and ensuring that digital content is mobile ready. Take advantage of the many tools Google provides, such as page-speed and structured-data testers. Optimize site files and images and invest in implementing AMP for published content. Take inventory and prioritize tasks based on what can be done now with little effort versus what will require more in-depth planning and the support of additional development resources. The sooner brands come up with and execute a transition plan, the better their natural search results will be after the indexes are split.