It has been over a decade since Steve Jobs introduced the world to the iPhone. Since then, the ubiquity and availability of smartphones have exploded, giving way to the mobile age. There has been a flurry of changes and societal shifts that consumers have experienced in that time span, yet one of the biggest bombshells is something that the average consumer won’t necessarily see: the mobile-first index.
While consumers won’t see the mobile-first index, businesses will feel its effects. Announced in late 2016, the mobile index is a foundational shift in how Google ranks websites. The basics are simple: Google is going to start crawling websites with their mobile user agent, replicating how a mobile user views a site. The search engine giant has been ranking websites based on their desktop site since its inception, so this alteration is monumental.
How This Affects You
You may be thinking to yourself, “I already have a mobile site” or “I don’t think this will affect my desktop rankings” Think again.
The mobile-first index is specially designed to weigh mobile pages significantly more than their desktop counterpart. This means that if the content on your mobile site is not at the very least equivalent to your desktop version, your rankings could suffer immensely. Google is not simply making separate indexes for mobile and desktop. This is a single index that is mobile-focused.
What Can I Do?
Preparation is your best friend. Even though the launch date for the mobile-first index is still up in the air, making sure your mobile site is up to snuff is best practice.
Responsive and Dynamic-Serving Sites
First and foremost, if you already have a responsive or dynamic-serving site, you shouldn’t have to change anything. Having these types of sites affords you the convenience of having equivalent content across mobile and desktop versions. Though, it is highly recommended you take a dive into Google’s Webmaster Tools to ensure your site is running smoothly and effectively on both desktop and mobile versions.
If your primary website content is on a desktop-only version, fret not. Google’s mobile user agent can crawl a desktop-only website, but this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make any changes. Right now, you have the luxury of time on your side to make this mobile-first transition seamless for your website and business.
A few things to keep in mind when building your mobile website:
Content that is hidden behind “read more” links will be able to rank on mobile sites, unlike desktop sites
- Google acknowledges that “read more” links make more sense on mobile due to space constraints
You do not have to make changes to your canonical links, mobile or desktop
- Google will continue to use the links as guides to serve appropriate results to a user searching on mobile or desktop
Verify the mobile version of your site is crawlable using the robots.txt tool within Google Search Console
What NOT To Do
Avoiding all the pitfalls of Mobile-geddon can tricky, but not an impossible feat.
Being Unprepared/Not Doing Anything
Typically, Google is very tight-lipped on any algorithm changes or updates to their search index… much to the chagrin of SEO Analysts. What is striking about the mobile-first index is that Google is peeling back the curtain and being transparent about the upcoming changes. This goes to show how big of a deal and how jarring the mobile-first transition is. The best thing you can do is to prepare for this switch, and Google is allowing for ample transition time.
Rush to Push Out a Mobile-Friendly Site
Instead of rushing to push out a mobile site that is poorly patched together, take the time to make a quality mobile site and launch it when it is ready. A mobile version of your site that is incomplete and quickly thrown together will not put you in a better position. User experience is a key metric for websites, ensure that yours is excellent.
Neglect One Site in Favor of the Other
If you decide to make a mobile site separate from your desktop site (i.e. not a responsive/dynamic-serving site), you need to remember that you now have two websites to update. It is best that both sites have content that is at least equivalent, so what goes on one, must go on the other. Responsive and dynamic-serving sites are usually best for the technologically-adverse individuals, but if you enjoy being extremely hands-on, two sites should be no issue.
I Have a Mobile Site, Now What?
Once you have a quality mobile site built up, remember to add and verify it in Search Console. Google offers a variety of tools to ensure that your mobile site is ready for the mobile-first index:
Mobile Friendly Test
Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test is one of the easiest and most helpful tools on the internet. This tool tests how easily a visitor can use your page on a mobile device. All you have to do is enter a page URL to see how your page scores. It will provide a complete run-down of pages within your site that have trouble loading and what steps you can take to remedy them.
Written by the Google themselves, these guides are terrific reads and a great way to ensure your site is mobile-friendly. I understand that the phrase “Google Guides” may not get your engine revving, but these guides are informative, easy to read and take you step-by-step through making a mobile-friendly website. These resources are invaluable and will ensure that your website is ready for the mobile shift.
How We Reached This Point
The Prevalence of Smartphones
Since the early 2000s, smartphones like the Palm Treo 600 and the Blackberry ushered in a new mobile era. These phones were among the first to introduce mobile web features, including calendar access, contacts, and email. One of the landmark features of these phones was the inclusion of a keyboard directly on the device, allowing an easy interface for typing.
In 2007, Apple introduced the world to the iPhone and the shift to a mobile-first world was kicked into high gear. Demand for the iPhone, and smartphones alike, has only increased year over year, with consumers clamoring for the latest and greatest in smartphone technology. With a heavily saturated market, the availability of smartphones and access to the mobile web has increased at an extremely high rate, making mobile-friendly websites imperative to businesses.
The Mobile Moment
In the second half of 2015, Google had their “Mobile Moment”. For the first time ever, more Google searches occurred on mobile devices than on computers in 10 countries including the United States and Japan. This was a groundbreaking shift in how consumers accessed the internet.
Mobile may just be the tip of the iceberg. Consumers are accessing information through alternative means as well. Smartphone apps are continuing to carve out a foothold in how consumers receive their information and voice assistants like Siri, Cortana, and Alexa are ushering in the era of voice search.
Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMPs)
In the same year Google had their “Mobile Moment”, Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMPs) were introduced. This open source initiative, an effort between Google and Twitter, was designed to make mobile pages extremely fast. AMP pages are built with three core components:
HTML with some restrictions for reliable performance
The AMP JS library ensures the fast rendering of AMP HTML pages
The Google AMP Cache can be used to serve cached AMP HTML pages
Together, these three components deliver mobile pages that are fast, simple, and hyper-mobile-focused.
Mobile Search Stats
While advancements in technology have aided the push for a mobile-first index, consumers are ultimately the ones who decide whether a trend lives or dies. Here are a few stats to show that mobile is here to stay:
- More than 50% of search queries globally are from mobile devices
- 2015: 68% of smartphone users check their phones within 15 minutes of waking up
- Since the 2015 launch of AMP Pages, there are now 2 Billion AMP Pages covering more than 900,000 domains
- As a page load time goes from 1 second to 7 seconds, the probability of a mobile site visitors bouncing increases 113%… speed matters!
- Nearly one-third of all mobile searches are related to location… and that number is growing
- In 2016, a Hitwise study reported that 58% of US search queries are from mobile devices
- The Pew Research Center reported for 2017:
- 77% of Americans own a smartphone (up from 35% in 2011)
- 1/10 Americans are “smartphone-only internet users, meaning they own a smartphone, but do not have traditional home broadband service
- eMarketer reported that more than 8 in 10 internet users will use a mobile phone to access the web regularly in 2017
The Bottom Line
Mobile is the future. We have only scratched the surface on what the mobile web is capable of. Be ready for the mobile-first index and ensure that your website is mobile-friendly.