In September, Google ramped up its rollout of the much-awaited mobile-first indexing update to the wider web. While it’s still too early to tell how exactly this change impacts your SEO efforts, the update clearly shows Google wants to give mobile users a better online experience—and you definitely should, too.
Now that the SEO world has fully gotten over the five stages of grief that typically accompanies important Google updates like this one, it’s going to be much easier for us to find useful insights and best practices on how to properly respond to the change.
That’s what we’ll detail in this blog post. We’ll first take a close look at some possible ways Google’s mobile-first update can affect your SEO activities. We’ll then go over a number of practical steps to help you build a mobile-first SEO strategy.
What Mobile-First Indexing Means for SEO
When Google first made its first mobile-friendly update in 2015, a lot of SEO folks dubbed it “Mobilegeddon” amid worries that the algorithm tweak could mess up page rankings.
Much of the fears later turned out to be overblown. But that didn’t stop many in the industry from once again bringing up the idea of mobile apocalypse after Google announced its plans for mobile-first indexing in 2016.
Mobile-first indexing, in Google’s own words, means the search engine uses “the mobile version” of a webpage for indexing and ranking to better help its “primarily mobile users”.
Previously, Google used the desktop version of websites to crawl, index, and rank pages. Now that mobile searches outnumber desktop searches, Google is starting to index and rank mobile websites.
Here’s what that means for your SEO efforts:
It shows the growing role of mobile.
With this update, Google mainly wants to serve as much mobile content to mobile users as possible, since mobile searches now account for 60% of search queries.
The company further clarifies that:
- It will continue to have one index for search results. That is, mobile-first index is not separate from its main index.
- Google will increasingly prioritize indexing mobile pages and content. If you have both mobile and desktop versions of a page, Google will prefer the mobile page.
- If you use different URLs for mobile and desktop, Google will show the mobile URL to mobile users and desktop URL to desktop users.
- Google will choose mobile-friendly sites over AMP sites.
Mobile searches now account for 60% of search queries.
Mobile-first is not the same as mobile-only.
As Neil Patel points out, mobile-first indexing doesn’t mean mobile-only. That’s because the way the new indexing works is that it prefers (read: not replaces) mobile content over desktop when determining page rankings.
In other words, if your website doesn’t have a mobile version, the desktop version still shows up on the mobile-first results. Google will continue to crawl and index your desktop pages.
In fact, Google Webmasters made this point abundantly clear in a previous tweet:
On requirements: Neither mobile-friendliness nor a mobile-responsive layout are requirements for mobile-first indexing. Pages without mobile versions still work on mobile, and are usable for indexing. That said, it’s about time to move from desktop-only and embrace mobile 🙂
— Google Webmasters (@googlewmc) June 14, 2018
The impact on rankings is nuanced.
Since the new update prioritizes mobile content, then it’s natural to think that optimizing your website for mobile users will boost SERP rankings. But it’s not as straightforward as it sounds.
Google explains that being switched to mobile-first indexing doesn’t guarantee better SERP rankings. While mobile-friendliness helps determine where a website will end up in results pages, it’s certainly not the only factor that Google takes into account.
Still, as TechCrunch points out, Google notes that having a site’s mobile-friendly content indexed under the new mobile-first update will likely help the site “perform better” in mobile search results.
How to Create a Mobile-First SEO Strategy
Each time Google unveils a major update to its page ranking algorithm, it forces us, marketers, to rethink our SEO strategy.
But mobile-first indexing is a little different from most Google changes in that it reminds us what SEO is fundamentally about: helping users find what they’re looking for.
That’s what your strategy needs to achieve. Forget about rankings or penalties first. Start with improving the user experience (UX).
Make sure your site looks and feels good on mobile
We already saw that mobile-friendliness isn’t a requirement for ranking in mobile-first results. However, keep in mind that we’re not after SERP rankings here. We want to deliver the best possible UX, so we want users to fully experience our site regardless of the device used.
If you’re not sure whether your site is optimized for the different sizes of mobile screens, the first step is to find this out using Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test tool.
Making your site mobile-friendly boils down to two development philosophies:
- Responsive web design (same content, same URL, different output based on users’ device)
- Dynamic serving (different content and output based on users’ device)
Google has explicitly mentioned that pages delivered as part of responsive web designs or through dynamic serving are indexed in mobile-first results. But, the better option would be responsive web design since it does away with the difficulty of managing two different sites.
Put content in context
Mobile searches uncover rich insights on user intent that your content needs to meet. For example, research carried out by Think With Google shows that mobile searches can reveal a lot about user behavior:
- 96% of people use a smartphone to get things done
- 70% of smartphone owners who bought something at a store first turned to their phone
- 92% of those who searched on their phone made a related purchase
- 68% of people use search for information on a long-term goal
All this indicates that it can be a bit misleading to try to generalize what kind of content works for mobile-first indexing. Each of these actions involves one of three queries (navigational, informational, and transactional), and each query, in turn, can be addressed with its own page, content, and messaging.
Create a consistent and continuous experience
From making relevant information easy to find, to ensuring that the desired action is easy to do, mobile-first needs consistent and continuous user experiences.
That’s because the bulk of online activities now take place in fragmented, instantaneous interactions with mobile devices.
Some of these moments (when mobile users want to know, go, do, and buy something) are known as micro-moments.
Micro-moments are important touch points in your SEO strategy because it’s in micro-moments where mobile users are most interested and engaged.
Leveraging micro-moments means delivering a smooth and seamless mobile journey for your target users:
- Set up structured data to make your site easy to navigate for both people and Google’s crawlers
- Make sure the key content on your mobile and desktop sites align
- Consider mobile-first technologies like Google AMP to improve site load times and performance
To help us see how a mobile-first mindset impacts real-world marketers, we previously reached out to a number of key influencers to tell us about their experience with this development so far. Timothy Hughes, founder of Digital Leadership Associates and social selling pioneer, said it best:
We have switched over to mobile first. So everything we design has to be tested on mobile…. We have moved to a personalized approach as well as understanding that mobile moves at a faster pace. With a swipe taking about a second you need content that will inspire in at sub-second speed. The good news is that if you get it right, the response, engagement, and results are faster too.