Google’s Mobile-First Index + SEO

Google’s Mobile-First Index + SEO

With the start of the new year, Google has begun implementing the so-called “mobile-first” index within its search engine. This new rollout will ultimately change the way your site is ranked within the search engine results pages. Here are the things you need to know about the mobile-first index and tactics to optimize your site accordingly.

What is the mobile-first index?

It is common knowledge that Google crawls websites to add pages to its engine index so they can be ranked within the search engine, ranking the most relevant pages for a particular search query to create the best user experience for the searcher. In more laymen terms, it uses bots to surf sites like a real visitor to consume content and follow links across the internet.

Previously, Google would crawl a site like a desktop user would, meaning the pages were being cataloged in the standard desktop index within the engine. Now, with the rollout of the mobile-first index, Google will begin crawling sites primarily as a mobile user instead of as a desktop users. This is a distinction with a really big difference.

For starters, if websites are not mobile-friendly, the website might present a completely different display to mobile users vs. desktop users. For some businesses, this could mean that links that appear on the desktop version of the site might not appear on the mobile version. This causes an issue with the new mobile index because the Googlebot would no longer be able to follow the on-site links, as the mobile site is showing they are not there. As a result, the site could take a hit in its organic traffic.

It is important to keep in mind that Google uses thousands of ranking signals to determine where a page should land in its index. If the bot finds that a business’s site is hostile to mobile users or loads very slowly, those sites will definitely lose rank.

The bottom line with this update is that it is important to prioritize for mobile audiences when making SEO changes and this is now a prime directive.

Why is Google using a mobile-first index?

If you’re wondering why Google decided to switch from a desktop index to a mobile one, the answer is simple. The vast majority of users are accessing the internet and search engines using mobile devices. For our clients, mobile traffic exceeded desktop traffic several years ago and mobile continues to take share from desktop.

What if you don’t have a mobile site?

If a business’s website does not have a mobile friendly site, there should be some concern with this new update. However, the Googlebot will continue to crawl the desktop version of websites just fine, even though it is using a mobile user agent. This means that while the site can still be indexed, it is imperative for businesses to invest in improving the mobile version of their site.

What about expandable content?

This is a new development and an exciting one as a result of this new mobile first index. Previously, putting content under a read more link used to result in that content not reliably being indexed by Google. With the new mobile index, things have definitely changed.

According to Google’s Gary Illyes, content hidden in tabs and accordions will have the same weight as content that’s plainly displayed on the page. Google understands that expandable content makes much more sense on a mobile platform because of limited screen real estate. That’s why Google will no longer punish webmasters who take advantage of those types of design features. This is a BIG win for user experience and SEO.

Will mobile-first indexing change rankings significantly?

The overall answer to this question is “no”, however there is a caveat. Both Illyes and his cohort Paul Haahr said that mobile-first indexing shouldn’t result in a significant change in rankings, but it is ultimately too early to tell at this time. Certainly, if a website isn’t friendly to the mobile audience, it shouldn’t be expected to rank well for certain keywords anyways.

When does mobile-first indexing begin?

Google has already started rolling out the first mobile crawlers but it will take months before full implementation is complete. Unfortunately, as is with most Google updates, they will not give a specific date as to when the rollout will be completed. They did say however, as Google gains confidence that the mobile user agent crawl is working well, a greater percentage of the overall index will reflect the new mobile first strategy.

How can you see what the mobile-first Google crawler sees?

Thankfully, business owners do not have to speculate how their site looks to the Googlebot. We can see exactly what the Googlebot sees within the Google Search Console, in a menu item called “Fetch as Google.” The screen that appears gives you the opportunity to crawl your site as the Googlebot and see what it sees.

Will there be two indexes going forward?

Eventually Google will move to only one index, the mobile index. However, during the rollout period, there will be two indexes – both a mobile and desktop index. A small subset of users will see results from the mobile index, while others see results from the desktop index. The reality is that users will ultimately have no idea which index they are seeing results from.

As previously mentioned, as Google gains confidence with the mobile-first results, the company will begin to phase out the desktop index which is further evidence that mobile is everything in 2017.