Google has made the transition to mobile first indexing, which could impact your website search rankings
We’ve been warned about this shift for some time and it’s finally here. Most websites would have already improved their mobile experience at this point and given that this change has happened over a fairly large period of time the bulk of the impact has probably already factored itself into your search rankings. It’s worth understanding what Google means by a mobile first index and how we can adapt our approach to stay on top of our search rankings.
Where did this come from?
The thinking follows a Google talking point from 2015 where they realised that mobile searches had surpassed desktop searches. So, if more people are searching Google on their phones than on desktops, then Google surmised they should focus their efforts on mobile users first and then desktop users. You could argue that it’s not black and white, for example, some industries would be more likely to have customers who prefer to use their desktops than mobile phones and also some types of transactions are just more likely to be done over a desktop than a mobile phone.
The reality is that Google controls over 90% of the search market. So it’s safe to say we are looking at a significant proportion of traffic arriving on your site. With that in mind and considering that there isn’t really too much you should need to do to your site, it’s probably worth it just to do a quick reset and see where you are in terms of adhering to Google’s vision of a mobile first world.
What’s the difference between a mobile first and desktop first index?
Desktop first isn’t really a thing, it’s just the default algorithm that Google evolved basically since the beginning. All sites are ranked on Google based on a bunch of different factors that look at keywords, links to your site, quality of content, authority etc. There are hundreds of them. Because this algorithm evolved over time before mobile was a thing, it naturally evolved to favour desktop users. So google gave more emphases to things that didn’t really care if you were using a mobile phone. Things like button spacing on your mobile version of the page wasn’t a biggy when it came to Google deciding where to rank your website in relation to other websites. Also, things like speed on a mobile device were also not a big factor in a non-mobile first index.
So what’s the big deal?
These mobile first ranking factors are now more important. In a hypothetical scenario if two competing web pages came out equally in terms of the content, keywords, links etc, the thing that would push the one site above the other in the rankings is how it performs on mobile. And it could get even more skewed towards mobile. I wouldn’t like to think that a site that has better content but a poor mobile experience would be outperformed by a site with not as good content but a better mobile experience, but the way Google is pushing this, you never know.
How to adapt to a mobile first indexing approach
There a few adaptions you can add to your current work flows when doing your day to day SEO activities.
- Google has a tool called page speed insights. It allows you to enter in a page url and see how Google spiders score it. They look at the desktop and mobile. I usually get a much lower score for my mobile than desktop which is not unusual but is indicative of how specific Google is being about the mobile experience.
- You can switch your browser mode to incognito and also responsive to make it show what you would see on a mobile phone. This can give you an idea of what mobile phone users would experience. In theory if it’s a mobile first index you should see the same results in the same order as you would on desktop or mobile searches because the desktop replicates the mobile index. But there will be a few cases where Google will show content more appropriate to a mobile user. I’ve seen job searches where Googles native job search tool is at the top for mobile searches but not for desktop searches. SEMrush also did a small study on the differences in searches across devices
- If you are going head to head with a competitor all the time and want to get the edge, consider the mobile experience of your page verse their page. There is only so much you can do sometimes with content, it makes sense to break out the box and compete in a completely new way.
- Get a CDN, a content delivery network is a series of local servers that can host your sites content and make it super fast to serve it to visitors in those regions. It is really simple to set up and cloudflare offer a free CDN for your site. This is probably one of the best ways to increase your Google page speed insights as well.
- Keep your eye on your search console. Google will let you know if there is a problem with your mobile indexing. Barry Shwarts over on Search Engine Land wrote an update about this as well.
- AMP – Accelerated mobile pages. This is an interesting factor. Having AMP on your pages could drastically improve the loading speed for mobile. But I’m not sure how much emphasis Google will then give to that pages ranking and also if it will then affect the desktop ranking. AMP will be an interesting topic to watch in the near future in regards to SEO rankings as it is right smack bang in the middle of the whole mobile first experience.
Most sites would have already made the leap to mobile. This announcement from Google is more like the final warning bell for the rest of us. I would say that if you are experiencing a loss of traffic or are losing positions that you easily won before in the SERPS, then you should be open to the idea of working on your mobile user experience.