Mobile-first indexing: 6 key questions answered
Since 2016, Google have been preparing website owners for the transition to 'mobile-first indexing.' This year they have begun rolling out the method and over the past month, many of our client sites have been included in the new algorithm.
When mobile-first indexing is fully rolled out, Google will prioritise the mobile version of every website when crawling it for ranking and indexing purposes.
Whereas a mobile site was previously treated as an alternative version of a site, it will now be the desktop version treated in that way. This of course reflects a similar shift in user behaviour towards mobile devices.
The impending change has predictably led to a barrage of questions from concerned website owners. We answer six of these key questions below:
Will everyone need a separate mobile website?
The short answer is no.
If you already have a responsive website, both mobile and desktop devices are already broadly catered for. You may need to optimise your website for load time and user-experience on smartphones and tablets but you won't have to create another site.
If your website isn't responsive, you should prioritise a redesign as your site will have already been flagged as mobile unfriendly. If you are unsure, simply open your site in a mobile device and it should be immediately clear if the design adapts to the smaller screen size.
If you do have a separate mobile website, you will need to make sure the content, structure and performance are as optimised as possible as this will soon become your primary site in Google's eyes.
In fact, if you are currently using a mobile website as nothing more than a placeholder, you may be best off ditching it altogether in favour of a single responsive website.
Should content be identical across mobile and desktop versions?
The way Google explains it is that the content should be 'equivalent' rather than a straight copy. In fact, copying your content 'as is' is unlikely to be effective since mobile content tends to be consumed differently from desktop content.
If you are wondering whether content hidden behind menus and other screen elements will cause a problem you can relax.
If you are wondering whether content hidden behind menus and other screen elements will cause a problem you can relax. Google understands that this is part of mobile best practice and will not penalise your site providing the hidden content can be reached by their smartphone crawlbot.
As stated above, responsive sites should require minimal mobile optimisation but if you have a separate mobile site you should start working on ensuring your highest quality content, including text, images and videos are moved to or reproduced on your mobile website. Try to minimise the sizes of media files where possible as large images or videos can slow mobile page loading.
To be clear, Google will still crawl desktop content after the changes but may visit less frequently and include fewer pages.
How should mobile websites be structured?
Up until now, the usual practice for businesses with separate mobile sites was to use switchboard tags on both the mobile webpages and either the desktop webpages or XML sitemap. This ensured that both sites were seen as equivalent for indexing and link equity purposes.
Google recommends keeping this system in place but webmasters should now focus on structuring the more important mobile site first. This means following all the same guidelines for marking up desktop pages for search engine optimisation (SEO).
To summarise, you should:
- Create unique titles and meta descriptions incorporating your target keywords. These may need to be shorter than your existing titles and descriptions from a user experience perspective.
- Add keywords to image 'alt tags.'
- For international sites, ensure global mobile 'hreflang' tags point to the equivalent local mobile site.
- Add social media metatags where applicable.
How can mobile performance be measured?
If your analytics software or service is currently set up to focus on the performance of your desktop site, you might want to consider redesigning the dashboard to keep a closer eye on mobile performance.
By checking the proportion of people who visit your website via device type, you can decide whether this is necessary or not. For example, e-commerce and retail websites still show higher conversion rates via desktop and laptop devices so it wouldn't make sense to bury that information beneath mobile tracking statistics.
Google Search Console includes a section for monitoring mobile device performance so be sure to follow any advice provided. Common red flags are overly small text, elements which don't fit on the screen and slow page loading time. You should also remember to verify the mobile versions of each of your sites if applicable.
You should also separately monitor the search engine ranking pages for mobile and desktop search. This is because variations in user behaviour between formats can affect your ranking differently across platforms even where content is equivalent.
For example, if you see your mobile ranking slip compared to your desktop ranking, you may need to do more content optimisation for your mobile users.
How will inbound links be treated?
For the foreseeable future, inbound links will continue to be one of the foundations of SEO. Therefore, if you have separate desktop and mobile websites and all your quality links from websites with high domain authority point to your desktop version, you will want to start switching them over to (or duplicating them on) your mobile site.
Where is this all leading?
Google have been switching their search strategy from desktop-first to mobile-first for many years now in response to changing patterns of user behaviour. Unless something happens to disrupt this trend, mobile-first indexing will only be yet another stepping stone towards an increasing bias for mobile devices.
Some developments to keep an eye on include:
Google Speed Update. This was finally rolled out in July and will affect mobile SERPs only. Google have also said that only the slowest of mobile sites will be affected with this algorithm but it is an indication of their intent to push web designers to optimise their mobile sites for speed.
AMPs (accelerated mobile pages). This is a form of HTML markup language designed to optimise the delivery of content on mobile devices, even on low bandwidth connections. AMPs have favoured content-rich media sites but with 60 per cent of AMP clicks going to non-media websites, a wider roll-out is expected.
PWAs (progressive web apps). PWAs combine responsive web design with app behaviour to deliver app-like content (including 'lite' versions of a website) without the need to download an app. PWAs load quickly, even when connection speed is low, improving user experience. Although Google have said there are no current plans to start favouring PWAs for search, their popularity with mobile users could change that stance.