The abridged version is that Google’s algorithm will start ranking pages based on the mobile version of a website’s content, rather than desktop. And if your site uses responsive design then you’re at less risk of losing search visibility, but there are a few aspects that all businesses and brands should be aware of and monitor.
The bad news is there isn’t a specific date when the index will be rolled out yet, unlike previous mobile updates. Google’s Gary Illyes has revealed it “may take several more months” before it’s ready, as they are aiming for a “quality-neutral” launch.
— Jennifer Slegg (@jenstar) March 22, 2017
Google confirms they are still working on a mobile 1st index. Rollout between June & end of year depending on ongoing experiments. #smx
— Dustin Woodard (@webconnoisseur) March 22, 2017
The good news is that Google will notify webmasters via Search Console if their site is at risk, so there’s sufficient time to resolve any issues.
“We’ll try to also inform sites where we recognise issues, so if we recognise that maybe your mobile version doesn’t have all of the same content or markup that your desktop version has then we’ll try and let you know about that through Search Console as well, so that you kind of are aware of these issues and kind of have time to resolve them.” John Mueller, Webmaster Trends Analyst
— Jennifer Slegg (@jenstar) March 22, 2017
We don’t want to waste any time at Silverbean and have been working with clients to prepare for the roll-out. Below I’ve outlined the steps we’re taking to avoid potential risks and turn this change into an opportunity.
How to prepare for the mobile-first index
With any update or algorithm change from Google, there is usually some scaremongering across the industry and lots of analysis about the “winners and losers” following the roll out.
Depending on your current website set up and SEO practices, you can usually determine whether your business is at risk of losing SEO visibility before anything takes place, but it can be difficult to wade through all of the different opinions and advice. And having time to review and rectify potential issues is a different point altogether.
The below steps should help you to work out whether your site is at risk or not, and clearly prioritise key areas that need attention between now and the introduction of the new index.
Google has clearly stated that those utilising responsive design or dynamic serving content should not be affected by the index changes, provided content is consistent across mobile and desktop devices and there are no usability issues.
Those with a separate mobile website should be most concerned, as even if you only have a desktop site, Google will still crawl and index this to provide results on both mobile and desktop. The issues will come from having separate set-ups for desktop and mobile and potentially different rankings as a result.
Your first port-of-call, even with a responsive website, should be Google’s mobile-friendly test and ‘fetch as Google’ tools. These will allow you to see how website visitors and Google’s mobile user-agent view your site’s content, and highlight potential issues such as clickable elements too close together, text too small to read, and resources that are blocked.
If you find that there is a difference in how search engines see your website on mobile compared to desktop, or if you have a completely separate mobile website, then you will need to make sure everything is as consistent with desktop as possible.
Think about one of your website’s top or best organic landing pages and all of the different head term and long-tail keyword rankings that it’s gained from the well-optimised, useful content on the page.
Now, think about whether exactly the same content is available on the mobile version of that page and if not, losing that great visibility, and potentially traffic and revenue, as a result. This should be your focus for the coming months.
It’s quite a U-turn on previous years, as there are a number of legitimate user experience reasons to have reduced or different content on your mobile website. Google has acknowledged this, however, and features that were previously devalued for “hiding” content on desktop, such as tabs, accordions and drop-downs, will be given full weighting in the mobile-first index.
Google is also taking a stance against pop-ups and interstitials, announcing that mobile pages where content is not easily accessible to a user on the transition from the search results may not rank as highly, such as the examples below:
Speed has been high up on Google’s agenda for some time now, and with the move to the mobile index, it has been highlighted as a key factor.
Google are actually developing a new way to calculate page speed for mobile devices, as their algorithm currently only considers desktop speed and they have stated that the same approach won’t work.
If your mobile website speed is poor then make sure to use the PageSpeed insights tool and fix any issues that are highlighted, such as reducing server response time and compressing images.
The introduction of the Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) project was a big statement of intent from Google, allowing websites to provide stripped-down versions of their content to load instantly from their cache. Again, this is another area that you can expect to grow as the mobile-index is introduced and it’s certainly a solution worth considering for those with a slow loading mobile website or just a desktop site.
As with content, consistency is key when it comes to structured data mark-up. Structured data may have been removed from your site’s mobile pages for speed reasons, however, you risk losing any rich snippets that this may be generating when the index changes. And if you are not yet utilising Schema, find out about rich and featured snippets here.
Google does recommend that you keep an eye on the amount of structured data on pages, so make sure to use their Structured Data Testing Tool to ensure the most important markup is being shown.
When adding structured data to a mobile site, avoid adding large amounts of markup that isn’t relevant to the specific information content of each document.
These few steps should go a long way in helping to maintain your website’s search visibility when the new index is introduced.
Don’t forget, Google’s key piece of advice is not to panic and don’t just blow all of your budget on getting a responsive website, as they understand that doing things the right way will take longer than the available time between now and the proposed mobile-first index roll out.
My final piece of advice would be to look further than tactics, and focus on the bigger picture of why Google is making this change. We’re already living in a mobile-first world, and if you don’t have a mobile-first SEO strategy to deal with this, your business will eventually be left behind.
Are you prepared for Google’s mobile-first index? What steps are you taking to ensure your SEO strategy is mobile-first? Please let us know on Twitter @silverbean, or drop us an email if you’d like to talk mobile-first with our RAR-rated team.