Google is experimenting with a mobile first index, but what does that mean for SEO teams?

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An important shift in the world of search took place earlier this month when Google announced it is experimenting with a mobile first index.

Rory Long is an SEO executive with Equator.

In many respects, this is not surprising, considering that most searches are carried out on mobile devices. These experiments are hoping to establish a system that indexes pages on websites in the way that most users interact with them – i.e. on a mobile device. Google has stated this aim in its Webmaster Central Blog.

“Today, most people are searching on Google using a mobile device. However, our ranking systems still typically look at the desktop version of a page’s content to evaluate its relevance to the user. This can cause issues when the mobile page has less content than the desktop page because our algorithms are not evaluating the actual page that is seen by a mobile searcher.”

This essentially means that in the near future Google will be ranking content based primarily on the mobile version of a website.

How does this affect different websites?

As with any announcement from Google, an eruption of questions and speculation on the wider implications for such a change has taken place.

Most of these concerns have been focused on how mobile indexing will affect rankings – particularly for websites that have a separate desktop and mobile version. The primary problem that has been highlighted for these types of websites is that in some cases the mobile version of the site is a stripped back version of the desktop version and may have less content than the desktop page. This means that if a site has rel=alternate tags, canonical tags or device type redirects then Google’s mobile crawler will see the mobile version only.

For those with a responsive website, mobile first indexing doesn’t bring a whole lot of change, as a responsive site by nature shows the same content to mobile and desktop users and tailors the visual and user experience format by device. This means that there will be little change in how Google views this content and ranks it accordingly.

What about those websites and pages that have no mobile version at all? It’s important to emphasise here that mobile first indexing does not mean that desktop only websites and pages become invisible! Google will still crawl everything it can find – including desktop only pages of websites. In terms of ranking, Google announced that it had updated its algorithms to include mobile friendliness as a ranking factor back in May – well before it officially started experimenting with mobile first indexing. This means that mobile first indexing will have little effect on rankings for desktop pages; the Google algorithm update was already giving preferential treatment to pages that were mobile friendly.

What steps should you take?

As mentioned, if your website has a responsive design, you shouldn’t have to change anything. However, if you have a separate desktop and mobile version of your website then here are steps you can take to help you optimise for mobile first indexing:

Mobile verification

If you have mobile versions of pages, the first step you should take is to make sure that the technical structure of these pages is sound. For a start, you can verify your mobile page in Google’s robot.txt tester tool to ensure the page is accessible to the Google crawling bot. You should also add and verify the mobile version of your site to Google Search console.

Structured data

As is the case with a page on any format, structured data is a great way of helping Google to understand your content quickly. If content and markup differs between the desktop and mobile versions of your page then make sure you have correct structured data on the mobile version. Google recommends that you test the URL of both your desktop and mobile versions in a structured data verification tool to ensure consistency of output. However, when adding structured data to a mobile page, be concise and only use markup related to specific information in the content.

Site speed

While a site speed is key aspect of user experience in general, on mobile devices it is significant, with anything above two seconds being seen as an unacceptable page loading time. What’s more, Google confirmed this year that page speed bears a substantial weight in mobile ranking factors. There are lots of ways you can improve your mobile page speed, such as optimising images, reducing redirects, leverage browser caching and minifying code wherever possible. If you are creating new mobile pages, you may want to consider Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMPs). This project was created by Google to deliver mobile content to users with extremely fast loading times and has initially been used for news content, but Google have announced that they have the intention to role this out to other areas.

Site structure and information hierarchy

If your website includes mobile pages that serve slightly different content to the desktop version, it’s a good idea to think carefully about the structure of your site as a whole and relate this to trying to create the best possible experience for the user. If there is more content on your desktop page than your mobile page, then why is this? Perhaps some of this content could warrant a page for itself? These sorts of questions will help to get the most out of your content and craft the best mobile experience for your users.

What does this mean for the future?

The year 2015 was the year that mobile officially surpassed desktop for online traffic and looking back at 2016, it’s clear that Google is taking action off the back of this. The AMP project, mobile page speed becoming a ranking factor and now experimentation with mobile first indexing, gives us an insight into what Google is thinking – mobile is going to play a very big part in the future of search.

With website design as a whole, a responsive site is the best option; those designing websites now have to have mobile interaction in the forefront of their minds. This includes aspects such as creating a good swiping experience and minimising accidental taps, so that users will be able to browse your website on mobile with ease and minimum frustration.

The increase of mobile search has made search terms more localised and therefore local SEO will continue to rise in importance. Meta data for many businesses will have to be tailored accordingly to ensure it includes location and is also concise and to the point to capitalise on the ‘here and now’ aspect of local search.

Although mobile first indexing is at an early stage – with Google itself admitting there are still many challenges to overcome – it no doubt signals an important shift that website design and SEO will have to respond to.

Rory Long is an SEO executive with Equator.

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