In November of 2016, Google announced its new mobile-first indexing. With the overwhelming rise in mobile devices, Google noticed that searcher origination had shifted. The majority of Google searches were now coming from mobile devices, but indexing algorithms were still designed around desktop-based keyword searches. Although the shift has been gradual, recent studies show that 57% of online traffic is now initiated from smartphones and tablets in comparison to the 43% being made from desktops. As the shift to mobile increased, Google was forced to acclimate their existing search engine indexing protocols.
Search engine indexing is used to collect and interpret search engine data in order to enhance web pages, making them more usable and provide relevant results. Through effective indexing, Google can better process information and quickly produce applicable results for search queries. Through an index, search engines are able to optimize their performance and efficiency. Through mobile-first indexing, Google will deliver more useful results to mobile-based searches.
Original Google indexing algorithms gather data as if all queries originated from desktop computers regardless if they actually do. This then ranks results based upon the desktop index, which resulted in search engine results pages (SERP) that were less relevant to the actual intent of mobile users. Mobile users were being redirected to mobile homepages rather than the information they were looking for.
Bad user experience in conjunction with dominating mobile traffic prompted Google to respond and adapt desktop algorithms to accommodate the ever-increasing number of mobile device search queries. Google’s mobile-first indexing modifies pre-algorithm evaluations, which in turn changes how content is added to the existing search engine index.
Google will now respond to search queries made from mobile devices based on calculated assumptions about mobile searcher intent. For example, a mobile user searching for where to buy a specific product is more likely looking for the closest physical store rather than an online marketplace. In comparison, desktop searchers likely have a different intent and are seeking to purchase this product online. Google’s mobile-first indexing is able to determine this, adjust results accordingly, and accommodate the growing demand for optimized mobile traffic.
SEO will soon to be dominated by a mobile-first approach. Customers who initiate product searches from their mobile device are much more likely to make a purchase or conduct follow-up actions within 24 hours of the initial search. According to a recent study performed by Digital-Stats, 3 out of 4 searches made from mobile devices trigger a follow-up action with 55% of these conversions happening within an hour. Conversions tend to happen faster and more frequently on mobile devices.
These numbers are further affected by how accessible mobile devices are to consumers. The same Digital-Stats study found that 77% of mobile searches happen at work or home. This is significant because it means that even with immediate access to a desktop, users still opt to search with their phone or tablet. Convenience is king, even when it means saving a few seconds by reaching into your pocket for your phone instead of walking over to the computer. Mobile searches are also over two times more likely to be conducted in-store, further amplifying the likelihood of buying intent.
With such a significant increase in mobile searching and resulting conversions, Google places growing importance on implementing measures that will adapt and develop. Google’s mobile-first index is formatted to more efficiently crawl the web from a mobile perspective while reducing the algorithmic effort and overhead needed to then index and rank content.
Although its impact may not appear significant at first, it will increase over time. The digital world has shifted and is steadily transforming into a mobile-first platform. Google is intent on producing an index and search results that represent the mobile searchers that are proving to make up the majority of search engine users. SEO agents and webmasters will be required to act, updating their websites to match the changes in algorithms. Having a mobile-first perspective better allows companies to connect with users, putting information, services, products and more in the palms of their hands. Having mobile-first optimization better allows Google to organize your data and then place it in the hands of mobile users.
A mobile-first index does not mean a mobile-only index. While Google prefers you to establish a mobile site, it will not yet require one; desktop sites will be indexed when a mobile site is not available. That being said, mobile sites will be looked at first, which with time could lead to penalization if you fail to progress and create a mobile site with comparable content as a desktop site.
The mobile-first index will rank both mobile and desktop sites based on data acquired while crawling from the mobile perspective. This will also result in a minimized importance on traditional links and HTML URLs for organizing the index and determining ranking; content with Schema signals, on-page structured markup, and XML feeds will instead provide more effective crawling entities. By distancing from the dependence on links and URLs, the mobile-first index will allow Google to better influence rankings based on more important aspects for mobile experience such as speed or engagement. Stepping away from traditional URL crawling will also make it possible to integrate the influence of app content and cloud hosting into the index and consequently ranking. By tapping into cloud hosting, indexed content can also provide insight into how users engage with any form of content.
– Mobile-Friendly and Responsive: Being mobile-first means that your website needs to be both mobile-friendly and have a responsive design. Your site is mobile-friendly if it works the same across all devices. Responsive design means that your site has a clean and easy-to-navigate format on all devices. Since responsive design is the new standard, this shouldn’t be a concern for most webmasters. According to Gary Illyes in a recent SEJ article, sites that are already using responsive design for their websites will hardly be affected by the change. Websites that pre-date the mobile revolution, however, may want to consider investing in a mobile-first strategy.
– Site Speed: Site speed is also a major contributing factor. Even when desktop usage dominated, loading time had a large impact on SERPs. Today, it’s even more important for mobile pages to load quickly if they want to maintain positions in rankings.
– Format Articles for Mobile-Readership: This especially applies if your website publishes plenty of in-depth or long-form content. A 2,000 to a 3,000-word blog post that looks and reads great on a desktop might come across as too daunting to engage in on a mobile device. Try breaking your paragraphs up into no more than a few sentences. The goal is to avoid presenting the user with an intimidating wall of text.
– Differentiate Between Mobile Keywords and Desktop Keywords: In a recent study, out of 25 million keywords tested, 71% ranked differently in mobile vs. desktop searches. It wasn’t just low ranking keywords that were affected, either. For keywords ranking in the top 20 SERP results, nearly half ranked differently on mobile than they did on desktop. The difference comes from what Google now knows about user intent and how it differs between desktop and mobile. Users searching mobile devices want different things than desktop users, and they’re also more likely to convert.
Google Webmasters had this to say about the future of mobile-first: “Our algorithms will eventually primarily use the mobile version of a site’s content to rank pages from that site.” Speculation aside, mobile-first is here to stay. Websites that are mobile-first will continue to rank well for both mobile and desktop search queries. Sites that fail to optimize for mobile risk seeing a drop in search engine results. By embracing the advancement of mobile technology, you will better be able to remain competitive in Google’s ever-changing domain.