Until now Google’s ranking systems have focused on evaluating the desktop versions of web pages to determine their relevance to search queries and decide how prominently they should be positioned in search results.
But with so much content now viewed on mobile devices, this can be a problem ‒ if the content on the mobile pages of a site is different (typically shorter) than on the desktop version, the search engine is not evaluating the actual content that mobile searchers will see.
To correct this, Google revealed late in 2016 that it is going to switch to a mobile-first index ‒ basing what it shows in search results primarily on the mobile versions of pages. This makes good sense, especially as Google estimated as long ago as 2015 that in many countries (including the USA) more searches are taking place on mobiles than on computers.
The upshot is that when Google goes mobile-first, if you have a desktop site or your pages do not have a mobile-friendly design, you will potentially not rank well on any device (desktops or mobiles). So how should you be preparing for the mobile-first future? Here are five key areas to address:
- Verify your pages with Google
First, to ensure that Google understands you have a separate mobile version of your site, you need to register your mobile site on the Google Search Console. All mobile subdomains – with and without www – should be verified. You won’t need to change canonicals, as these normally direct to the mobile version from the desktop one. For those with fully responsive websites, you won’t need to re-register or change anything.
- Get your pages to load faster
Unsurprisingly given that mobile users are often on 3G or 4G networks with limited data plans, our research shows that pages that rank higher in mobile searches have faster loading speeds and smaller file sizes.
So, as well as making sure that you are using a good professional hosting service, optimising image sizes and avoiding redirects on your site, your developers should be working on implementing all the necessary technical measures to make sure your site is loading at optimal speeds on mobile devices.
It’s even being mooted that commercial websites should be adopting Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) technology. This is a slimline version of HTML, developed by Google and others, originally introduced to speed up performance on sites run by publishers. It can have a big impact, with pages loading 50% faster. The idea is that brands will create two versions of their pages – the standard version for desktop devices, and AMP for mobile, delivering a tailored experience to both audiences.
- Review your markup
In its announcement about mobile-first indexing, Google made it clear it is cracking down on pages that use large amounts of superfluous markup. This markup is information placed within a website’s HTML to help Google understand what web pages are about – it is also sometimes used within the snippets that occasionally appear in the search results to tell searchers what a page is about.
In line with Google’s announcement, you need to get your developers to check the markup structure of your landing pages, ideally ensuring they use only one markup per page which focuses on what each page is primarily offering. This will make it simpler and quicker for Google to identify the main content when crawling the site and allow it to include only the most relevant snippets to help create an uncluttered mobile search experience.
- Check you’re not falling foul of mobile user experience issues
Despite the publicity around Mobilegeddon – and the tools that Google has provided to help website owners ensure their pages are mobile friendly, many URLs are still not fully mobile-friendly.
Aside from the obvious user experience issues such as text being too small and clickable elements being too close together, some of the main issues that Google is now concerned about include sites with app download banners, ads that cover the screen, content which is below the fold on a mobile screen and interstitial ads. All of these negatively impact the mobile user experience, meaning they need to be fixed. This is particularly important as Google has warned that such techniques will be taken into consideration when it comes to determining rankings.
- Monitor search performance across desktop and mobile
Finally, some sites show enormous differences in search performance across mobile and desktop versions – some are 50% more visible in desktop than on mobile searches for example. Given the impending changes, you need to be constantly monitoring the search visibility of your pages across both mobile and desktop, and focus on improving search performance and reducing the gap if required.
Google’s focus is on continually improving search results so that they better match user intent while also providing the best possible experience. So website owners and marketers must focus on usability and relevant content for every device if they want to rank highly, now and in the future.