I'd venture a guess that right now your smartphone is less than an arm's length away. Well, is it?
This phenomenon - the ubiquitous of the mobile phone - has developed rapidly over the past decade and become an integral part of everyday life. So, the idea of a mobile-first search engine index isn't novel. If you follow Google at all, they have been encouraging everyone involved in websites to focus on mobile experience for years.
This roll out of their mobile-first index is a reflection of not only growing mobile search traffic, but also a shift in how users are using search engines and the information they are seeking out.
What is Google's Mobile-First Index?
Up until now, the desktop user - and the desktop experience - has been the primary focus of Google's index. Their crawlers examine pages, evaluating them based on hundreds of signals, from content quality to backlinks to load time (and many more). With the rollout of the mobile-first index - sometime in 2018 - the search engine will index the web from the point of view of a mobile user; Google will use the mobile version of a site as its primary search engine index.
In terms of impact, sites with a strong mobile user experience (UX) that's the same, or better, than the desktop experience, shouldn't be negatively affected. For example, sites with responsive designs won't likely see drastic impacts on SEO or keyword rankings. However, adaptive sites or a separate mobile setup (i.e., m. or /mobi/) that do not display the same content (and/or have similar UX) as the desktop page may be negatively impacted by this change.
5 Steps to Get Ready for Mobile-First Search
While Google has said they have begun limited testing of their mobile-first algorithm in the wild, full implementation is still a few months away. This is the time to spruce up your mobile experience, not only for the sake of Google, but also for the growing number of mobile users visiting your site.
Design for the small screen.
With a smaller screen, every element matters and the core tenets of UX (ease of use, simple navigation and fast loading time, to name a few) are that much more critical. Stuffing a desktop's worth of content and UX into a tiny 5.5-inch screen just doesn't work.
The mobile screen, its touchscreen navigation, and user intent require different prioritization because it changes the way a user is able to find content and the solution to their search. Google wasn't originally looking at this particular issue in depth but now it will be under the microscope with the new mobile-first index.
Optimize site speed.
Mobile users demand fast load times - or they leave and move on to something else. According to Google data, a slow or difficult-to-navigate site will lose 29 percent of smartphone users immediately and they'll move on to another site. Of those who switch, 70 percent do so because of lagging load times.
To tackle this issue, the first step is finding where your mobile site stands on speed. Google provides two tools that get to the heart of this issue, Test My Site and PageSpeed Insights. Both provide actionable insights and optimization tactics to get your mobile site running faster. Common issues include large images/files, busy page designs and not utilizing browser cache.
Google recently addressed another potential impact related to site speed that only affects sites with a separate mobile URL (responsive or dynamic serving sites won't be affected) - a potentially increased crawl rate. Work with your hosting company to ensure the servers hosting your mobile site have enough capacity to handle this change.
Prioritize mobile UX.
The mobile-first index thinks like a mobile user so your site has to be attuned to the different performance standards and expectations that come with that. Beyond site speed, mobile users are looking to find information fast and do not want to click around too much to find what they need. Navigation has to be simple and intuitive and design should be straightforward and clean.
For site with just a desktop version, Google has said they will index the desktop version. It will be judged by mobile standards so a slow-loading or clumsy design could spell disaster with the new mobile-first index.
Match content on mobile and desktop.
For sites with responsive design configuration, this should not be an issue, but for other configurations (i.e., adaptive, distinct mobile URL) it is critical for sites to provide the same (or as similar as possible) content on mobile as is on desktop. Key SEO elements, especially HTML titles and meta descriptions, should be the same.
In addition, take a look at priority pages - pages that drive the most traffic and/or conversions - and make sure that the content is the same. If there's more keyword-rich content on the desktop page, and more stripped down content on the mobile version, the page could lose search visibility with the shift to the mobile-first index.
Google recently gave specific advice regarding structured data and hreflang links. Specifically, structured data that is present on your desktop site should also be on your mobile site. For separate mobile URLs, mobile a URL's hreflang should point to mobile version of the international page.
Consider customer journey. As I mentioned above, it has to be easy for smartphone users with their small screens to navigate your site and find what they need. Examine the click-paths users take on desktop and mobile to gain some insight into a typical customer journey. Often with distinct mobile sites, there are fewer links than on the desktop site. To prevent any SEO impact make sure all content can be discovered via click path (i.e., alternative navigation via an HTML sitemap).
Be aware of how users might view ad intrusion as well. With a small screen and typically a distinct goal in mind, pop-up ads and other conversion techniques can create a poor user experience. In fact, Google has already had an interstitial penalty into place for mobile sites. Consider other ways to drive conversions that align more fluidly with the customer journey. A balance must be struck between user experience and pushing product and goals.
In truth, the mobile-first index has been a longtime coming - a decade-plus in the making. It is a recognition of the global shift toward mobile and the increasing value users place on experience. It is also a great time (and reason) to invest more in your mobile site and UX. Google's goal with the mobile-first index is not to dramatically alter the current search engine results, but sites that take the time to optimize for mobile will likely do better long-term.
With the mobile-first index on the horizon, it is time to address any lingering mobile issues before there could be serious SEO impacts, such as loss of organic traffic and keyword visibility.
About the Author Mark Munroe is the founder, CEO and main product guy for SEORadar.com, a software service that helps customers avoid and solve technical SEO issues. Prior to starting SEORadar, Mark held senior SEO roles for various startups and technically complex sites, including Trulia, UsedCars.com and EverydayHealth.