What is Mobile-First Indexing and How Will It Influence Your SEO Plans in 2018?

Dan Radak
by Dan Radak 29 Jan, 2018

There will be 5.07 billion mobile users by 2019. Parallel with the growth of smartphone users, the number of mobile searches is also rising at an astonishing pace. In fact, almost 60 percent of search queries come from mobile devices, meaning that they have finally surpassed desktop searches.

As the majority of searches happens on mobile, the bar is being constantly raised. Today's mobile searchers are extremely demanding and less tolerant of poorly optimized websites. Namely, 52 percent of them claim that a bad mobile experience has made them less likely to engage with a business.

So, how do search engines boost mobile user satisfaction?

To take the experience of mobile users to a whole new level, in 2016, Google has announced an immensely important transition to the mobile-first index. Now, in an interview, Google's Garry Illyes emphasized that, even though they haven't set any specific dates, the mobile-first shift is going to happen in early 2018.

As its launch is slowly approaching, I'm sure you would like to know what mobile-first indexing stands for and how it will influence your SEO efforts in the upcoming year. To answer these questions for you, I've created this brief guide.


What is Mobile-First Indexing?

As you probably know, to rank both the mobile and desktop version of a site, Google has traditionally indexed a site based on its desktop version and the content that exists on it. With the implementation of the mobile-first index, this is going to change for good. Namely, this type of indexing is pretty much what it sounds like. From now on, Google will primarily crawl the Web from a mobile browser view, meaning that, if you have a mobile-friendly site, you're all set. On the other hand, if your site isn't optimized for mobile, your rankings will plummet. In other words, mobile-friendly should be your top priority in 2018, if it hasn't been before.

But, what does this mean for your site?

To tell it true, Google gave you enough time to prepare for mobile-first indexing and optimize your site for mobile searches. This is exactly what Illyes emphasized in the interview mentioned above, claiming that their main goal is to make sure that websites aren't harmed by this huge change. Most importantly, he said that things will be moving slowly and the changes won't be noticed externally from the very beginning.

Namely, today's sites face numerous optimization problems, such as different links, structures in markup, and content on their mobile and desktop site versions. When put together, all these issues may have a dramatic effect on a website's traffic and that's something Google's trying to avoid.

It all sounds perfectly fine for now, but are there any specific aspects that may be impacted by the introduction of the mobile-first index?

Responsiveness Becomes a Standard

This is the most critical thing you need to do to boost your rankings in the mobile-first landscape. Before we go any further, however, you need to know the following. Mobile-friendliness is not synonymous with responsiveness. While mobile-friendly websites work the same way across all devices, responsive ones change according to the size of the screen. In other words, all responsive sites are mobile-friendly, while not all mobile-friendly sites are responsive. 

A responsive website design gives you the best of both worlds and it's no wonder that Google defines it as the preferred mobile configuration. Here is how responsive design may benefit your site:

  • Improved usability. For Google, the time people spend on your site is an indicator of its value. Not to mention that easy-to-navigate sites drive more traffic, customer conversions, positive reviews, and branded searches. All this comes as a result of a positive customer journey and may significantly improve ranking.
  • Less duplicate content. Even though Panda won't penalize you for having the same content on your mobile and desktop site, these practices may harm your ranking in some other ways. First, to use a separate site for your mobile users requires having a separate URL. Second, you need to make it clear to Google which content is more important to crawl, otherwise it will decide for you. On the other hand, a mobile responsive website solves the duplicate content problem, allowing you to have one URL, irrespective of the device being used.
  • Lower Bounce Rates. Your short dwell time may signalize that your design isn't user-friendly or that your content is irrelevant to your target audience. It's not the beauty of your site, but its comprehensiveness that really matters to your users. With a clean, undistracted and responsive design, you will manage to boost your users' browsing experience and reduce the bounce rate.

Page Load Speed as the most Vital Ranking Signal

It looks like many digital marketers are still not aware of the mobile-first era we live in. Namely, 73 percent of mobile users say that they've encountered a website that was too slow to load. Given the fact that the majority of mobile searchers demand almost instant results, it's not surprising at all that 40 percent of them would leave a website that takes more than three seconds to load.

With the rise of mobile-first indexing, page speed will become the deciding factor in driving quality customers to your site and getting them to convert. There are numerous steps you should take to boost your page speed, such as removing redirects, resizing images, improving server response times, using browser caching, or leveraging compression. We could go through each of them, but that's something that has been discussed repeatedly over the past few years.

What I would like to talk about is the Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMPs) Project, as a completely fresh approach to responsive mobile design Google has brought to the table.

The rise of AMP

Put simply, to improve the mobile browsing experience, Google has removed most elements that make regular mobile pages load slowly, such as third-party JS, cookies, slow-loading ad networks, etc. As a result, they've created pages based on what Google believes to be a bare minimum (AMP JS, AMP HTML, and AMP Cache). This means that these pages load minimal data, delivering an impressively fast browsing experience.

AMPs may complement your SEO efforts perfectly by boosting your visibility, click-through rate, and customer retention. One such example is The Washington Post, which publishes more than 1,000 articles in AMP on a daily basis. According to its representatives, AMP has boosted their click-through rate (CTR) by an astounding 50 percent.

Structured Data is the Next Big Thing

Structured data is simply the way HTML is formatted, telling Google how to display content in a more digestible way. Structured data is not a ranking signal yet, but its power will shine with the rise of the mobile-first index. It gives your content the opportunity to get featured in article carousels, rich snippets, Think Knowledge Graph panels, and other prominent results that may significantly improve your website ranking and traffic. Studies show that rich snippets can boost your CTR by 30 percent.

Emphasis is Put on Voice Search

With the rise of artificial intelligence, the importance of voice search has also grown. In 2014, Google reported that 55 percent of teens and 40 percent of adults used this feature on a daily basis, and these numbers have kept rising ever since. However, it is the introduction of the mobile-first index that will give voice search a boost and make it an obligatory element of your SEO campaign.

Let's see what changes it may bring to your SEO efforts in 2018:

  • The use of human-like speech patterns will gain momentum, making short-tail keywords less important. 
  • Voice search will become a treasure trove of new data on customer intent, habits and preferences.
  • It helps you collect invaluable user location data and boost your local SEO efforts.
  • It will allow you to optimize your pages for featured snippets.
  • You will be able to contextualize your content and make it more relevant.

Links Remain Important

Building links is the backbone of every powerful digital marketing strategy. However, they are less relevant when it comes to mobile marketing. The thing is, people link less to the mobile version of a URL, compared to its desktop version. Given the fact that the majority of sites use responsive design these days, it seems that mobile-first indexing won't make link building less important. Moreover, it would be extremely difficult to rank without linking to websites.

This is exactly what Illyes explained on Twitter, saying that external links “translate in some sense to popularity and endorsement by others.” In other words, Google will still pay attention to external links to provide mobile users with the most relevant results.

Back to You

While reading this article, you've seen at least five statistics showing how dangerous it would be for you to ignore mobile optimization. Google has already started prioritizing responsive sites optimized for mobile searches and, if you don't have one, building it should be your priority.

Remember, the introduction of the mobile-first index is a win-win scenario both for you and your users. It helps you rank better, drive more traffic to your site, and deliver an outstanding mobile-first experience. So, please, don't let this opportunity slip through your fingers.

Hope I've covered all the major SEO trends mobile-first indexing will bring to the table in the upcoming year. What are your thoughts on all this?

About the Author
Dan Radak is a marketing professional with eleven years of experience. He is currently working with a number of companies in the field of digital marketing, closely collaborating with a couple of e-commerce companies. He is also a coauthor on several technology websites and regular contributor to Technivorz.