“Although our search index will continue to be a single index of websites and apps, our algorithms will eventually primarily use the mobile version of a site’s content to rank pages from that site, to understand structured data, and to show snippets from those pages in our results.”
— Doantam Phan, Google product manager
Shockwaves were sent through the webmaster community when Gary Illyes, Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google, announced at Pubcon in Las Vegas in late 2016 that Google would soon transition its indexing efforts to prioritize mobile first.
This was followed up by a blog post on the Webmaster Central Blog confirming the news.
The shift officially marks the end of an era as mobile sites will soon become the industry standard as desktop falls further behind in search volume.
The transition is truly inevitable as the majority of Google searches have come from mobile devices for the past two years.
While the time for businesses to adjust to this algorithm change is drawing near, there is still plenty of time to prepare as Google stated in its blog post:
“We’ll continue to carefully experiment over the coming months on a small scale and we’ll ramp up this change when we’re confident that we have a great user experience.”
With that said, let’s take a look at who this change impacts, how your site can brace itself for the changes ahead, and how it can prosper in the new mobile-first landscape.
Who Does this Impact?
With changes on the horizon, websites need to begin making their transition to mobile to ensure they do not become a relic of the Internet.
As of now, there are three different categories a site can exist in.
The first class of website is those who are desktop only, meaning they have no mobile version whatsoever. If your site is designed only for desktop users, Google will still index it, however, the search engine will view it as a mobile user. This means if your site is not functional across mobile platforms, you will see a decrease in ranking.
The second group is those who leverage responsive designs. Any site that is responsive to different sized mobile devices will not be impacted, granted that all materials render correctly. Though no changes need to be made, it is still a good idea to check out your site using the mobile-friendly test tool for good measure.
Finally, the last category is reserved for those who possess two versions of their site; one for desktop users and one for mobile. These are the sites that will be hit hardest. The main reason for this is that many businesses that leverage this approach do not have the same content or markup across both sites.
If a site owner decides to ensure that all content and structured markup is identical across its digital properties, there is a chance of not losing visitors but nothing is guaranteed. Google is looking for consistency, and if they don’t find it, they are ready to create repercussions.
Truthfully, the best solution for groups one and three is to make the switch to a responsive Web design — that is most favorable.
Now that you know where you stand, let’s examine preparation strategies.
Planning for the Mobile Shift
Most of the steps listed below are applicable for all site owners, although the first is directed at those who host a separate page for mobile devices:
Register in the Search Console
It is necessary for those with a separate mobile page to register it in to Google Search Console if they have not done so already. Each subdomain needs to be verified to ensure that Google is aware of its existence; this is applicable for all pages, regardless if “www.” is present.
Again, if you have a responsive site with identical content and schema across mobile and desktop, no changes are required. This can be certified via the Structured Data Testing Tool.
Optimize Structured Markup
While Google did note that responsive sites should not have to make alterations, the company did emphasize that it is important to “…avoid adding large amounts of markup that isn’t relevant to the specific information content of each document,” as many desktop sites are guilty of using too many or those that are irrelevant.
Be sure to double check your markup structure to establish that it directly reflects the page’s main offerings and is not too heavy.
Verify Load Speeds
Load speed has been an important ranking factor with Google for some time now. The company even took measures to help deliver content to its users in a more expedient fashion with its Accelerated Mobile Pages project.
As this aspect will continue to be heavily weighted, it is essential for site owners to optimize their content by removing oversized images, ads, interactive elements, and anything else that serves to bog down a site’s speed.
Once removed, check out your site’s load time with PageSpeed Insights.
Integrate More Content
As mobile will now be first in line for indexing, it is time to begin publishing long-form content previously reserved for desktop sites on mobile versions.
While longer content is not exactly ideal for mobile devices, you can help to optimize your user’s experience by integrating bookmarks and anchor links that will allow users to skip to particular sections.
Eventually long-form content will begin to transform into shorter information-rich pieces, but that time is not yet upon us so it is necessary to optimize lengthy pieces as best as possible.
This is a lot of information to soak in. If you are feeling anxious, be sure to reference Google’s blog about mobile-first indexing as they outline all you need to know. If that does nothing to quell your nervousness, there are just two things you really need to remember:
- Ensure that your site is viewable and useable for mobile users
- Verify that your content and structured markup are equivocal across desktop and mobile
If you take care of this, you will survive to see the mobile-first future.