Google's Mobile-First Index Is Here. Is Your Site Optimized?

Like other web development companies and digital marketers across the country, we’ve been keeping a close eye on the anticipated mobile-first index. After over a year and a half waiting, Google officially announced it moved to a mobile-first index on March 26th. While this decision has been a long time coming, it’s still big news for those that haven’t taken the mobile-first plunge.

A shift in Google’s indexing sets a new precedence for the web. We are officially moving into a mobile-first world, and the way we think about our interactions with websites and how we optimize them is going to change.

Before we dive into what the update means for you, let’s cover the basics.

What is mobile-first indexing?

Indexing is the process Google uses to track and store the information on your website. Google will first crawl a page - scanning and reading the page’s content and code to determine what the page is about - and then will index the page, allowing it to be found when users are searching for relevant terms on Google.

Google’s indexing was originally built to target the desktop version of a site. Google would crawl the desktop version of your site and provide the information it found in search results. The mobile-first shift is merely a change in how Google indexes your site — Google now indexes the mobile version of your site instead of the desktop version.

This isn’t a new Mobilegeddon or really any form of an algorithm update. The mobile-first index just changes how Google reads and understands your site and the content within it.

Will mobile indexing impact my rankings?

As an SEO-first Iowa web development company, we often see bold shifts in rankings when algorithm updates are announced. However, unlike algorithm updates, the mobile-first index is just a shift in how Google reads your site. There are no new ranking factors or metrics that will change search engine result page (SERP) results.

In fact, Google will still use your desktop site in its indexing process if there isn’t a mobile site to crawl.

Simply put, the mobile-first indexing shouldn’t affect your site ranking. The index is simply a shift toward a mobile-first internet experience. It’s Google’s way of announcing mobile is the future and how we interact with information on a mobile device is where Google places value.

That being said, your site is only unaffected if you have already optimized with mobile in mind. All of the pieces that go into an optimized desktop site apply to your mobile site, and in recent years, Google has done a great job at making algorithm changes that are based on the push toward mobile.

Inherently, optimizing a desktop site for SEO in 2018 probably means you’re most of the way there for the mobile push, but there are a few key factors you need to keep in mind:

  • Responsive design
  • No hidden content
  • Readability
  • Content viewport
  • Site speed

These factors are what influence a mobile-optimized site (and we will touch more on them later), but the main difference between an SEO-compliant site on mobile vs. desktop comes down to execution.

Mobile SEO: Is it different than desktop SEO?

Yes and no.

Mobile SEO best practices take all of the things that go into desktop SEO (content, headings, keywords, etc.) and adds a few touches that are mobile-focused. Factors like site speed and readability (font size) play a much bigger role in a mobile site being crawled by Google.

While readability is more of a design decision and influences how a user interacts with your site (something Google does take into account when deciding rank), site speed is a publicly stated ranking factor.

In January, Google announced mobile site speed would be an official ranking factor for mobile search results. These changes won’t be seen until July 2018, but the mobile-first index pushes the need for fast, lightweight sites even more. With Google using your mobile site as an index, site speed will be just as important as any other ranking factor moving forward.

So, your site is now fast as can be and it’s easy to read on a mobile device — is that it?

You’re almost there.

You are now one step closer to a mobile-optimized site, but we still haven’t talked about how to configure your mobile site. There are a few options out there and ways to display your site, but if you’re asking us, our favorite is responsive design.

Mobile Optimization vs. Responsive Design

What is responsive design?

It’s a way to configure your site so a page’s content and layout change for the individual user and their device. The easiest way to see this is by resizing your browser window and watching the layout of the page shift as the window gets smaller.

As a responsive website development company, responsive design is our favorite option due to its simplicity. It doesn’t require different HTML or separate URLs. It’s just some CSS applied to your normal site. Oh, and Google is a fan (something we’re always watching here at Blue Compass).

While responsive design is more of a decision based on usability, it goes hand in hand with mobile optimization.

Mobile optimization, like other SEO tactics, is all about creating a great experience for the user, and responsive design lets you transfer your already optimized desktop experience to a mobile device.

Part of mobile optimization involves responsive design, but just because your website is responsive doesn’t mean it’s necessarily optimized for mobile. That’s when you have to look at the factors we mentioned earlier, like readability and site speed.

For those still worried about the mobile-first index, you can double check your site’s readiness with our Mobile-First Checklist or reach out to us with any questions.

Mobile-first checklist

Once your site checks off all the optimization marks, there’s still one ranking factor to take into account, and that’s user experience (UX).

Optimizing Your Mobile Site for UX

Ever since the introduction of RankBrain, UX has come to the forefront of SEO. RankBrain serves as one of the three most important ranking factors for a site, and that applies to mobile, as well.

RankBrain can be broken down into two functions:

  • Understanding queries and the relationship between words (keywords and language)
  • Measuring user satisfaction with the results (behavior metrics)

When it comes to UX, we want to focus on the second part.

Behavior metrics are data points such as the average time on page, bounce rate and click-through-rate (CTR). They help you determine how a user moves throughout your site and, ultimately, whether they’re enjoying the experience. A high time on page means the user is reading the content. A low bounce rate means the user is moving throughout your site.

UX comes in when building out things like your responsive design and how content fits within the viewport (size of the screen).

You have to think about how the user will scroll down the page, if the clickable elements are large enough for users to tap, if there are any images that may pass outside of the viewport and more.

When you’re transferring over all of the URLs and HTML from a desktop-site, you may not be transferring over the experience. Pay close attention to how your site is used on a mobile device, and think about UX.

Owning the Mobile-First Index

While Google stated they will crawl your desktop site if there’s not a mobile version available, we see Google slowly moving down the path of eventually requiring mobile-optimized sites. As one of Iowa’s top web development companies, we know that optimizing your site for mobile is the first step in ensuring Google’s new index doesn’t affect any of your search rankings. In an ideal world, the mobile-first index will pass by, and you won’t even notice it.

If you’re ready to take the necessary steps to prepare for the mobile-first index, let our web design and development team lead the way.

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Mac & Cheese

Mac and Cheese is on the Digital Bark-eting team at Blue Compass. He loves greeting his team members when they arrive for the day, encouraging fun breaks during the workday and taking naps in various places throughout the office. He also enjoys saying hello to clients and other visitors - especially the mail carriers who bring treats! Mac is an important part of our team of digital experts at Blue Compass, where we help brands succeed online through web design, development and digital marketing strategies.