How to survive in the mobile-first index reality? SEO facts you can no longer ignore

Over the past few years, we have been observing a huge shift in Internet browsing habits. The development of mobile devices market made it necessary to create websites that are convenient to use with touchscreens and fast to respond, even when accessed on limited bandwidth. Such changes had to affect SEO as well. Google has obviously taken a clear direction showing that the future of search engines will be undoubtedly mobile-oriented. Up to now, they have announced several important updates aiming to improve the experience for users exploring the web with small screen devices.

Mobilegeddon

Mobilegeddon – how everything started

On April 21st, 2015, a mobile-friendly algorithm update (also known as Mobilegeddon) took place. As it was supposed to have a great impact on SERPs, many people were anxious about it. The importance of going mobile was barely noticed at that time and a majority of websites were definitely not ready for this. As Google said:

“[…]you either have a mobile friendly page or not. It is based on the criteria we mentioned earlier, which are small font sizes, your tap targets/links to your buttons are too close together, readable content and your viewpoint. So if you have all of those and your site is mobile friendly then you benefit from the ranking change.”

But it wasn’t the beginning of the story. Some indications of the upcoming update were visible even a year before. In November 2014, Google started to label sites as “mobile-friendly” in  their mobile search results.

Mobile-friendly label

source: https://goo.gl/iZG7dr

You are probably wondering why you don’t see it any more. In August 2016 Google dropped it in order to declutter mobile SERPs. It was no longer necessary to indicate which websites were mobile-friendly as the amount of them reached 85%. Although Google stated that Mobilegeddon would be even more significant than both the Panda and Penguin updates, it didn’t cause the expected storm in rankings. SEO world explained it by the fact that the rollout was gradual and most of the changes had probably happened before and the rest were yet to come. Because of this wide timeframe, it was often hard to tell whether drops were caused by the new algorithm. However, the research conducted by Adobe during the next few months showed the significance of the mobile-friendly update. They noticed a drop of 12% in organic traffic for sites that were non mobile-friendly. On May 11, 2016, the rollout of the second mobile rankings update finished. This time the shifts in SERPs were even less recognizable, but it only confirmed the direction Google headed towards.

AMP

AMP – fast and furious

We didn’t have to wait long for another turmoil. This time the websites that took a long time to load have found themselves in the Google’s crosshairs. In collaboration with the major online publishers they developed a project called Accelerated Mobile Pages. The main idea was to facilitate exploration of websites (especially those based on lots of content) by making them appear in the blink of an eye. AMP bases on modified HTML markup, a special JS library and cache servers. It was introduced in October 2015, but as Gary Illyes, a Google webmaster trends analyst, said the other day, “currently, AMP is not a mobile ranking factor.” Well, the word “currently” makes the statement open to interpretation. I believe it is safe to say it will be taken into consideration in the next few months. For the time being, ranking signal or not, AMP affects overall website performance. And that definitely counts! Starting from August 2016 you can look for a lightning symbol to recognize those super-fast websites:

AMP label

source: https://goo.gl/jgrzbN 

The implementation of AMP on your website is fairly easy, however there are some initial requirements. For example, you have to use HTTPS protocol to be able to take advantage of all the goodies. For more details check out this great article about AMP.

Mobile-first index

Mobile-first index: Where have all the desktops gone?

Now the best part: on the November 4th, 2016, Google announced a major change in the way they index websites:

“To make our results more useful, we’ve begun experiments to make our index mobile-first. 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.“

You may think this is rather shocking news, but actually, it could have been predicted last year. Google stated that the number of searches was bigger on mobile devices than on desktops. All the signs led to the conclusion that mobile devices were the future. But what does this change mean exactly? Things can be a little misleading. There have never been two indexes, but only two kinds of Google robots. One of them crawls the Internet from a desktop point of view and another see websites as if visited by a mobile browser. Potential differences between those two crawls affect the looks of desktop and mobile SERPs. Google is not planning to split the index now (although it may be a temporary solution during the rollout). Apparently, it would be too complicated to maintain both of them. Instead, they will use the data collected by mobile crawlers to present results on both mobile and desktop devices.

When can we expect changes in SERPs?

Currently, Google is testing mobile-first index only for selected users (globally). The exact date of the full rollout is not known at the moment. They want to be extra careful to make sure things go well. At the same time, Gary Illyes and Paul Haahr confirm that the changes in the current rankings should be minimal. I suppose we can expect bigger shifts in the next few months. After the new index is introduced, Google will use ranking signals from mobile version of a website. I’m pretty sure it will bring about a revolution. The situation regarding backlinks is still unclear - mobile websites usually have fewer than their desktop equivalents and it makes many people concerned.

Gary Illyes about backlinks

Will it affect me?

Owners of websites that don’t have a mobile version are probably the most worried. Here is good news: in such cases Google will simply use the regular desktop version to rank the website (it will still be visited by a mobile crawler). The websites which now present completely different content for desktop and mobile will probably be most affected. The responsive approach is recommended by Google:

“If you have a responsive site or a dynamic serving site where the primary content and markup is equivalent across mobile and desktop, you shouldn’t have to change anything.”

Eventually, Google will only be indexing the content from mobile websites. Take that into consideration as you can lose some keywords you are now ranking for if some content on the mobile version is missing. What is more, you will need to adjust all titles and H1s to match the desktop ones. Another change is the way in which expandable content will be treated. It will be given a full weight, opposed to desktop websites.

What about canonicals?

Now the proper configuration of meta tags is to put an annotation on the desktop page that points to a mobile version:

rel=”alternate” media=”only screen and (max-width: 640px)” href=http://m.example.com>

and a canonical tag on the mobile page that points a desktop version:

rel=”canonical” href=http://www.example.com>

This doesn’t apply to responsive websites as the URL remains the same for both mobile and desktop version. With mobile-first index you won’t have to change anything in this configuration. Google will use the mobile version to rank your website despite the canonical.

Gary Illyes about canonicals

Easy mobile access update - say goodbye to pop-ups

It probably won’t be a surprise when I say that well-designed UX and SEO go well together. Nowadays it’s even more common to hear  opinions saying that you should focus on users, not search engines when optimizing a website. What’s helpful for people in most cases is also good for crawlers. Unfortunately, for some people the same applies to the opposite: what’s worthless for users is going to be useless for robots. I can’t imagine anything more annoying than pop-ups. While on desktops the problem can be easily solved by ad-blocking browser plugins, this solution is not always equally effective on mobiles. Once again, Google decided to step in and do something about it. Starting from January 10, 2017 a new ranking signal takes effect - an easy mobile access to the content. This change applies mainly to intrusive interstitials showing up after the user enters a website from the SERP:

  • pop-ups - they can be also displayed while exploring the content and cover up most of the screen,
  • standalone interstitials - they are displayed full screen, so in order to see a website, users are forced to dismiss interstitial or scroll down to access the content below.

Easy mobile access update

source: https://webmasters.googleblog.com/2016/08/helping-users-easily-access-content-on.html

On the other hand, if you use the interstitials wisely Google won’t penalize your website for it. This covers cases such as age verification, cookie usage information or log-in request for accessing restricted resources. Non-intrusive pop-ups covering reasonable amount of space are still allowed and won’t cause any harm to your rankings.

Takeaway - adjust or die

This quick recap of the main Google algorithm updates which focus on promoting mobile-friendly websites leads to one conclusion – you can no longer ignore the risk of having a website that is not optimized for this kind of devices. This is just the beginning of the mobile-first index rollout. If you are still unprepared, now it’s high time you took some steps:

  • OPTIMIZE YOUR WEBSITE FOR MOBILE DEVICES – Make sure it is easy to navigate using touch and that the content is legible even on smaller screens.  The best idea is to use a responsive design where the layout of a website is dynamically adjusted to the screen size.
  • CONSIDER IMPLEMENTING AMP – This will improve your website performance and should also reduce the bounce rate (users won’t come back to search results frustrated by waiting too long). There is a chance that AMP will become a direct ranking factor in the future.
  • MAKE SURE ALL YOUR CONTENT IS AVAILABLE – Don’t limit the mobile version of your website. It should have the same content as the desktop one. Once again, responsive design is a perfect solution. It is also recommended by Google.
  • PROVIDE GOOD USER EXPERIENCE - Don’t use any form of popups that could be seen as intrusive. Make sure all elements that cover the content are small enough not to decrease legibility of the website on mobile screens.

Follow these guidelines and you can rest assured that your website is well prepared for what is yet to come.


Sources:

https://webmasters.googleblog.com/2014/11/helping-users-find-mobile-friendly-pages.html

http://www.seoclarity.net/googles-mobile-friendly-update-april-21st-11964/

http://searchengineland.com/google-drops-mobile-friendly-label-keeps-mobile-friendly-ranking-algorithm-257245

http://www.allwebcafe.com/blog/mobilegeddon-the-unknown-future-of-mobile-serps/

http://searchengineland.com/how-large-is-googles-mobile-friendly-algorithm-larger-than-panda-or-penguin-217026

https://www.stonetemple.com/mobilegeddon-may-have-been-bigger-than-we-thought/

http://www.cmo.com/content/dam/CMO_Other/ADI/ADI_Mobilegeddon/Q2-ADI-Digital-Ad-Report.pdf

https://www.stonetemple.com/what-was-the-impact-of-googles-second-mobile-update/

https://searchenginewatch.com/2016/07/06/is-google-amp-a-ranking-signal/

https://webmasters.googleblog.com/2016/11/mobile-first-indexing.html

http://searchengineland.com/its-official-google-says-more-searches-now-on-mobile-than-on-desktop-220369

http://www.thesempost.com/details-googles-mobile-first-indexing-change/

http://jlh-marketing.com/mobile-first-unanswered-questions/

 

Przemyslaw Palyga

Przemek works with on-page SEO on a daily basis. He constantly tries to get the most out of the data from multiple sources, before using the findings to create recommendations that boost our clients’ online visibility. Przemek aims to make websites as clear as possible for both users and bots. During SEO audits, he looks into both the global structure and technical details. In his spare time, he enjoys watching TV series, reading novels and baking.

przemyslaw palyga