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Keep Calm and Learn about Google Mobile-First Indexing

keepcalmConferences are the perfect opportunities for Googler Gary Illyes to make big announcements, and this year’s Pubcon did just that. During his keynote, which I was fortunate enough to attend in Las Vegas this October, Gary announced that for the first time, Google’s index would switch from desktop to mobile, a change we touched on in a recent blog post.
Why the switch? We live in a mobile-first world, that’s why.
1. Users don’t like it when they reach a mobile page and the content they are looking for is missing
2. More than half of all searches are done on mobile devices
3. Roughly 85% of pages are already considered mobile-friendly
Don’t know if your page is considered mobile-friendly to Google? Test it out using the Mobile-Friendly Testing Tool here.
What does this mean?
This means that Google will primarily use the mobile versions of your content to crawl, index, and rank organic search results rather than desktop versions.
Wait, what’s currently happening?
Currently, Googlebot crawls the desktop version of your website and adds those pages to its index. Thus, search engine results for both desktop and mobile are generally based on desktop pages. Search results for mobile and desktop can be and often are different since there are certain mobile-specific ranking factors.
You can read more about the mobile-friendly ranking factor from the Google Webmaster Central blog.
mobile-switchSo what’s coming and when?
Google has been experimenting with this for a while and will most likely start making the transition to a mobile-first index in the coming months (rumored to be early 2017). No official launch date has been announced and don’t expect one from Google. The switch will be made so that the mobile versions of your website will be the ones used to decide how both mobile and desktop results are ranked. This means that the content and links on your mobile versions of your site will essentially be the only one that matters to Googlebot. So if you’ve stripped down your content and links for mobile and want to rank for it in Google, you need to reconsider.
The switch will be made so that the mobile versions of your website will be the ones used to decide how both mobile and desktop results are ranked. This means that the content and links on your mobile versions of your site will essentially be the only one that matters to Googlebot.
Now you’re likely thinking one of two things…
1. Crap, I don’t have a mobile-friendly site. Now what?
Google will still crawl and index your desktop pages if you don’t have a mobile version, just as Google’s mobile user agent. Keep in mind that the mobile-friendly ranking factor will apply to both mobile and desktop results, so you could see your competitors get a boost on desktop and mobile, where previously it was just on mobile.

  • Invest in a mobile solution, preferably responsive which uses a single URL
    It’s about to be 2017, and whether you like it or not, your users and their behaviors have changed. Mobile is the new default web experience, and it’s here to stay. Don’t believe me? Take a look at your Google Analytics reports and compare the YOY growth of your desktop vs. mobile users. More than likely, your mobile traffic is growing at a faster rate than desktop.
  • Fetch and render your pages as Googlebot mobile
    fetchIf you decide not to invest in a mobile solution, you aren’t going to stop ranking in Google, but you may see your organic rankings gradually decrease if everyone else in your space has mobile-friendly pages. Understanding how Googlebot mobile renders your desktop content can help prevent crawling and indexing issues. You’d be surprised by the results. Simple mistakes like blocking CSS or other critical resources can severely limit search engines from understanding what you should rank for. Test out some of your top pages using Google Search Console’s Fetch as Google tool. Make sure you select Mobile: Smartphone as the user agent. If you don’t see something in your snapshot, then most likely neither can Google.

    More on fetching as the different Googlebots here.

2. I already have a mobile-friendly site. Nothing left to do here, right?… Not so fast.
While you’re one step closer to reaping some potential ranking boosts, UX, and crawling benefits with mobile-friendly pages, there’s still some work to do. Especially if everyone in your SERP is already mobile-friendly, here’s how to prepare for mobile-first indexing.

  • Ensure your pages can be easily discovered
    Typically, mobile versions have less internal linking, meaning that it may be harder for Googlebot to discover your pages. Help aid this URL discovery by ensuring your technical SEO is in check. Investigate common technical errors using Google Search Console and identify issues with important files like your XML sitemaps and robots.txt, as well as HTML tags like meta robots, rel=alternate, rel=canonical, and rel=next/prev (If you don’t know what these mean…find someone who does). If you have separate mobile and desktop sites like an m. subdomain, you’ll need to verify both versions in Google Search Console.
  • Compare your desktop to your mobile pages
    Is content that could boost ranking missing on mobile? Are there omitted internal links?
    Ask yourself these questions and compare your desktop to your mobile pages to identify discrepancies. Keep in mind that it’s totally acceptable to hide content on mobile for the purpose of a better user experience with accordions and other ways, but you still need to make sure Google’s mobile bot can see the essential links and content, and that your users can access them.
  • Maintain and align structured data on desktop and mobile pages
    If you’re already leveraging structured data like or Facebook’s Open Graph markup, make sure all essential markups exist and match on both your desktop and mobile pages. If you aren’t currently using structured data, I urge you to strongly consider it as part of your 2017 digital marketing plan. Search engines and social platforms love structured data, because it helps them understand your content better. You’ll love structured data because it could result in SERP enhancements and rich snippets, which can take up more organic real estate and improve click-through rates.

Validate your structured data using Google’s Structured Data Testing Tool here.
So if I’m mobile-friendly and these are in check, my site should be great, right?
Alas. A mobile-friendly site isn’t a pass/fail kind of thing. You can still have a site that passes Google’s mobile-friendly testing tool, but have a horrible UX and be super slow. You should really plug your pages into the different page speed tools for ideas on how to optimize page load times and also do manual testing on actual mobile devices and browsers your users use.
Get a mobile-friendly and UX grade here.
Most likely by early 2017, Google rankings will soon be based primarily off of mobile pages instead of desktop. It’s still too early to speculate the impact of Google’s mobile-first indexing switch and there’s a lot we don’t yet know. If you have mobile pages, ensure valuable content, links, and structured data aren’t stripped out. If you don’t have mobile pages, your desktop pages will still be indexed but you should still invest in a mobile solution. Google wants us to believe that this change won’t significantly impact rankings but we’ll have to wait and see. Either way, stay calm and make good mobile decisions. Your users and Google will thank you for it.

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Renee Girard

Renee Girard is a Senior Organic Search Strategist and SEO Lead with nearly 8 years of agency experience at Perficient Digital out of the Milwaukee office. She leads SEO strategy for SMB to Fortune 1000 and Global 2000 enterprise clients and speaks at local universities and nationwide digital marketing events.

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