As with any update Google releases, their new “mobile first” index rollout has created a lot of chatter online from various stakeholders with angles ranging from “This isn’t a big deal” through to “THE END IS NIGH!”, making it a little difficult to wade through all the different viewpoints and ascertain where the truth lies. But unlike most updates, in this instance (sensationalism aside), they’re actually all correct to an extent.
This update is unique for a few reasons, the first of which would be how open Google has been about it. While they usually play their cards pretty close to the chest with regards to algorithm updates in the interests of fairness (letting everyone know how the algorithm works would accommodate abuse of their search engine by the ethically challenged), we’ve known that this was in the works for at least a couple of years now.
This seems to be because Google is acutely aware that the rise of mobile devices and the ways in which they are fundamentally changing search (first exceeding 50% of search traffic in 2015) is of legitimate concern to businesses everywhere who may be a little unsure how to adjust but had been sure that a big change would ensue.
And let’s be clear about this: this update is a HUGE deal in and of itself without worrying about how it will change rankings. People have searched more on mobile devices than desktop devices for the last 3 years and climbing and the decision to index the mobile aspects of your site first and foremost over the desktop version can’t be understated as a turning point in technological history. For this reason, it seems Google have decided to hold our hands a little bit through the process.
But what does this actually mean when it comes to whether or not a business will be disrupted by the changes? Well, there is and isn’t a clear answer to that. But no need to feel frustrated as it all does make a strange kind of sense. Let’s dive in.
How will Google’s Mobile first Update Affect Rankings?
To put it as simply as possible, Google’s official word (such as official statements like this one) seems to be that they do not want this to affect rankings. They have spent a lot of time testing this update prior to release and have openly stated that they have been looking for a “quality neutral” result. In truth they’re hoping for an even better quality of results as quoted in this article, but therein lies the problem with their official stance.
Aside from the obvious question of how indexing your mobile content with priority over your desktop content could possibly not affect rankings in a lot of cases, they seem to be indirectly suggesting that your rankings might suffer if your mobile content is deemed to be of less quality than either your desktop content or your competitor’s mobile content.
Image – Google Mobile first indexing
Google will of course deny that given their official stance, but it’s hard to believe that results wouldn’t change given their mission statement in all of this, which is to move with the technology and provide “better” results. Which naturally leads us to the next question…
Exactly how would my mobile content be deemed “of lesser quality”?
Without grossly oversimplifying things, it would be correct to say that if a mobile version of any given page on your site provides less information or functionality than the desktop version then you’re at risk. Similarly, if that information is different on each version then it will be assessed differently against the same requirements.Which is an important distinction to make: Ranking factors themselves have not changed, but the version of a page that gets held up against these requirements has and you now also need to specifically assess your mobile presence against your competitors, which sadly is not as common a practice as it should be.
Take the following 3 examples for instance:
- You only have a desktop version of your site: As stated above, people have searched more on mobile devices than desktop devices since 2015, which you can see more info on here. This means that having a website that displays well on mobile devices is an absolute must. However the good news would be that your rankings are unlikely to change. You may already not rank well on mobile results, but this should remain the case. Yes, Google will probably apply some element of this update to desktop search results, but this seems to be where their “quality neutral” comments will come into play.With that said however, there will come a day when Google decides that businesses have had ample time to adjust and will update their rankings accordingly, but for now you can likely expect minimal disruption.
- You have a responsive website: This is where it gets a little bit trickier. Generally the aim of a responsive website is to be able to present the same content in a way that best suits the device it is being viewed on. But this does present some small challenges in that if the mobile version of a page removes any content, functionality or navigation then you could potentially be in trouble. Whether it’s the removal of some text on mobile versions for design purposes, the removal of some functionality for similar reasons, or a changed navigation system that is seen to be less effective than the desktop version, you may see some small changes in rankings.For the most part, a responsive site remains the optimal choice if you’re going to avoid impacts (desktop only sites don’t count because their rankings would likely not be as good to begin with) and we’re confident that the “quality neutral” comments would also come into play here. Regardless, it would be worth reviewing your site as soon as possible to identify any differences which, when held up against ranking factors, might not fare as well when displaying the mobile versions of themselves.
- You have AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) on your site: One would hope that if you fall into this category then you designed the AMP to be as similar as possible to the desktop version (incidentally, there is a great article here about AMP vs Responsive that also explains both). However as can often be the case when it comes to form vs function, design aspects can sometimes derail SEO best practice. Let’s face it, trying to fit the types of word counts that Google prefers can be damn hard when weighed against UX (User Experience) and overall design goals and putting together an AMP is no different.In this instance, our suggestion would be to put in the hard yards, pull up the desktop and mobile versions of your site per URL and to hold them both up to a list of ranking factors (obviously we’d suggest the list over at Moz along with Google’s official guidelines). From there you can set your team tasks and get cracking!We’d also strongly suggest doing at least a general comparison of your mobile site against competitors who outrank you as well as those you rank just slightly better than, then try to identify what it is about their site that holds up better and adopt it or something similar. As a last note on this, the above also applies if you have a mobile site that isn’t AMP.
But we’re not going to point out problems without offering solutions.
Here are a few steps to take to address these issues.
- Desktop only sites:
a) Consider whether or not your site could do with a complete redesign/refresh from scratch. If it was designed pre-mobile revolution then this could well be the case.b) If this is the case, then you need to decide how the type of content you provide would best present. If you feel that it wouldn’t be possible to arrange it in a way that could adapt via a responsive website to different devices (it’s important to consider things like mobile load speed, which is one of the primary reasons AMP exists) then it might be best to consider an AMP site.
c) If you like your site and are sure it still translates well in 2018, then AMP could also be a good option as you only need to design AMP versions and won’t need to redesign everything from scratch. A great option for the budget conscious.Please note: AMP sites mostly work best for news or blog sites because of the limited functionality compared to desktop sites. AMP is always evolving with new features and functioanlity just announced, head over to https://amp.dev/ to keep up-to-date. If your site has a broad range of functionality outside of simply providing information but a responsive site might not work for you, it would be best to look at a straight mobile version of your site.
- Responsive sites:
a) Sit down with a PC, Laptop, Tablet & mobile phone (or use the powerful built-in tools in your Chrome or Safari or another favourite browser to test how the site looks on various devices. We regularly use the Safari and Chrome developer tools.). Start to look at each and every URL on your website to compare the differences.b) If you find that there are a decent amount of differences that concern you, start brainstorming on whether or not this can be fixed within the possibilities of a responsive website. If so, implement.c) If you feel that it might not be possible to fix these issues while remaining responsive then AMP may be worth exploring.
a) Sit down with your team and pull a list of all URL’s both mobile and desktop.
b) Compare each of the versions for differences against ranking factors as mentioned above to see if there is anything which needs to change.
c) Begin implementation!
But getting back to the simple explanation of Mobile First Indexing.
IF this update does not affect rankings, we imagine that it will at some point in the future. While
Google can sometimes be ruthless in their requirements, it feels like they’re almost being too nice when it comes to the mobile revolution. But hey, take advantage of that while you still can. Long story short, if your site (or individual pages) wouldn’t hold up as well against ranking factors on mobile devices then the time has come to do what Google is doing and prioritise your customer’s mobile experience on your website.
But, don’t neglect your desktop site. Up to 50% of your traffic is hardly inconsequential.
Want to talk to us about mobile first SEO on your website?