Google’s Mobile First Indexing – What You Need To Know
The mobile first index simply means that Google considers mobile-friendly sites first when ranking content, which means that if your website has a responsive design or mobile version, then you might get ranked based on the performance of your site on mobile devices.
When this was first created, it created a bit of a panic on the marketing scene – and with good reason. Marketers typically want to know the ways in which any new Google algorithm is going to change the search engine results page (SERPs) rankings.
If Google has decided to take mobile sites more seriously, it's time that you do, too.
After all, in order to have your content served up to your audience, you have to have a firm understanding of how the search engines crawl and assess your site, or else you'll get left behind.
But don't worry, it's really not as hard as some might imagine.
And it doesn't mean that if your site isn't mobile right now you're doomed to forever haunt the unseen pages of the Google SERPs - only that you've got some work to do.
Actually, Google is roping in more and more sites as they slowly roll out this new strategy over time.
If you've got a desktop version of your website, then you can still get ranked, but you'll eventually have to consider the unwelcome consequences of not making your site mobile-friendly for your visitors.
Understanding The Mobile Friendly Index
This is Google's way of effectively serving search results that are more relevant to mobile users.
The search engine previously selected certain websites which meet their criteria for what a mobile-friendly design looks like, and they now use those website mobile versions to populate the search engine results pages.
Say your site was chosen and included in Google's mobile-first index rollout, you'd get an alert in your Google Search Console dashboard to notify you of this.
Google would then crawl your mobile website first, and it would display the information from the mobile version of your site in the results pages for users to see.
But, this does not mean that your desktop site won't exist any longer or get crawled by Google.
If someone does a search on a desktop computer for a keyword that is related to your particular business, they would still see your website's desktop version.
Before, Google only used to consider a site's desktop version when crawling and ranking pages, but now all that has changed.
This is thanks to the fact that these days mobile users are spending twice as much time online as desktop users, and Google understands that there's a need to serve those people with better and more relevant content.
But how do you make your site mobile friendly?
And how do you even know if your site is ready for Google's mobile-friendly index?
In the rest of this article, we're going to cover this (and more) in detail so that you are ready with a solid strategy.
First, let's look at some of the main changes that have taken place in 2018 with regards to Google's mobile-first index.
Mobile First Index 2018 Changes
Earlier in the year, Google announced their primary change to this strategy which was that the search engine would bring in more sites now that everything from the algorithm, to bugs, and testing had been ironed out.
If your site is not in their first, second, or even third wave of this rollout, there's nothing to worry about.
Just keep in mind that by 2016 Google had indexed over 120 trillion web pages which is A LOT! So it will take time for them to get to them all.
Also, some sites don't have mobile versions yet, anyway.
If your site doesn't use responsive design, or if you don't have an alternative mobile site, then it probably doesn't perform well on mobile device screens.
You still have time to fix that issue, which we're going to get to later.
For now, you simply have to understand that Google has implemented some changes with regards to how they index pages:
They are now serving content that is mobile-friendly as much as possible to those users on tablets, smartphones, and other similar devices.
For those sites involved in the rollout, the search giant displays the site's mobile version if it's on a separate URL (such as m.yoursite.com as opposed to yoursite.com).
The mobile-friendly pages of sites that have built-in dynamic serving will be served to mobile users.
Mobile-friendly sites will be chosen over AMP sites.
What Does Google Say About Their Mobile First Index?
According to Google, there's no need to panic with regards to this mobile first index – at least, not in the short term, as it won't impact the rankings of your current web pages.
Basically, Google is going to be using a bot (referred to as the Smartphone Agent) to help them identify sites that are using mobile best practices, and are therefore better suited for their mobile first index.
If your site has a responsive design, or if you've got a desktop site that has no mobile alternative then there won't be any change for the moment.
The same goes for you if you're using canonical AMP.
Google claims that for now, their mobile first index is about how they collect content and doesn't actually have anything to do with ranking.
For example, if you have a responsive design on your site, or if you have a separate mobile version of your website, then your listings in the SERPs will stay the same. Information will be pulled from your site by Google in the same way that it always has been.
But, if you have different URLs for desktop and mobile, then Google will be serving up the mobile version of your site to tablet and smartphone users.
They will see the content on the results pages as defined by your site's mobile version (eg. your headline, meta description, and URL extension).
How To Create A Strategy For Your Site's Mobile First Indexing
Now that we're done with the backstory, it's time to look at the different ways in which you can start to build a sound strategy for your website's mobile-first indexing.
By preparing ahead, you make it more likely that your site will be included in the mobile-first index listing. Also, you protect yourself against suffering any ranking problems in the future.
1. Add XML Sitemaps And Media SiteMaps
HTML and XML sitemaps have been around for ages and they allow your site to tell the search engines when new content has been published.
This (theoretically) gets them to index your pages faster.
Media sitemaps work in pretty much the same way that XML sitemaps do, except that they are for other media besides text (eg. images, videos, etc.).
A lot of sites have attachment pages which include just the media. If you so choose, Google can index those, too.
It creates sitemaps automatically so that you don't have to worry at all about coding manually or any of the other granular details. It also includes media sitemaps.
2. Create High-Quality Content
This is a no-brainer (but I thought I'd mention it anyway...) When trying to create sites that are mobile friendly, most marketers make the mistake of thinking that they have to disable some of the content on the mobile version of their sites.
Rather focus on creating high-quality content that all searchers demand.
Pick specific subjects and really go in-depth, making use of media to illustrate all your points and optimizing your metadata (this is something we'll discuss next).
With regards to the length and quality of your content – even the tiniest smartphone can still read an article, which means that you shouldn't deprive those readers of your awesome content.
3. Optimize Your Metadata
Your metadata is your way of communicating with both users and search engines.
There are various types of metadata, and it's vital to ensure that you're optimizing all the right ones.
The first thing you need to do is to ensure that your titles and meta descriptions match on your desktop and mobile versions. These two are the primary pieces of information that users see when they land on the Google SERPs.
If they use mobile to conduct the search, they should see the same thing.
Images are also important, and every time that you upload images to your website, make sure that it's got an 'alt' attribute.
If you're using WordPress, there's no need to worry about coding.
They make everything a whole lot simpler, and all you need to do is to click on the particular image that you want to alter, select the edit icon, and you'll be shown a form field for the ALT text.
Make sure that you fill it in with keyword-rich content to boost your SEO for that page.
4. Set Up Structured Data
Also known as 'schema markup', structured data helps you explain to Google exactly what your site contains.
For example, if you have a site that is focused on cooking, you could use structured data to communicate the ingredients required on your recipe page, as well as the cooking time, tips, and various other pieces of information.
There are tons of schema markup options that exist today, but you don't have to use all of them.
Just apply the ones you need where you know they will help search engines like Google (and, by extension, their users) to find your content easily.
There's a lot of information on this topic at Schema.org, and you'll be able to learn how to implement structured data, as well as determine which types of schema markup will be the most useful for your site and your visitors.
The key takeaway from structured data (with regards to mobile first indexing) is that your site's schema markup on both versions of your site should be the same.
For those who have separate mobile URLs, make sure that you add the same schema markup that is on your desktop website, and vice versa.
5. Use Expandable Content
In the past, hidden content was a big no-no, SEO-wise.
While that is still true for some black hat artists who are still trying to game the system by stuffing keywords in their text and then making it the same color as the background, and other similar tricks – that kind of hacking doesn't really work anymore.
But, hidden content (specifically, expandable content) can be used as a way of improving your site's user experience and making it more mobile friendly.
You may have seen it on some sites. It's called accordion content, where there is a headline that you click on and it expands to show more content.
When you're done with the content, you can click to close the tab.
This is important for mobile first indexing because mobile devices are smaller, which means that scrolling takes its toll on the fingers.
Introducing expandable content helps make it easier for your readers to access the information that they need while cutting down on the amount of effort they have to put in to get it.
As you can see, there are many ways to get your site ready for Google's Mobile First Index.
These are but a few of the many tactics that you can employ to create your own unique strategy. Other tactics include optimizing your website's speed and using AMP (Accelerate Mobile Pages).
So, even if you're currently struggling with SEO, don't panic. Take time to implement the tips outlined here on your site, and you'll be ready in no time.
In future posts, we will discuss how Google's Mobile-First Indexing can impact your rankings.
Even though, for now, it's not a ranking signal, it's very likely going to have a huge impact on your rankings as time goes on. We'll also analyze the reasons behind the search engine's decisions to help us figure out where they'll go next so that we don't encounter any obstacles when we get there.
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Updated: Originally published November 19th 2018