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Mobile-First Indexing: What Is It? What Does It Mean For You?

Quick Vids 13th Apr 2018

(This is the transcript from our new video so it may not read as well as a normal blog post would)

Back in October 2017, Google announced sites were being tested on a mobile-first index. So what does that mean?

Well at present, Google currently ranked your website based on the desktop version. So this takes in consideration the technical structure, the user experience it provides and the content that exists within it. Essentially, with the mobile-first index, this switches it around. So your ranks will be based on the mobile version as a primary view.

When will the mobile-first index roll out? Well in short now.

As mentioned, Google were testing sites in the index back in October 2017. And they’ve recently confirmed that more sites are being moved over, which is just a clear sign of them being happy with the results of the tests. In terms of when this will be completed, whilst there’s no confirmation, it would be no surprise if the majority of sites have been moved over by the end of 2018.

In terms of preparing for the mobile-first index, there are three main areas you want to focus on– website speed, content, and your technical elements.

The mobile-first index is a step for Google to improving the mobile user experience that they provide. And speed plays a big part in this user experience puzzle. So it’s no surprise that Google announced the speed update, which is due to roll out in June 2018. And this will affect the worst culprits when it comes to mobile site speed. What you want to do is ensure you are providing an optimal mobile site speed with your site using tools are available to you, such as Google Analytics, Google’s PageSpeed Insights, and other third party resources, such as Pingdom and WebPagetest. You also want to consider other mobile configurations that may be available to you, so accelerate your mobile pages and progressive web apps.

In terms of content, it’s very important for the mobile-first index that critical content at least remains the same to maintain rankings. So with quantity, you don’t want to serve a lighter version on your mobile site. This used to be standard practice. When applying a desktop site to a mobile site, businesses used to make the mobile site the lighter version. But if you want to maintain rankings, serve the same content.

When it comes to structure, page structure matters for rankings. So in terms of where it’s featured on the page, content needs to stay in the same place on mobile versus desktop, or at least move up the page.
So hitting content. Content exists within a tab or within an accordion. This used to be a bit of a grey area, as it used to be a black hat SEO tactic to try to manipulate rankings. While Google have confirmed that as long as this is done to improve mobile user experience, this is fine and the content will be taken into consideration.

And then we get to accessibility. Obviously, with the content on your mobile site you want to make sure it is at least crawlable, accessible by mobile user agents. So use a free mobile user agent switcher, or switch user-agent when called the site using tools such as Screaming Frog.

As with desktop, on mobile and the mobile-first index, the technical standing of your website is important. So you want to make sure that you are deploying the same technical elements on mobile as you would desktop. So this comes down to structured data. If you’ve got a separate side of structure that exists on your desktop site, make sure it’s on your mobile site.

Same with metadata. But with metadata, if you intend to shorten it on mobile, make sure you’re keeping the key elements, such as the keyword targeting and the class ETAs.

When it comes to attributes, canonicals, they can remain the same. Google has said it will be too much of a big task for everyone to switch their canonicals just to adhere to the new mobile-first index.

So hreflang, Google have said you need to duplicate the set up that you would have on desktop and apply it to mobile. In terms of technical directives such as XML sitemap and robots.txt, you want to make sure any URLs in these files or any directives that you’ve outlined, they can be followed by mobile-user agents. And if you have a separate mobile site, make sure you’ve got the Google Search Console profile set up just so you can understand how Google is performing on your site.

How can you tell if your site is already in the mobile-first index? Firstly, meta tags. If you have a separate site and meta tags differ from desktop to mobile, look at your site in Google’s index. What meta tags are showing? Your mobile meta tags or your desktop meta tags? If mobile, chances are you are fully moved over into the mobile-first index. Secondly, server logs. So you want to understand how crawlers are acting on your site. So if you see Google bots crawling at 70% to 80% mobile, very likely that you have been moved over as well.

One burning question, which I know some of you may be asking is, what happens if you only have a desktop site? Whilst Google will still be able to rank the site, we recommend that you start on a mobile site. And if resources available, build a responsive site, designing for mobile first and then applying to desktop. Most importantly, don’t rush this, a desktop site is better than a half-functioning mobile site.
So that’s it from me. You should be in a much better position now, when it comes to the mobile-first index. If you have any more questions, feel free to get in touch.

Luke Monaghan

Luke’s a pretty chilled guy with a dry sense of humour. He loves his music and is your go-to guy for all things Adele. If he could have a song to describe his life, it would be Queen, Don’t Stop Me Now, so he’s pretty ambitious and up for a good time. His party trick is making the sound of dripping water with his mouth – see… that’s a good time!

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