It’s official: optimizing your website for mobile devices is no longer optional. Given the continuing trend of internet access through smartphones and tablets, developing an online presence with mobile users in mind has been the recommended best practice among industries for a while. But Google’s latest update moves this strategy from recommendation to absolute must.
Google’s New Mobile First Index
Search Engine Land began reporting last November that Google was beginning to test an upgrade to its ubiquitous search algorithm. According to the website,
Google will primarily index mobile content and use that to decide how to rank its results, regardless of whether you’re on desktop or mobile. There will no longer be any type of “mobile-friendly” adjustment done just for mobile users. Effectively, if you’re not mobile-friendly, that will have an impact even on how you appear for desktop searchers.
In other words, Google will crawl only the mobile version of your website to determine rankings for a given keyword. Even the results page shown to desktop searchers will be based on your mobile performance.
The reason for the shift is simple. Two years ago, mobile searches first surpassed their desktop counterparts in most major countries around the world. In the months and years since that shift, the gap has continued to grow; as of last August, almost 60% of searches came from phones or tablets.
A Continuation of Putting Mobile First
As of this March, search engine giant is still in the experimentation phase, and the full launch of this drastic algorithm shift is still a few months away. Still, it represents a continuation of a continuous shift by Google (and other search engines to cater better to mobile searches in recent years.
You might remember Mobilegeddon, a 2015 Google update that began to actively consider mobile optimization in its rankings. Websites deemed by the search engine to be mobile friendly began being designated as such, and were prioritized in mobile search results. Other algorithm updates since then have continued to keep mobile users in mind while on the site.
Understanding the potential impact of Google’s Mobile First Index on your website is crucial to making the changes you need to keep your website competitive and successful in the months and years to come.
4 Steps to Prepare Your Website For Google’s Mobile First Index
It’s difficult to overstate the potential impact of Google’s Mobile First Index on your website. Put simply, if your online presence is not currently optimized for mobile devices, you need to act now to avoid facing significant downgrades once the update goes live globally.
Fortunately, you can take a number of steps to make the adjustments needed to continue your success and improve your search engine optimization. Google’s Gary Illyes detailed some of them at last month’s SMX West conference, which are a great way to get you started.
1. Get Responsive
At this point, advocating for responsive design seems almost elementary for advanced marketers. Still, it cannot be overstated.
Experts quickly realized that the best way to improve mobile rankings in the age of Mobilegeddonwas to design websites responsively. It’s not a stretch to suggest that as your mobile site will become your global search measuring stick, that emphasis will only become more important.
Google, in fact, specifically recommends responsive design as a foundational part of mobile-friendliness in its Webmaster Guidelines. Though it gets mentioned less often than its bigger competitor, the same is true for Bing.
Responsive design, in other words, is the crucial first step to adjust for Google’s new Mobile First Index. It allows you to build a singular, coherent website that can be both optimized for mobile and desktop at the same time.
2. Focus on Mobile Content
Consider this piece of advice a continuation of established SEO best practices. If you want to rank highly for any given keyword, you better make sure you have the content that supports that keyword.
As search engine optimization is becoming increasingly content and context based, focusing on specific keywords has started to matter less than making sure everything you publish is highly relevant and high-quality. Not surprisingly, that same emphasis will and should shift to your mobile website, as well.
One way to put your focus on mobile content is to embrace Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages(AMP). Any of your content-heavy pages, such as your blog posts, can be turned into an AMP, improving your mobile ranking for keywords related to that piece of content. As the Mobile First Index rolls out, that ranking should translate globally to all devices, as well.
3. Ensure Structured Data on Your Mobile Site
Google has long maintained that the more structured your data and website code is, the easier it will be to crawl for its algorithms. As a result, websites with a higher degree of structured data tend to outperform their counterpart in search results.
KissMetrics has a great tutorial on how to boost your SEO using schema markup, which is a way of telling search engines like Google what the data in your website code actually means. Google, in the meantime, has developed a testing tool that helps you evaluate and improve the structure of your data.
We don’t yet know the exact role that structured data will play in the new Mobile First Index, and Illyes promised the search engine would release more optimization tips moving forward. But in the meantime, it makes sense to take stock of your current data, especially on more complex responsive websites, and begin to organize it in preparation for the update.
4. Provide Rel-Annotations on Your Mobile Site
This final tip admittedly gets a bit into the weeds of web development. As a marketer, you may not know or never need to know about the nature of rel-alternate-hreflang annotations. But according to Illyes, it will become a major part of determining rankings and performance.
Put simply, these types of annotations in your website code help Google’s web crawlers understand the language and region of the intended audience for individual pages, allowing the search engine to serve the most relevant possible results. This tool by Moz helps you check the current state of your rel-annotations.
As with structured data, we should learn more about what exactly this will mean for your website in the near future. For the time being, understanding that changes are coming and starting to map out a path toward getting your website ready is the most important part.
Building Your Website to Succeed in a Mobile-Friendly World
Are you wondering how much you have to do to make sure that when the Mobile First Update rolls around, your website stays strong and even improves in its search rankings? The above tips can get you started in preparing your online presence for the new age of mobile dominance.
In addition, it makes sense to start your evaluation on the current state of your website with Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test. The free tool can give you a number of helpful recommendations for improvement, including a full mobile usability report.
Of course, it also makes sense to speak with experts who have experience in creating and updating websites to succeed in a multitude of environments. Mobile First is here, and your online presence needs to be ready for it. For help in making sure that’s the case, contact us.