How To Prepare for Google’s Mobile-First Indexing

Guest blog for Inbound Marketing Agents: December 2016

Google recently announced that they will soon be moving to mobile-first indexing. This means that they will now prioritise mobile sites when determining rankings instead of desktops. Like most Google updates, this change doesn’t sound that monumental at first, but Google are eager to catch up with a huge change that has taken place – smartphones. More people now use their mobile phones to conduct online searches than their desktops, so it’s not surprising that Google wants to capitalise on this change.

What exactly is happening?

So how is Google catching up with this seismic shift in searching? On 4th November, Google announced that they would be switching to mobile-first indexing. Traditionally Google’s ranking system has been based on desktop versions of a page’s content to evaluate its relevance to the user. The trouble now is that many users are not seeing the pages that Google is ranking; instead they see the mobile version, which often has less content than the desktop version.

Google is switching to mobile-first indexing so that they can evaluate the actual pages their users are seeing when searching. They’re currently experimenting with their algorithm, but the change to mobile-first indexing is likely to be rolled out some time in 2017.

There’s no doubt that this change is going to have a huge affect on businesses, so its best to prepare your business for these changes ahead of time and get the jump on your competitors.

How is your mobile site set up?

Your first step is to check whether or not your website is optimised to work on mobiles. There are two ways to make a site suitable for mobile: creating a separate mobile site (e.g. m.domain.com) or having one site and making it responsive to fit different screen sizes and devices. The set up your site has will determine your next steps.

If you have a separate mobile site

If you have a separate mobile site, you’ll have a bit more work to do to get it ready for mobile-first indexing. This is because you are effectively running two independent sites, because of this it is unlikely that you’ll have the same content on them both.

Separate mobile sites were very common in the early days of smartphones. It was completely ordinary for mobile versions to be missing content, often because poor design layouts and slow Internet speeds made reading long articles difficult and time consuming. Today, however, it’s vitally important that both your mobile and desktop sites share the same content as much as possible, otherwise you could see your site dropping down Google’s search pages when they change their algorithm.

Review important information on your mobile site. You need to make sure that everything a customer needs to make a purchase is accessible on your mobile site. For instance, is it easy for them to make a purchase? Are there any complicated or unnecessary steps you can simplify or remove? Do you answer common customer queries, such as delivery options, prices and refund policy? You need to remove all the possible barriers a customer might have when considering a purchase.

It might be tempting to get chop heavy with your changes, but only remove things that aren’t adding value to the customer either because they’re outdated or unrelated. You should be aiming to create a smooth and quick user experience so your customers get in front of the things they’re interested in more quickly and easily.

You can use software like Screaming Frog to help you find pages on your mobile site that are short on content and so unlikely to be offering your users the best experience. These pages might also rank badly because they aren’t providing relevant content to your users. Screaming Frog can help you identify and work on these pages so that your customers can complete the main objectives unhindered.

Next, check that structured mark-up is the same between the mobile and desktop site, e.g. customer review data, schema data, or any other mark-up.

Google provide a free tool for checking structured data called simply Structured Data Testing Tool. You’ll need your web developer to take a look at the results, as this tool throws up some pretty complex data.

Now check that Googlebot can see your mobile site. Googlebot is basically the software Google uses to comb the many pages of the Internet to come up with their searchable indexes, so being visible to Google is vitally important. If your site isn’t visible then use Google’s Search Console to update your pages. Having a Search Console account with Google is particularly helpful because it will highlight important issues that might be hindering your site’s accessibility.

Next make sure you get rid of any Flash content you might have. During the Internet’s infancy, Adobe Flash was the default software to play video content and animations, but times have changed. Flash used to be so popular because it could run complex scripts across a variety of websites, but now that’s not such a great trait, because this can be exploited for malicious purposes, such as filling computers with a bunch of malware, which isn’t going to go down too well with your more tech-savvy users.

Finally, ensure that you have canonical links in place. These will make sure that mobile pages are related to the right desktop pages. Duplicate content with no canonical links will confuse Google and could result in your pages not ranking as highly as they should.

If you have a responsive site

A responsive website is one that isn’t on a different subdomain or sub folder. It also incorporates a site design that automatically adjusts to fit the user’s screen. If you have a responsive website, they’ll be a lot less you need to do to bring your site up to scratch.

In fact, mobile responsive design is Google’s preferred method of mobile optimisation. However, the same rules as before still apply. It’s worth carrying out an audit of your content to make sure that your users are able to find it the quickest and easiest ways possible.

Should you add AMP pages to your site?

If your users encounter slow loading web pages then they’re likely to bounce from your site. AMP (accelerated mobile pages) are intended to offer a faster user experience to mobile sites, meaning you’ll hang onto your visitors long enough to actually sell them something.

AMPs are treated like other mobile pages and are also indexed first. However, AMP pages shouldn’t be set up instead of building a mobile responsive site. They should compliment your mobile site in order to help users who find your content through search engines.

What else can I do to improve my mobile performance?

One other area that could do with some attention is the speed of your website. Speed is becoming an increasingly important factor with customers. In fact, a Kissmetrics’ survey found that 47% of consumers expect a web page to load in 2 seconds or less. If it takes longer than 3 seconds then 40% of people will abandon the site, so as you can see, speed is a huge issue.

There is plenty of free software and websites out there that will test your site’s speed. One of these is Google’s own PageSpeed Tools. This free service will evaluate and highlight any issues with both your mobile and desktops sites, giving you some pretty solid data to work on.

Making your site as fast as it can be, as well as removing common obstacles in your customers’ journeys will create much better user experiences and lead to more conversions.

Make sure your business doesn’t take an unnecessary hit next year by preparing your site for mobile-first indexing now.

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