How to Prepare for the Mobile-First Index: DON'T FREAK OUT
It’s no secret that Google has been encouraging marketers for years to shift to mobile-friendly website design. According to Google’s Gary Illyes, they’ve been trying to convince us that mobile is important since 1042 BC. But with Google’s announcement of the mobile-first index over a year ago, they’ve left marketers wondering, “When is round two of Mobilegeddon going to hit?!” (Okay, hopefully not that dramatic, but you get the point).
Throughout the year, we’ve seen countless algorithm updates, most left “unnamed” or “unconfirmed”, leaving SEOs to wonder if their ranking changes were due to the mobile first index. In a recent interview with John Mueller of Google, Barry Schwartz questioned him about whether or not the days of Matt Cutts’ transparency regarding algorithm updates would ever resurface. While we can’t expect to go back to the glory days, he did state that Google will “highlight” major changes.
After listening to Google’s Gary Illyes at the SMX East Conference, my suspicions were confirmed that Google’s recent Webmaster Blog regarding the transition from m-dot URLs to a responsive site meant they were getting closer to fully implementing the mobile-first index.
The Good News: Responsive Sites Are Ready for the Mobile First Index
Illyes said there is no timeline for when the mobile-first index will be hitting websites. Instead, he shared some information about the tests they’ve been doing and reasons for not launching sooner:
“We don’t know when we are going to mass transfer sites into our mobile first index. We are not there yet. We started experimenting with it about two years ago, and it didn’t go well at all. Nowadays, we’ve reached a point where we feel it’s okay to put some sites in our mobile-first index. We are not rushing it. We are monitoring the sites' traffic very closely that ended up in the mobile-first index to make sure we are not hurting those sites.”
As for how a site may end up in the mobile first index experimentation? Well, an algorithm, of course! Although Illyes shared absolutely no insight into the factors this algorithm uses to select websites, he did make note of something very important: If you have a responsive site, those factors are irrelevant.
“If you have a responsive site, then you are good to go for the mobile first index. That’s the good news. The bad news is that, if you don’t have a responsive site, then you are not good to go for the mobile first index.”
My Site Doesn’t Have a Responsive Design. Now What?!
First, let’s understand why not having a responsive site is a problem. If you’re still working with an m-dot site, it’s likely that the content on that site does not match your desktop version. During its experimentation, Google found a few concerning things about m-dot sites:
- Less content exists on separate mobile sites
- Links are different than on the desktop version
- They don't have Rel annotations
All of these things will work together to bring down your site in a mobile-first world. According to Illyes, here are a few ways you can prepare for the mobile first index:
- Copy the content you want to rank to your non-responsive site
- Utilize structured data to help Google understand the relation between things on your site and other sites
- Implement rel annotations, especially hreflang (according to Illyes, sites who forgot to put up the hreflang annotations lost over 50 percent of their traffic during the mobile first index experiment)
- Include media, such as video and images, if you want to rank for those SERP features
Illyes’ most important message to SEO’s preparing for mobile first was this: “Don’t you dare freak out!” And my message to you is, err on the side of caution, and get prepared. If you can transition to a responsive site, now’s the time.
Responsive or Not: Tips for Creating a Mobile Friendly Website
Whether or not your site is responsive, there are steps everyone can take to become more mobile friendly, and in turn, be better prepared for a mobile-first world.
During Illyes’ session at SMX East, he was joined by Ashley Berman Hale, Director of SEO at Local SEO Guide, and Leslie To, Director of SEO at 3Q Digital. Each of them outlined various factors that impact the mobile friendliness of websites. Here are the top 10 things you can get started on today:
- Scale down image sizes to improve page speed.
- Do gap analysis with your competitors rankings on desktop vs. mobile.
- Don’t get caught with an interstitial penalty! Audit your on-site ad experience.
- Make sure your site navigation won’t overwhelm your audience on mobile.
- Leverage HTML5 for video and rich media content.
- Take a look at how many people are choosing your desktop version while on mobile to determine the effectiveness of your design.
- Make it easy for your users to convert on mobile! As a rule of thumb, there should only be three touches prior to conversion.
- Audit your site search for effectiveness by reviewing the site search queries.
- Optimize your Google Business Profile to show up in local search.