Google's Mobile-First Index Is Changing the Rules of SEO
Smartphones are everywhere. Roughly three-quarters of Americans now own smartphones, which is incredible considering less than half as many owned smartphones just six years ago, according to the Pew Research Center. Perhaps even more striking is that 92 percent of 18 to 29 year olds own smartphones. The dominance of mobile devices over traditional desktop computers — both in the present and future — couldn't be clearer. So Google's new mobile-first index should come as no surprise.
Simply put, the mobile-first index is a reversal of how Google indexes websites. Rather than crawl desktop pages, Google will crawl mobile pages instead. Desktop pages are only crawled when websites lack mobile versions.
What does this mean for business owners and webmasters? Google Webmaster Trends Analyst Gary Illyes tweeted in November that "we're aiming for a close to quality-neutral launch," meaning the mobile-first approach isn't meant to dramatically shake up the search rankings. It's clear, though, that websites that struggle in mobile browsers could get left in the dust. Google's mobile-first index is changing the rules of SEO. Here's how to stay ahead of the curve.
Create a Responsive Website
Hands down, the easiest way to thrive in the year 1 A.D. (after desktop) is to have a responsive website. A responsive website doesn't have a desktop and a mobile version. Rather, the site is coded to display based on how it is viewed. Someone viewing a responsive site from a desktop might see an expansive home page with a lengthy navigation menu, a sidebar and all kinds of images and content blocks. View the same website from a smartphone, though, and you'll see a streamlined layout that's optimized for mobile browsing.
Until now, efficiency was the biggest benefit of having a responsive website. Why spend time optimizing desktop and mobile websites when you could focus your efforts on just one? Now, thanks to Google's mobile-first indexing, having a snappy mobile website is more critical than ever. Investing in a responsive website makes perfect sense.
If your website is built on the WordPress platform, then creating a responsive design is easy. Most up-to-date WordPress templates are responsive by default, which means you might already have a responsive website. If your WordPress theme isn't responsive, then you can alter your style sheet to determine how your website displays on differently sized screens, although this requires a familiarity with HTML and CSS coding.
If you have a traditional website (and some experience with web design), you could follow online tutorials to give your site a responsive layout. If all else fails, just hire a web designer to do the job. It's well worth the cost, unless you don't mind falling in the search rankings as mobile-friendly competitors pass you by.
Optimize Your Mobile Content
Do you have a responsive website? If so, this isn't a big deal. But if you're website has independent desktop and mobile versions, then you might need to optimize the content on your mobile site.
Many mobile websites are designed with less content than their desktop counterparts to improve the user experience on smartphone-sized screens. This didn't really matter back when Google indexed desktop websites first. But when mobile websites are prioritized over desktop sites, Google might interpret a slimmed down mobile version as being inadequately thin.
Fortunately, you can have your cake and eat it too. Mobile sites can use tabs, expandable boxes and other design elements to implement more content on webpages while still maintaining streamlined, smartphone-friendly layouts. Google might have considered these tactics as spam on desktop websites, but these tactics are completely acceptable for mobile presentations.
Double-Check Standard SEO Elements
For the most part, the traditional rules of search engine optimization apply equally to desktop and mobile websites. Do you have unique, relevant page titles? Are you using variations of your target keyword in your page headers? Do you have succinct and unique meta descriptions? Is your content well-written and tightly on topic? Is your site based upon a logical site map?
These basic elements of SEO are as important as they've ever been. Don't neglect them.
Make Sure Your Mobile Website Loads Quickly
Page speeds are already important factors in SEO. Now that mobile pages are indexed first, you must make sure that your mobile website loads quickly and seamlessly. If you've never seriously optimized your mobile website, then page loads speeds could be an issue.
You have several options for speeding up slow-loading webpages. You can reduce the resolution of images and simplify your layout, especially the "above-the-fold" portion that loads first. More complex solutions include minimizing redirects and server response times.
Get Verified in Search Console
If you have separate mobile and desktop websites, be sure to verify your mobile version in Google's Search Console. This shows you own the site and affects how Google interprets and indexes it. Don't forget to also verify mobile apps if you've made any.
Google's mobile-first indexing is the clearest sign yet that mobile web browsing has thoroughly eclipsed desktop viewing. Investing in mobile SEO has been important for several years. Now, it's absolutely critical. It's Step 1. Google will still index desktop websites when mobile sites aren't available, but don't count on desktop sites getting an edge in the rankings.
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Phil is Founder and COO of Main Street ROI. Phil leads the company’s operations and is primary creator of Main Street ROI’s marketing training programs. He is an expert in search engine marketing, website analytics, and sales funnel optimization. Phil’s marketing thought leadership has been published on Forbes.com, Inc.com, MSN.com, and many other major business media outlets.
Phil earned his Master of Engineering Management degree from Thayer School of Engineering and Tuck School of Business and his Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Engineering degrees from Dartmouth College. While attending Dartmouth, Phil started every game on the varsity football team as the defensive safety.