In late March Google announced that it has started migrating the first waves of webpages and websites over to the “mobile-first” index, which is primarily the sites that follow best practice mobile-first techniques.
What is Mobile-first?
As search traffic from mobile devices has increased over the last few years, Google responded with development and testing a new approach, favouring and giving priority to pages following best practice mobile-first techniques.
When you currently (and for the last few years) search via a mobile device such as a smartphone, you’ve been searching using a modified version of the desktop results. Mobile-friendly websites have, up until now, enjoyed a weighty signal boost.
The current situation is that in terms of ranking positions, there is very little difference whether your website is responsive or not. I still regularly see sites ranking for competitive search terms with non-responsive websites on a mobile device. But that’s going to change later in the year. If your website is not responsive by now, you should make it a big priority or face losing valuable traffic.
Later in the year, Google will be splitting the existing results indexing system into two versions, one index focusing on showing results optimised results for mobile devices, the other continuing to focus across all formats, much as it is today.
When the mobile-first mobile index eventually fully rolls out, we’re all very likely to see a lot of volatility within the mobile SERPs. The non-responsive pages that rank with the ‘make page mobile-friendly’ option will likely be a thing of the past. As for the first wave of responsive sites (from the 2012–15 era) that have not made any UX improvements, they are also likely to experience huge drops in organic visibility and traffic. They will need to adapt their websites quickly or face losing a huge portion of mobile device organic traffic.
Some marketing teams and site owners who follow best practice mobile-first techniques are going to think they’ve hit the jackpot when the mobile-first index is fully rolled out as the primary smartphone option. They’re probably going to see a near instant boost in organic visibility and traffic. But as time rolls by, those sites that dragged their feet updating and modernising will eventually catch up and all else being equal, normal service will be resumed. That will mean a lot of web development work for agencies and freelancers.
For us marketeers, it’s volatility galore. Our rank tracking tools and Google Analytics dashboards are going to light up with fluctuations and activity. Hopefully it should start to normalise after a few months.
How to Stay Ahead
Here’s the juicy part of the post – golden tips to help you nudge ahead of the competition.
Wherever possible, do not hide any content such as using media queries to hide div containers. That content could be valuable and one of the reasons your website is ranking well on desktop. If your pages have lots of long-form content and you need to hide them on smartphones for UX reasons, think about using accordions instead. That way Googlebot can crawl and read all content without hindrance.
Clear Internal Linking Structure
Some sites, especially larger eCommerce sites, choose to display a condensed, watered-down version of the main desktop version header navigation. In a mobile-first approach this could affect how the link equity (juice) flows throughout the site. Googlebot sees the page just like a human, so if it cannot see a menu item, it could treat internal linking in a whole new way that you might not like. Do your absolute best to ensure your desktop menu matches the mobile-friendly site.
Site Speed & Performance
It goes without saying that your website should perform at its peak. Simple changes such as moving to a faster web hosting provider can make a world of difference. One rule of thumb here is that cheap hosting providers cram their servers with hundreds of sites per server. That will very likely have a performance hit on your sites. Choose a provider that limits the number of accounts per server – it might cost a little more per-month, but it will certainly bear fruit in the long run. Fast-loading mobile-first pages will rank better than those on cheap, slow hosting providers. Better still, invest in a dedicated server.
Finding the right balance between UX and SEO will be big news in the near future: less fuss about meta tags and H1 headings; more focus on easy navigation, site structure and finding what they’re looking for quickly. Even the font size has been become a ranking factor. Google Lighthouse recommends a font size of at least 16px.
So there you have it. Mobile-first is not something you can ignore, especially if you have a vested interest in generating leads, sales and revenue from organic traffic. You have a few months left before Google fully rolls out the mobile-first index. Sit down with your team and ask the questions I mention in this post.