Google’s mobile-first indexing announcement and what it means for website owners

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On Friday 4 November 2016, Google announced that it was experimenting with Mobile-first indexing. This means that it is considering looking at the mobile version of a website first when evaluating its relevance to search users.

This reflects the general evolution of search that started with the mobile friendly update of April 2015. This is where someone using a mobile device would see mobile friendly websites higher in their search engine results pages. The same search using a desktop PC or laptop could, in theory, return different results.

Why mobile-first indexing

Google’s system and algorithm currently look at the desktop version of a website first when working out where to place a web page in search engine results pages. This causes issues when the mobile page has less content than the desktop page because the algorithms are not evaluating the actual page that is seen by a mobile searcher.

In May 2015 Google confirmed that more searches were conducted on mobile compared to desktop devices: “more Google searches take place on mobile devices than on computers in 10 countries including the US and Japan.”mobile-first indexing

The so called mobile tipping point may have been reached earlier but either way, mobile search exceeds desktop searches and the search engines are testing whether mobile first-indexing delivers a better user experience for users.

How to prepare for mobile-first indexing

The main issues will be for websites that have different content on their mobile sites compared to desktop sites.

  • Responsive websites where the contents are largely the same for desktop and mobiles will be unaffected by mobile first-indexing.
  • If your website’s primary content and markup is different across mobile and desktop, you should consider making some changes to your site:
    • Make sure to serve structured markup for both the desktop and mobile version. Sites can verify the equivalence of their structured markup across desktop and mobile by typing the URLs of both versions into the Structured Data Testing Tool and comparing the output.
    • When adding structured data to a mobile site, avoid adding large amounts of markup that isn’t relevant to the specific information content of each document.
    • Use the robots.txt testing tool to verify that your mobile version is accessible to Googlebot.
    • Sites do not have to make changes to their canonical links; Google will continue to use these links as guides to serve the appropriate results to a user searching on desktop or mobile.

It would be interesting to find out differences in how search is done using desktop compared to mobile. Certainly you would expect shorter and less detailed phrases to be used with mobile so that must have an impact on how websites will be ranked if the mobile-first indexing experiment is successful.

People probably tend to use mobile search for immediate issues such as location details such as Name, Address and Phone numbers (NAP) or finding somewhere to eat or drink near your location. Desktop or laptop searches might be more related to education or more in-depth research. Hopefully Google will reveal the breakdown in time.

Google only cares about user experience and this is how they will judge what to prioritise in the future.

Further reading

Mobile Marketing statistics

Google’s mobile first indexing announcement

Google says more mobile than desktop searches

Google begins experimenting with mobile first indexing

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