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How to Prepare for Google's Mobile-First Index

In early November, Google announced that they will be moving to a single, mobile-first index. Currently, Google uses desktop websites to index mobile search results, then applies a mobile-friendly filter to give a slight boost to sites that are mobile friendly.

In theory, this could work--websites, regardless of what device they are being viewed on, should have the same content, providing users with all the information they need, whether at home or on the go. But in reality, mobile users need different information and they need it in a more succinct and straightforward manner.

Since the majority of people are accessing the internet via their mobile devices, Google has decided that a mobile-first index makes the most sense. And it does. But how will the mobile-first index impact your site and your organic ranking, and what can you do now to prepare?

Let’s explore three scenarios of mobile sites to learn more:

I. Responsive Website

If you have a responsive design website--one that renders content automatically based on the devices being used--you’re in the clear. Since the desktop version and mobile version of your site have the exact same content and links, it doesn’t matter which version is indexed first. This is what Google recommends and you should heed, if not to placate Google, then to create a better experience for your customers.  

II. Separate Mobile Website

If you have a separate, pared down version of your site that displays on mobile, there are a few things you must to do:

1. Use Structured Data on Both Versions

Structured data tells the search engines more information about your website in an organized way, allowing them to quickly read, and then index and rank that information. Make sure you mobile version, along with the desktop version, has this structured data. Use the Structured Data Testing Tool to verify you have implemented it correctly.

2. Make Sure Mobile Version is Accessible in Robots.txt File

For Google to be able to index your mobile site, they need to be able to access it. Use the Robots.txt Testing Tool to verify that your mobile site is accessible.

3. Get Rid of Device-Type Redirects

Because Google ranks desktop sites in mobile, the results often show information and snippets based on desktop, which do not exist on the mobile site. Or, the user is redirected to another page or the mobile homepage, which is quite different. Obviously, this creates a poor user experience, and results in high bounce rates and low on-site engagement. To avoid these issues, remove device-type redirects that send sub-pages to the mobile homepage.

4. Make Sure Mobile and Desktop Versions are Similar

For similar reasons as stated above, you want to make sure your mobile and desktop versions are similar. Content, links, navigation and meta data should all be

5. Add Mobile Version to Search Console

Add and verify the mobile version of your site in Google Search Console. You can then create a property set to view data and insights for both versions together.

6.  Expandable Content Sections

Mobile sites typically have less content than their desktop counterparts. Because content is so important to search engine visibility, people are concerned that the mobile-first index will reduce their ability to rank due to the reduced content. This is a real concern.

But there are some ways to get around it, one of which is to use expandable content sections, such as divs, tabs, accordions, etc. For desktop sites, Google says these expandable sections would not be weighted as much, but on mobile they will receive full weight.

7. Consider Other Types of Content Besides Text

Another way to get around the reduced text content on mobile is to use other types of content, such as images and videos. This visual content can often convey a message more quickly and creates a better user experience.

8. Ensure Mobile Version is Speedy

Site and page load speed on your mobile site will become even more important. Use Google’s Page Speed Testing Tool to learn what areas are slowing down your mobile site.

III. No Mobile Site

If you do not have a mobile site, only a desktop version, Google will still be able to crawl, index and rank your site. That’s the good news. The bad news is that your site won’t be considered “mobile-friendly” and you won’t get the ranking boost that comes with the designation. You’ll also likely see a higher bounce rate and lower on-site engagement than sites that are mobile-friendly. But this is already happening now, so you won’t see a change with the mobile-first index. Still, you should make a responsive site your top priority for 2017.

Google has not set a date for a full rollout of the mobile-first index. They are still testing now, and stated back in November that it was “months away.” If you have a responsive site, you probably won’t even notice when the full rollout happens. For everyone else, it’s wise to get started on the list of things for separate mobile versions or, better yet, begin building your responsive website.