By Jonathan Griffin. Editor, SEO Consultant, & Developer.
Google teased on the 13th October a new change to how they will be crawling the web, with their new Mobile-first Indexing update. They have now officially announced the change.
Currently, Google indexes the desktop version of the webpage but serves a mobile version for those searching on a mobile device. In the future, Google will reverse this process and index the mobile version first. This has significant implications for those who may have streamlined mobile versions of their pages.
Google spokesperson, Gary Illyes, has hinted a few times over the past year that a separate mobile index was in the works, but that they are having some issues getting it to work.
This is primarily because of the loss of “tokens” or data that happens between mobile websites and desktop websites due to the more streamlined mobile versions.
It would seem that they have overcome this issue with the separate mobile index by changing to a mobile-first indexing approach rather than having two separate indexes. However, as you will read later in this article, Google has not ruled out different indexes just yet.
Over the past week, SEO’s have been grilling various Google spokespersons on Twitter, revealing some useful insights to the new update. This, coupled with their official announcement post, provides enough information to prepare yourself for this update adequately.
According to their announcement, more people are using Google on a mobile device than on a desktop. Unfortunately, Google uses the desktop version of the website to evaluate its relevance to the user and ultimately decide on its ranking position.
According to Google:
This can cause issues when the mobile page has less content than the desktop page because our algorithms are not evaluating the actual page that is seen by a mobile searcher.
To resolve this dilemma, Google has begun experiments to make their index mobile-first. Their search index will continue to be only a single index of websites and apps. Still, their algorithms will (once fully rolled out), primarily the mobile version of the website’s content to rank pages, assess structured data (remember, when using structured data it needs to be visible on the webpage), and to show snippets in the search results.
Google said in the blog post that while their small-scale experiments will continue over the coming months, before ramping up the change once they are confident of excellent user experience.
To help webmasters prepare for the upcoming change (which has currently been rolled out in a few select locations), they have provided some guidelines to follow:
#1 If your Mobile and Responsive website are the same
If your current responsive website or your dynamic website currently have identical content and markup for both your mobile and desktop version, you should not need to change anything.
#2 If your Mobile and Responsive website are not the same
If you have a website where the primary content and markup is different across mobile and desktop, then you will need to make changes to your website:
#2.1 Structured markup
Google recommends that you should:
- Implement structured markup on both your desktop and mobile versions.
- You should test both versions of your website (where you have a separate mobile version) in the Structured Data Testing Tool, and compare the output.
- When adding structured data to a mobile website, avoid adding large amounts of markup that isn’t relevant to the specific information content of each document tool to verify that your mobile version is accessible to Googlebot.
#2.2 Canonical Links
In the announcement post, Google confirmed that:
- Websites do not have to make changes to their canonical links; we’ll continue to use these links as guides to serve the relevant results to a user searching on desktop or mobile.
This was confirmed in a later tweet by Gary Illyes:
Currently, Google recommends that you set the rel=“canonical” to the desktop version of the page and set the mobile version as the rel=“alternate.”
Gary Illyes responded to a tweet about this very issue, in effect confirming that they are endeavoring to work out a solution at their end, rather than requiring webmasters to make changes to their website.
#2.3 Website Verification
For those of you who have a separate mobile version on your website and that website is set up on its own subdomain such as m.yourdomain.com, you will need to make sure that the subdomain is verified in the Google Search Console.
Here is what Google said:
- If you are a website owner who has only verified their desktop website in Search Console, please add and verify your mobile version.
Gary Illyes responded to a tweet confirming that you would not need to re-verify your responsive website, as this would just use the same domain \ URLs as your standard desktop website.
#2.4 No Mobile or responsive website
If you are one of the few websites that don’t currently have a mobile version of your website and have not implemented responsive styling, then don’t worry. Google will still index your site, but they will view using their mobile crawler.
- If you only have a desktop website, we’ll continue to index your desktop website just fine, even if we’re using a mobile user-agent to view your site.
Obviously, with the Mobile-friendly ranking boost, and for user satisfaction, we would recommend implementing a mobile version of your website without delay.
Gary Illyes spoke out on Twitter to calm fears among those without a mobile version:
#2.5 Don’t launch mobile website before it’s ready
Google provided a warning against rushing to roll out the mobile version of your website before it is fully complete. Otherwise, your website will be based on that broken version.
- A functional desktop-oriented website can be better than a broken or incomplete mobile version of the website. Do not launch your mobile site before it is fully ready.
While not covered in Google’s announcement post, there has been some discussion online as to whether it will affect where backlinks should be pointed to (this applies to separate mobile websites, rather than responsive sites). For instance, do you now link to the mobile version of your website?
#2.7 Hidden content on mobile
Many mobile website versions will hide various parts of the page to make it more user-friendly. Because you are only able to rank based on the content on your mobile version, it now requires an entirely different approach.
In other situations, rather than remove the content in its entirety, mobile versions may hide some of the content behind Tabs or Accordions. According to Gary Illyes, this is ok, and that content should have full weight:
However, one word of warning. Gary Illyes confirmed back in July 2015, that if the content behind the tabs is dynamically generated, rather than just hidden, then Google will not see it:
No, we (Google) won’t see the content behind tabs iff the content under the tab is dynamically generated (i.e. not just hidden).
You can also see what we “see” using Fetch as Google in Search Console (former Webmaster Tools); read more about the feature in our post titled Rendering pages with Fetch as Google.
#2.8 Google Ranking Factor Boost
We have already spoken at length how websites with a mobile version of their website (get a small ranking boost in the mobile SERPs.
Gary Illyes confirmed that this would not change.
Despite this, what is clear is that if your mobile version is less optimized for Google than your desktop version, it will be, by its very nature, a negative effect on your rankings. Therefore, one could argue that the importance of a mobile version has now increased.
We are not sure how Google will treat websites with no mobile version, but we did cover elsewhere in this article that Google will still rank the desktop version just fine. This implies a desktop version is better than a poorly implemented mobile version, even if that mobile version passes the mobile-friendliness test.
#2.9 Separate Indexes for Mobile and Desktop
We indicated at the start of this article that Google has not ruled out having separate indexes for both mobile and desktop. However, while there might be some experiments to this effect, it is clear from some of the tweets by Google spokesperson, Paul Haahr, that the indexes will not be separate in the strict sense of the word.
Here is what he had to say:
#2.10 Page Speed
While Page Speed has been a ranking factor for some time, it has primarily just penalized websites that are extremely slow, rather than boosting very quick websites.
Back in June 2016, the issue of webpage speed becoming a ranking factor in the mobile-friendliness test was raised with Gary Illyes. While he confirmed that it is currently the plan to implement such a ranking factor, he refused to comment further:
Fast forward to November 2016, and he commented further that adding speed as a ranking factor to the mobile results was proving harder than anticipated:
This is something to have in mind when developing your website.
#2.11 H1 & Title Tags
If you have a separate mobile website, you may have optimized your Headings and Title tags more for the user than for the search engines. For example, they may be shorter.
Unfortunately, if you took this approach, then you will need to revisit your pages and make them more search-friendly.
Here is what Gary Illyes had to say:
It is further complicated by Google showing different lengths of titles between both the Google mobile SERPs and the desktop SERPs.
With mobile title tags being around eight characters longer, it opens up some options, but then it is more likely to be truncated or rewritten if you exceed 70 characters.
We suspect Google will need to aim for some parity between the two versions during its testing.
What impact will the new Mobile-first Indexing Update have on webmasters?
At the moment, Google confirmed that because the testing is in its early change, webmasters should not notice any effects on their website.
Google’s Gary Illyes also confirmed that when it does finally launch, they would be aiming for minimal changes to search rankings:
When the mobile-friendliness boost was first announced back in February 2016, everyone predicted Armageddon, so we wouldn’t be surprised if there was some element of scaremongering over this.
Fortunately, that previous mobile-friendly update turned out to have minimal effect on the rankings, due in part to the fact that many webmasters implemented a mobile version of their website before it launched.
We suspect, the majority of webmasters who already have a responsive website will need to take no actions, and only those with a streamlined mobile version or those with some more complex structured data will need to make some minor changes.
Mobile-first Indexing FAQ
- Will I have to change my site for Mobile-first Indexing update?
If your mobile and desktop Website are the same, then no. If, however, your mobile and desktop are different, then you may need to consider changes. Google will rank your website based on your mobile version.
- Will I need to change my canonical links to the mobile version?
No, Google has confirmed that they will try to deal with this at their end. However, you should keep up to date on current news regarding this update.
- Will the Mobile-First indexing update penalize my site if I don’t have a mobile version?
Google’s Gary Illyes has confirmed that they will still index your desktop version of the site as normal.
- Should I build backlinks to the mobile version of my website?
At the moment, Google is unable to say whether you should start building backlinks to the mobile version of your website. They are still considering the matter. If you are concerned about this, we recommend implementing a responsive website rather than a separate mobile version.
- Will Google see hidden content on my mobile version?
Google confirms that they will take content hidden behind tabs or accordions into account unless it is dynamically generated.
- Will the Mobile-first indexing update provide a ranking boost?
Gary Illyes confirmed that there would be no ranking boost from the change. You still get a boost for Mobile-friendly websites.
- Will google have separate indexes for Mobile and Desktop?
In a strict sense, there will be just one index. However, they are still undertaking experiments, so the specific treatment of mobile SERPs and desktop SERPs has not been finalized.
- Will page speed become a ranking factor for mobile websites?
Google is currently trying to implement a ranking factor in the mobile SERPs based on page speed. However, Gary Illyes has confirmed that it is proving difficult to implement.