Google has finally embraced mobile-first indexing, ending what little debate remained as to whether optimizing websites for mobile really matters.
For a while now, Google has made a series of not-so subtle hints and suggestions to businesses and webmasters everywhere that websites designed with the desktop in mind needed to work just as effectively when viewed on a mobile platform. With this recent announcement, Google has left no doubt about the direction the company is taking its search algorithm, and that the time has come for businesses of every size to get onboard.
As a digital marketing agency for small businesses, Local Fresh understands that keeping up with Google’s constantly evolving best practices for improved search engine results page (SERPs) rankings can seem daunting for many entrepreneurs. Fortunately, Local Fresh is here to answer the most common questions that many small business owners have about what to expect from mobile-first indexing.
How does mobile-first indexing work?
Let’s first take a step back to briefly look under the dashboard and gain a better understanding of how Google actually works.
Currently, there are over 1 billion websites on the world wide web. With so much content out there, how does Google actually know what webpages to display when a user in Oregon searches for say a “dentist in Portland”? Simple – robots!
Okay, well maybe not the R2-D2 type, but programs known as “bots” that individually examine each page on the web for content, keywords, and a variety of other factors. The bots crawl around your website following links, reading content; doing pretty much everything a real person would do that clicked on a link to your site.
The bots then compile and index the data gathered from your website, which Google uses in part to determine where a website will rank in any given search result. The more favorable an impression a bot has of a site, the higher it could potentially show up in a search result for a related keyword.
Now that you have the image of an army of robots scouring over every page of the Internet judging what they read, let’s talk about what mobile-first means.
Previously, Google’s bots looked over your website with the eyes of a desktop user. The data the bots collected was based on how a website would function on the largest screen possible, while ignoring how a website might function on a tablet or smartphone. This meant that as long as a website functioned well for users browsing on computers with laptop-sized and above screens, the website would receive a quality score regardless of whether the experience was the same for anyone searching the site on a mobile device.
In a way, this allowed some businesses and website owners to ignore the need to optimize their sites for mobile. After all, if Google wasn’t going to penalize you for having a website that only worked on some devices why spend the money to improve the overall functionality of a site if mobile search isn’t a big part of how you do business?
Unfortunately, that mindset has proven outdated. The number of mobile users actually outpaced desktop users back in 2014. That Google is just now addressing the fact that a majority of their users search using a mobile device actually suggests that the company is behind the times when it comes to how people truly use Google. Either way, we’ve already entered the era where mobile device use ranks as the most likely way a potential new patient, customer, or client will first interact with a business’ website. Failing to have a functional mobile website means risking the loss of potential new business simply because you failed to make a good first impression.
What happens if a website isn’t mobile compatible?
Nothing, in the short-term. While Google has announced the switch to mobile-first indexing, its bots will still examine your website as a desktop user – for now. “If you only have a desktop site, we’ll continue to index your desktop site just fine, even if we’re using a mobile user agent to view your site,” stated Google in their mobile-first press release.
This might seem like good news for businesses that have yet to jump onboard with mobile standardization. However, you should view this news as a temporary hall pass rather than as a permanent exemption. Google will continue to rank sites using both mobile- and desktop-indexing for now, but the company’s long-term plan is to make a full shift to mobile.
“Our algorithms will eventually primarily use the mobile version of a site’s content to rank pages from that site, to understand structured data, and to show snippets from those pages in our results.”
Google tends to make dramatic changes to their search algorithm that significantly impact businesses with little public notice. Entire industries have crumbled under the weight of just a single algorithm update (looking at you content farms) released by Google with no advanced warning. Just in September, an unannounced, unnamed update (since nicknamed Possum by the SEO community) dramatically changed local search results for millions of businesses. But in this case, the company is making very clear their long-term intentions and has uncharacteristically offered businesses numerous chances to get their websites up to date.
At this point, Google is basically like a high school English teacher that keeps extending the due date of class a term paper. Google has given you every opportunity to get it done, and if you don’t hand it in on time you’re going to fail.
What impact will mobile-first indexing have on search results?
Will mobile-first indexing dramatically change the nature of search results? Probably not. Sites found on page 10 of an organic search result are unlikely to jump up to number one. But here’s the catch – no one really knows.
Google Webmaster Trends Analysts Gary Illyes and Paul Haahr have both stated publicly that they don’t expect mobile-first indexing to have a significant impact on organic search results. However, they’ve both also added that it’s far too soon to know for sure. Google is still beta testing many of their mobile indexing bots, and they plan to slowly unleash more to crawl across the web throughout 2017 as they continue to refine the code.
“We’ll continue to carefully experiment over the coming months on a small scale and we’ll ramp up this change when we’re confident that we have a great user experience,” stated Google.
What we can feel fairly confident about, however, is that not having a mobile compatible site will cause a website to score poorly for certain keywords. After all, if a bot visits a site that shows only partial or incomplete content, you can’t expect to receive as high a score as you would from a desktop-first review.
How can a business prepare to make the switch to mobile optimization?
If your small business website isn’t ready for the current shift towards mobile-first indexing, there’s definitely a few steps you can take to immediately improve your site.
Here are a few tips to get you started that come directly from Google’s mobile-first announcement.
- Run a mobile friendly test to determine if your website is optimized for mobile use. Even if you don’t expect your site to pass, running this test will help you identify areas where you need immediate improvement.
- Look over Google’s mobile guide for additional information on the best optimization practices.
- If your site configuration displays different content on mobile devices that it does on desktop devices, you may want to change it so you display the same content across both platforms.
- Site owners that have only verified their desktop site in Search Console need to add and verify their mobile version as well.
- If you’re in the process of building a separate mobile site, don’t rush the site’s release date. It’s better to wait until your mobile site is fully functional rather than launch it too soon in anticipation of mobile-first indexing.
Fortunately, it will take Google some time to make the change to mobile indexing, so you have some time. Just make sure you’re doing all you can to optimize your site for mobile.
How can Local Fresh help?
As a digital marketing agency for small businesses, Local Fresh has the experience, knowledge, and skill needed to help you meet the challenge of mobile-first indexing. From mobile optimization to web design, our team of local website developers will help you meet Google’s new standard for website functionality and responsiveness.
Don’t feel helpless when it comes to meeting the demands of mobile marketing. Click here to find out more about how Local Fresh is the right marketing and web development solution for your business.