Since mobile searches overtook desktop around 2014, Google has long talked about building a separate index for mobile pages. However, in November of last year they announced that their “search index will continue to be a single index of websites and apps”, they then went on to say that Google’s algorithms would eventually use the mobile version of a site’s content as the primary ranking benchmark.
So, when can we expect the roll-out of the mobile first index? The move isn’t likely to happen in the first quarter of 2017, and is likely to be phased in as it may require changes to websites as mentioned by Google’s John Mueller on a Google Webmaster hangout back in December.
What we do know is that Google will begin to send alerts to webmasters via Search Console, for mobile-first issues such as mobile pages showing less content than their desktop counterparts or markup inconsistencies.
Mobile First Issues
The first challenge for a website to be ready for the mobile index is ensuring the optimal mobile configuration is setup. Opting for responsive design is the ideal setup, and most websites have already implemented this as a transition away from separate mobile sites. It avoids the issues of having to manage different content and links on your mobile pages.
Metadata & Internal Links
If you have an AMP site, you can reference it with both mobile rel alternate and rel AMP HTML, please note that you also need to add AMP links to your mobile pages and not just your desktop pages. Also bear in mind that mobile-first indexing will use the links on your mobile pages for calculating the internal linking graph.
Another issue to take into consideration is metadata. If you have canonical and rel alternate tags on desktop, these won’t need to be changed. Google will figure out the connection and reverse it on mobile. However, mobile pages will still require structured mark up data, and hreflang tags which previously had to be on the separate desktop pages only.
“75% of Multilingual Websites Have Hreflang Implementation Mistakes”
Source: Search Engine Journal
Even after mobile-first, desktop versions of your pages are still likely to generate links rather than mobile pages. Backlink equity will be transferred to your mobile page from the separate desktop, so it shouldn’t have any impact. If your site is responsive this won’t be an issue.
Primary visible content on mobile, desktop and AMP pages should be the same according to Google, only the navigation elements can be different. Currently, Google gives a lower weighting to content which is hidden in tabs, and content below the fold. This is set to change when mobile first indexing rolls out, and will no longer apply.
Although speed is a huge factor in improving the user experience, Google currently does not use page speed as a ranking factor. Only pages which timeout after 3 minutes will not be indexed. However, Google’s transition to a mobile first world indicates that they will consider adding page speed to rankings in the future.
Google have recently rolled out the mobile interstitial penalty which targets pages that make content less accessible. However, they can be used in certain situations if used responsibly or in response to a legal obligation. The penalty is calculated in real time as pages are crawled, and Google will continuously improve the interstitial classifiers over time as they find more examples.
Mobile First Testing
The easiest way to test correct configuration for mobile first indexing is to fire up Search Console and use the fetch and render tool selecting smartphone as the user agent. You can also use the Mobile Friendly Testing Tool, and the AMP Testing Tool to show you the content Google will use for the mobile-first index. Be sure to use the structured data testing tool as well to compare structured mark up.
You can also test using a website crawler like Deepcrawl or similar, these powerful tools will generate comprehensive reports on mobile configuration, including dynamic pages, separate mobile pages and hreflang tags on mobile pages.
With the imminent roll-out of the mobile-first index, there’s a host of factors to take into consideration for SEOs. To summarise, the main points to takeaway are as follows:
- Identify mobile configuration of your site (responsive, separate url and dynamic)
- Replicate mark up and hreflang tags
- Analyse content and internal linking differences
- Test set up and prioritise attention to mobile pages