How will Google's anticipated mobile-first index affect your search visibility?

In the world of digital, great user experience is essential. And no one knows this better than Google. Back in 2011, Google’s Panda algorithm update changed the way it ranked websites, judging them on content quality and trustworthiness, and penalising sites that didn’t fit the bill. The update permanently changed the face of SEO, with marketers scrambling to rethink their digital marketing strategies.

So, what does Google’s next algorithm update have in store for search? Well, Google have stated that their anticipated mobile-first index shouldn’t have a big impact on rankings. However, there are a few factors which could see your website drop down in the search engine results pages (SERPs). Here’s everything you need to know about Google’s mobile-first index, to ensure you retain your search visibility when the next update comes into effect.

What is Google’s mobile-first index?

Set to launch at the end of 2017, Google’s mobile-first index will rank websites based on their mobile version of content, even when users are searching on desktop. Currently, Google crawls the web from a desktop browser point of view, however when the mobile-first index is implemented, Google will switch to crawling the web from a mobile browser perspective.

So, why the switch? Well, last year the number of mobile searches overtook desktop searches for the first time. Now, Google are looking to improve their own user experience, optimising their search engine to fit the needs of the most people.

However, as you can imagine, the mobile-first index throws up plenty of questions for SEO marketers. Are non-mobile responsive websites about to disappear from the SERPs? What should SEO agencies be doing to ensure their clients’ sites aren’t affected? Although the mobile-first index is still in its testing phase, Google claim that the impact shouldn’t be too dramatic. Some, however, may need to make a few changes before the index is rolled out.

The impact on SEO

For websites that are already fully mobile responsive, and for dynamic serving sites where the primary content is equivalent across mobile and desktop, you shouldn’t need to do anything when the new index comes into effect. Websites that aren’t mobile responsive already don’t rank well under Google’s current algorithm, so if your website isn’t mobile-friendly, making it responsive should become your first priority.

Currently, Google indexes desktop content and displays the results for both desktop and mobile users, before applying a mobile-friendly boost for mobile optimised content. Under the new mobile-first index, Google will index mobile content and display it in listings for both desktop and mobile users. Then the mobile-friendly ranking boost is applied just like before.

Managing dynamic serving sites

If you have a separate mobile site, you’ll need to ensure that it has just as much content as your desktop site. According to Google, this is where many of us could get caught out. If your primary content is rather thin on your mobile site compared to your desktop equivalent, Google has advised that you might need to make some changes to ensure your rankings aren’t affected by the update.

What changes should I make?

If your desktop and mobile sites aren’t equal, making a few changes will help to protect your rankings before Google implements the mobile-first index. Here’s a quick checklist you can use to optimise your website for mobile-first.

  • Ensure your website is serving structured markup for both desktop and mobile. You can verify their equivalence by copying the URLs of both versions in this Structured Data Testing Tool and comparing the results.
  • Verify your mobile site is accessible to Googlebot by using the txt Tester Tool.
  • Keep in place any existing canonical tags as Google will use these to serve appropriate results to users searching on desktop or mobile.

Google also advises that a fully functional desktop site is better than an incomplete mobile version. So, for those wondering whether they should quickly develop a mobile site, Google stresses that it’s better to only launch a mobile site when it’s fully operational.

With mobile becoming ever more prominent in the way we consume digital content, Google’s shift towards a mobile-first ethos is sure to pave the way for the rest of digital marketing. Clearly, we all need to be thinking mobile-first.

Are you looking for a Manchester digital marketing agency to provide you with a complete and forward thinking SEO strategy? Get in touch today to find out how we can improve your search visibility.