Google to emphasize mobile search index ahead of desktop version

Google has confirmed they are switching to a mobile first index.  This means that Google will be indexing the mobile versions of pages ahead of their desktop counterparts.

While the switch-over is still months away, Google is giving site owners a heads up that this change is coming.

Mobile search share has been steadily increasing and is now greater than 50% of all searches, and Google is acknowledging this with this strategic shift in search focus.

This is significant and has implications for website rankings and content presentation.

A Short Primer – What is Indexing?

When you do a Google search on your computing device, you are quickly presented with a list of ranked results that match your query.

If you think of the Web as one enormous book that is continually being updated, then the book’s index tells you where everything is located.  Google’s search engine references its index to determine the most relevant search results to be presented to you.

How does Google develop its index?

Google employs a huge computer array with a computer program (GoogleBot) that fetches and analyzes the billions of pages on the Web. The process begins with a list of previously identified web page URLs and is augmented with data provided by webmasters called sitemaps.

GoogleBot detects links on each webpage and adds them to its list of pages to visit (“crawl”). New sites, changes to existing sites, and dead links are reviewed and updated within the Google index.

Googlebot processes each of the pages it crawls in order to compile the index of all the words it sees and their locations on each page, including page content, page and paragraph titles and ALT tags (used to describe images).

How are web pages ranked?

All collected data is analyzed to determine a web page’s relevancy using over 200 factors, one of which is called PageRank. PageRank is the measure of the importance of a page based on the incoming links from other pages, with these links analogous to votes.

Not all links have the same weight – The best types of links are those that relate to the quality and relevance of your web page’s content.

Why the Change from Desktop to Mobile Indexing is Important

Many site owners take the desktop version of a page and make a lighter version for mobile. They may reduce the amount of text, remove structured data, have fewer links, all in support of faster page load times and easier-to-read content.

With Google doing a mobile first index, site owners will need to review what they publish on those mobile pages.  For example, if keyword-optimized content on your desktop version is not included on the mobile version, you could lose traffic to those pages for those keywords.

Impact on sites using responsive design

For sites that use responsive design and have the same content on both desktop and mobile should be fine with this change.  Content presentation (formatting, readability) should be checked to ensure a positive mobile user experience.

Long form content on mobile pages can be managed by creating bookmarks and anchor links to relevant areas to help guide users to those places that expand on the core content.

Even when using a responsive design, it’s still a good idea to see what Google thinks of your page using their mobile-friendly page checker.

Impact on mobile-specific sites

Site owners should check their mobile pages via the Google Search Console to confirm their pages are serving the correct content.

When using Fetch and Render, make sure to use the mobile user agent as the default is currently desktop.

Note that websites rendered “mobile-friendly” are re-arranged into a single scrollable column for mobile viewing. Watch out for displayed content may differ from actual site content and make the page content disjointed.

Structured Data

To keep the structured data for your pages in the search results for mobile, ensure that structured data appears on the mobile pages. Structured data includes logical data presentation including semantic markup, where you show page relevancy through the proper use of keywords in key page elements described in the indexing section of this article. Here’s the link to the Google structured data testing tool.

Links

Linking will be an issue for mobile-specific sites as most link building is still done to the desktop versions of the site, which leads to:

Your desktop content still matters

Your desktop website will still be indexed by Google but it will no longer be the first priority. The mobile index will be fresher, with the desktop version still indexed, but not as quickly.

Summary

Mobile search has become the dominant search avenue, surpassing desktop. Google recognizes this and is giving site owners and website developers a heads up that they will be prioritizing mobile indexing ahead of the desktop version.

Consider this a good time to review your company’s mobile site implementation and ensure that key site design features,  content and structure both support and improve your discoverability on the Web.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Bernie Schmidt is Founder and Lead Strategist for Profitable Conversions, a digital marketing consultancy focused on increasing lead conversion on B2B websites.