Google’s Mobile First Index: What It Means for the Future of SEO

Searches on mobile devices grow higher every year. In 2015, there were more searches on mobile than on desktop – a first for the industry, and a sign of the booming mobile user base.

Shifts such as these result in big changes from Google, and nothing feels the effects more than the world of SEO. As of late, Google has been increasing their efforts to provide better mobile experiences for their users. The most recent of these is the mobile first index.

Google began experimenting with the mobile first index in early November. This experiment will divide desktop and mobile results, allowing Google to primarily use the mobile version of a site rather than the desktop version to rank it. This brings up two important questions the SEO industry has to ask:

1. Why is Google making this change?

The mobile first index can be seen as a direct response to the way people use Google these days. Users mostly search on mobile, and many times they get sub-optimal results due to scaling issues, obtrusive ads, etc.

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Source: Search Engine Roundtable

Google has released another user-focused features such as Accelerated Mobile Pages, which streamline the kind of sites users encounter to ensure good mobile experiences. Now, with the mobile first index, Google is applying that same concept into the results they show. The second question is a bit more complicated:

2. How will the mobile first index affect the future of SEO?

Google is constantly changing things up, which always makes for an exciting, if sometimes hectic, time for the SEO industry.

But when something like the mobile first index appears – something with the potential to make serious waves in the industry – everyone must prepare for the impact. To deal with the impending changes the mobile first index will bring, we must first identify the most likely aftereffects. Additionally, we need to make a few educated guesses as to how it could affect what’s already in place.

Don’t walk into Google’s mobile first world blindly. Position your business to benefit the most from it, and you’ll set yourself up for success.

The Mobile First Index Will Significantly Impact Certain Sites

We’d like to start our analysis with a word of warning: Your site may need heavy revisions before the mobile first index rolls out fully. Because the new index will split desktop and mobile results, any site that isn’t prepared to deal with these changes could be in for hard times.

  • Searches performed on a mobile device will no longer show results for desktop, and vice versa.
  • Mobile will become Google’s primary index.

Two types of sites in particular will have difficulty:

Desktop sites without a mobile version may run into trouble once the mobile first index takes full effect. Once it becomes the primary index, Google will begin indexing your website using the mobile Googlebot, whether it’s a mobile version or desktop version.

Although Google has said it will “continue to index your desktop site just fine” even if you don’t have a mobile site, you might not show up as well in the new index. However, Google also says a functioning desktop site “can be better than broken or incomplete mobile version of [a] site.”

That’s good news, but really this is just a “better than nothing” outcome, as even a working desktop site can be better than a half-baked mobile site. Ideally, what Google wants is a functional mobile site to better serve the large mobile user base.

Different mobile and desktop sites are also a cause for concern. Google says issues occur when “the mobile page has less content than the desktop page,” as the algorithms can’t properly evaluate the actual page the user is looking at. The solution is to have the same content and structured data across both mobile and desktop sites. If your mobile site has less content than your desktop, it might not rank as well once Google fully switches over to the mobile first index.

Both types of sites are ill-equipped for Google’s mobile future. Failure to make the necessary changes could have drastic consequences for your business’s online success.

So how can you prepare for the future of SEO in a mobile first world?

We highly suspect the following trends will become apparent once the mobile first index fully releases. Take steps to change them now; we think the full release will happen sooner than later.

Increased Importance on Page Speed

As of late, many sites have prioritized increasing their page speed to improve the user experience on mobile and desktop. However, since websites typically load more slowly on mobile devices, ensuring an acceptable page speed on mobile sites will be even more critical.

Kissmetrics says users will completely leave a site if it takes longer than 3 seconds to load. This is a huge issue for mobile, as users demand near-instant results. They want to order the goods or services without running into any major hurdles. With the mobile first index, fast page speed is set to become the deciding factor in getting prospective customers to choose your site over your competition’s.

Increased Role of AMP

Accelerated Mobile Pages, also known as AMP, could see more usage after the release of the mobile first index. AMP offers fast, streamlined versions of pages specially suited for mobile devices.

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Source: Search Engine Land

These pages can appear within the normal Google search results, as well as in distinct content carousels that offer up timely or relevant information. AMP pages are available in a number of popular search categories such as news and recipes, and Google is working on implementing even more.

It’s likely that AMP will continue to play a major role in providing a fast and user-friendly experience as Google continues to push their mobile narrative.

At the time of this writing, AMP is not yet ready or suitable for wide adoption, however, this will likely change as improvements are continually made to the framework and plugins available. So if you haven’t built any AMP pages yet, you still have time to implement them before they become a real game-changer.

Increased Emphasis on Structured Data to Prominently Feature Results

Structured Data will be critical to make your mobile result stand out above the competition. Structured data organizes your mobile site’s data to be more digestible for Google’s crawlers, which could allow your site a higher position in the search results.

With structured data, Google can feature your site in article carousels, rich cards, and other prominent search results. These placements in the results can give you an edge over the competition, as they can make your page visually stand out from the “10 blue links” people are used to seeing.

Optimizing for Longer Title Tags

When a user initially performs a search query, the title tags are the primary element that gets them to click on your site. They are the first thing a user sees when viewing the results of their query, and they can make or break a user’s interest on whether to click it or not. Right now, title tags are slightly longer on mobile SERPs compared to desktop SERPs. It’s possible that title tags will be optimized to 70 characters moving forward instead of the 60-65 we’re used to.

Longer title tags may actually help you with Google’s mobile initiative because they help you show more information about your pages. An extra 5-10 characters may not seem like a lot, but if you use them to enhance your landing page, you can draw customers in with strategic, targeted wording. For certain pages like product listings, the extra characters could be enough to add a “free shipping” label. Mobile users looking to snag a good deal would see that label and be more inclined to click.

Links Will (Likely) Still Play a Major Role

Links are known in the SEO industry as the most significant factor in Google’s ranking algorithms. However, links don’t quite have that star treatment on mobile.

Google has said people link out less often to the mobile version of a URL compared to a desktop version. And since the majority of sites use responsive design these days, the implications of a mobile first index don’t appear to be a game-changer to links and their importance as a ranking factor.

On the other hand, don’t think that links will see a decrease in use with the onset of the mobile first index. Gary Illyes recently said on Twitter that it was hard to rank without links.

He later clarified, saying that external links “translate in some sense to popularity and endorsement by others.” So Google will still look at external links to offer up the best results to mobile users. Without such a filter, users will get less than optimal search results, and Google wants to avoid this outcome at all costs.

Heading into the Google’s Mobile First World

Change is unavoidable in the world of SEO, but you need to have a plan for the mobile first index. To meet the changes head-on and secure a successful SEO future for your site, you need to have the right preparations in order:

  • Functional desktop and mobile versions
  • Fast page speed
  • Structured data
  • Strategic title tags
  • Healthy, natural links

Google has not said when the mobile first index will fully roll out, but this first “experiment” was released mere weeks after Google announced the mobile and desktop split.

In all likelihood, Google will continue to tweak it until it’s ready, and even then the final version will undergo many changes to refine it and improve it for users.

One thing’s for sure – the mobile first index will bring significant changes with it. Will you be ready when it arrives?

Note: The opinions expressed in this article are the views of the author, and not necessarily the views of Caphyon, its staff, or its partners.

Author: John Caiozzo

John Caiozzo is an SEO Analyst at SEO Inc., one of the top Search Engine Optimization companies in the world since 1997. John specializes in creating advanced technical SEO solutions and strategies to drive more traffic and conversions to client websites.

3 thoughts on “Google’s Mobile First Index: What It Means for the Future of SEO”

  1. One more thing I would add to this is the important of benchmarking. Brands and Agencies should be benchmarking performance right now so that when the mobile index hits they know the impact it is having on their websites. Without this in place it will make it increasingly difficult to highlight the affects that the new index has had – be it positive or negative.

  2. I’ve been experimenting with AMP, Schema for Structured Data and other things you mentioned in this article for awhile and have noticed some difference in rankings. Like you mentioned, these aren’t necessarily ready for wide adoption, but is this where you see Google is going in the next few years where these factors are the standard for SEO? It’s so hard to tell right now, but love your insight. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Mobile first index will soon become a reality. But AMP and structured data have begun to show positive results in website rankings. We did a few tests on three websites and AMP ready pages show improvement.

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