Google has been providing us a heads up for many years about the importance of mobile friendliness, so it should not have come as a surprise when Google announced that it is shifting its search index to use the mobile pages of web sites to rank pages.

Testing started on this in November, and is set to launch globally in early 2017.  Although Google has said overall ranking impact should be minimal, those sites which have less or different content on their mobile version than on their desktop version may see quite an impact once Google takes only the mobile page in consideration.

Sites that have no mobile version at all should see no or little change; they will continue to undergo the same ranking process for desktop results and the same "not mobile friendly" dampening for mobile search as it does now.

A History Of Google’s Affinity For Mobile-friendliness

For nearly two decades Google has used the desktop version of websites to determine relevance and other ranking signals in order to populate its search index, however for the last 7 years we have started to see this shift.

  • 2009-2010: Early signs appeared that Google, would create universal indexing for mobile and desktop search results. As it began to follow a similar pattern seen in the early 2000’s when Google first combined video, image, and text search results.
  • 2011-2012: Google hinted at, and then went on record saying that the preferred method for crawling and indexing mobile content is through responsive design.
  • 2013: Google revealed further recommendations for making websites mobile friendly, which focused on responsive design, fast loading pages, and user experience.
  • 2014: Google introduced mobile friendly tags in its search results to make it easier for mobile searchers to find mobile optimized content, further stressing the importance of mobile-friendly design.
  • 2015: Google announced they would be expanding their use of mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal. This change affected mobile searches globally and had a significant impact on search results.
  • 2016: In early 2016 Google announced its plans for mobile-first indexing, and in November commenced testing. Google also launched Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) with the mobile searcher in mind.

Preparing For Mobile-First Indexing With Mobile-Friendly Design

For years Google has given preference to mobile-friendly websites in mobile search rankings, and making website’s mobile-friendly should have already been a priority in all SEO strategies. Content that’s not mobile-friendly doesn’t perform as well on mobile.

As more people continue to use mobile devices to conduct searches Google wants to make results more useful to mobile users.  Which means that Google will primarily use the mobile version of a site’s content to rank pages, even when searches are conducted on a desktop.

Here are three important considerations when preparing for the mobile-first indexing.

1. Responsive Design

Google's preference is responsive website design, which automatically adjusts the website to the screen size of the visitor. It is the method of design that provides the most consistent and optimal user experience, because it uses the same website content and the same web addresses across all devices.

This makes it more efficient for search engines to crawl a site, and also makes it easier for visitors to engage with and share content.

2. Website Speed

In 2010 Google announced that its next-generation architecture for Google's web search is the first step in a process that will let them push the envelope on indexing speed, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.

With Google acknowledging the need to crawl and index pages quicker to meet real time search demands, Google weighted load times as an element to rankings.

As mobile searches continued to increase Google is now working on adding mobile-specific page speed as a factor.

In both cases, desktop and mobile, we're talking about page speed as a dampening ranking factor, not a ranking boost: very slow sites get demoted but very fast sites don't automatically get promoted.

3. Engagement

Through user engagement metrics, and machine learning, search engines make assumptions about the relevancy of site content to a specific search and rank it accordingly. This includes a look at dwell times, the number of pages viewed, and bounce rates. Even if website content is relevant but the user experience is poor, it will create engagement signals that will have a negative impact on search results. As a result of poor mobile experiences, many websites have mobile engagement performance metrics that are lower than desktop. This could negatively impact overall traffic and conversions when the mobile-first indexing is launched.

Predicting The Impact Of Mobile-First Indexing

If your site is already responsive according to Google’s standards, there is not much you will need to change.  But you still want to compare your mobile performance to competitors, as well as your desktop to mobile performance, to understand the overall impact to rankings, traffic, and conversions. There are multiple data sets for you or your digital agency to look at to provide these insights.

If the content on your mobile website is different than your desktop content, then ideally you should be working to create a responsive website or otherwise include as much of your desktop's content on your mobile site as Google "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"