Google has announced nothing less than the end of an era: Until now, a URL’s desktop version has been used as Google’s main index for evaluating websites and determining rankings. In the future, a site’s mobile version will be used. We look here at the most important questions and answers surrounding the mobile-first index – and provide an analysis of the pages in the US Google index which currently show the largest difference between their desktop SEO Visibility and their Visibility in Google’s mobile results.
The issue of Google’s main index has been discussed by the SEO industry for a while now – at least since Mobilegeddon in April 2015. Are there separate indexes for desktop and mobile? Or is there “only” one main index? Google has now clarified this issue in its Webmaster blog: There is still just one index, but its emphasis is changing. Until now, the desktop version of the page was used for Google’s evaluation. In the future, information will be drawn from the mobile version.
Four ways to prepare for the mobile-first index
1. Register your mobile page in the Search Console
If you have a separate mobile page and haven’t yet verified it explicitly in the Google Search Console, then now is the time to act. All mobile subdomains – with and without www – should be verified, to clearly communicate to Google the existence of a separate mobile version. Canonicals do not have to be changed; in the past these tended to direct to the mobile version from the desktop one. If you have a responsive page, whose main content and markup structure are the same for desktop as for mobile, then Google says you don’t have to do anything.
2. Use the mobile user agent to analyze pages
Around a year and a half has passed since Mobilegeddon, yet there are still countless URLs in the mobile search results whose mobile friendliness leaves room for improvement – even pages that have been labeled as mobile-friendly. Cookie messages, app download banners, newsletter interstitials: Google is sure to apply stricter evaluation criteria in this area in the upcoming months. This underlines the importance of using a mobile user agent to crawl your own website. This is true of the Search Console, but also for analysis and optimization tools like Page Speed, GT Metrix etc. Doing this will help to answer the following questions: How user-friendly is the page? Is the main content immediately available? How is the loading time? Do banners or interstitials impinge on the user experience?
3. Check your structured markup
In its announcement of the mobile-first index, Google emphasizes the importance of structured markup. In the past, there were presumably numerous websites which used either too many or inappropriate markup structures. Now “large amounts of markup” should be avoided, whenever these are not relevant for the specific document in question. This means: webmasters should check the markup structure of their landing pages – and ideally use one markup per page. The markup should consider what the page is primarily offering, be it products, a blogpost or recipes. This helps Google to identify the main content of the landing page more quickly.
4. Compare Desktop vs Mobile Visibility
Google is now set to judge websites according to their mobile versions – this further increases the necessity of assessing the performance of your websites in the mobile search results. Set up a monitoring program and compare the Desktop and Mobile Visibility of your online projects via Searchmetrics Suite.
Open questions regarding mobile-first index
Google’s webmaster post is detailed, but it still doesn’t answer all the questions. One is how exactly Google is going to recognize the main content on a page: Will this be measured by user behavior, by seeing how long people spend on a particular area of a page? Or will the main content be generated from the information which is visible above the fold? And could this mean that footer texts and links are no longer going to be included? And what if my landing page provides product advice and product offers at the same time? How will Google establish a page’s emphasis, particularly on a smartphone, where users tend to be impatient and expect to see all the key information straight away?
Another question which is yet to be clarified is how Google intends to address “hidden texts”. Until now, content elements could be collapsed or hidden to make it easier for users to view the page on a mobile display. Google would then rank these elements as less accessible and less important for the user. Google’s Gary Illyes has now stated that, in the mobile-first index, content which is hidden for UX purposes will still be weighted fully – this marks a clear change of course.
Possible indicators of which content Google considers relevant for specific content categories could be provided by changes in AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages). Since Google has now opened up AMP for “normal” web results, and no longer only lists news articles as AMP, John Mueller has confirmed that it is possible for any landing page to see accelerated performance on mobile devices – whether it have a commercial, educational or any other purpose.
Analysis: Mobile vs. Desktop SEO Visibility
Here we have analyzed the websites which currently show the largest difference between their Desktop and Mobile Visibility. If a page is much less visible in the mobile search results, and Google is set to use this version for its main index, then these websites could potentially see a drop in visibility in the search results displayed on all devices, including desktop. The list is based on data from the US Google index, and excludes domains which have recently seen large fluctations in visibility.
|Domain||Desktop Visibility||Mobile Visibility||Difference (absolute)||Difference (%)||Mobile-friendly?|
|Average||32,456||11,835||20,621||61.0%||76% not mobile-friendly|