Mobile-First Design Tips for Google’s Mobile Index

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Key Points
  • The number of daily searches performed on a mobile device outpaces desktop searches.
  • Google is currently testing a mobile-first index to match the increased demand for mobile-friendly sites.
  • Webmasters can learn how mobile-friendly their site is by using Google’s Search Console and Developer Tools.

One of Google’s main goals is to improve the user experience for all searchers. Since the majority of search activity now occurs on mobile, you must have a mobile-first design to perform well in the SERPs!

Historically, Google’s algorithm evaluated the desktop version of a site to determine rankings. In addition, Google maintained a separate mobile index that gave sites with mobile-friendly design a moderate boost. However, on November 4, 2016, Google announced it was experimenting with a mobile-first index.

This shift should come as no surprise to many digital marketers since Google hinted at the possibility of a mobile-focused algorithm several times in the past. In 2015, the search giant announced that mobile daily searches had finally outpaced desktop. Additionally, a comScore report showed that mobile users drive most of the digital growth and desktop is clearly a “secondary touch point.”

AMP vs Mobile-First Design

The mobile-first index isn’t the only mobile-focused test coming from Google’s camp: Accelerated Mobile Pages, or the AMP Project, aims to deliver content to users at lightning–fast speeds.

The AMP Project serves a cached version of a webpage directly in the SERPs to speed up load time. However, if your website isn’t responsive or doesn’t have a mobile-first design, then Google will only index the desktop version.

In other words, Google won’t index mobile-friendly AMP pages.

So what does all of this mobile news mean for webmasters and digital marketers? Let’s explore:

Why is Google Testing a New Index for Mobile-first Design?

The answer is simple: the majority of users are now on mobile.

To succeed in a mobile-friendly SEO world, you must think more holistically about your SEO strategy and user experience.

Enterprise SEO combines content, technical performance, off-site SEO and analytics to craft a user-focused experience that drives traffic throughout the marketing funnel.

Does Your Site Have a Mobile-first Design?

Not sure if your website has a mobile-friendly design? There’s actually a very simple test to find out:

Search your site on a smartphone.

Admittedly, mobile user experience is a somewhat subjective. However, you can still tell if your site looks and functions properly on a mobile device. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Does your site load quickly?
  • Can you scroll easily?
  • Are clickable elements easily navigated with a finger?
  • Do you have to zoom in or scroll left and right to read text?

You can also use several tools to test your mobile-friendliness. First, use the robots.txt testing tool to verify that Google can access and crawl your mobile site. If Google cannot access your site, then you should submit and verify your mobile site in Search Console.

Additionally, use Chrome DevTools’ Device Mode to emulate what the SERPs and your site will look like across multiple devices.

What if You Don’t Have a Mobile-first Design?

Don’t panic if you don’t have a mobile version of your site. Google will still crawl and rank the desktop version of your website. However, you should still prioritize responsive design site or a dynamic serving site.

Google prefers the content of a site to be the same (or close to it) across mobile and desktop, so a responsive design or dynamic serving site will accomplish that goal. If you do develop a dynamic serving site, be sure to use the Vary HTTP header to signal your site changes depending on the user-agent to Google.

How to Optimize for a Mobile-first Index

Here is an introduction to a few technical elements to optimize with mobile-first in mind:

Helpful Tools

In addition to the tools already mentioned, the mobile usability report in Search Console shows you how mobile-friendly your entire site is.

Improve Load Speed

Frankly, mobile users are demanding. Many users want quick answers on the go. So if your pages take more than 2 seconds to load, then you can expect to see a high bounce rate.

Regularly test your content with Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool. Another tool powered by PageSpeed Insights is ThinkWithGoogle’s Test My Site tool. It analyzes how mobile-friendly a specific page is, not the whole site, and presents an interactive report that shows you how to improve the page. The report can also be emailed to you.

In order to improve your page speed, you may need to optimize images, remove unnecessary code, and reducing the number of redirects on your site. Both PageSpeed tools provide a more in-depth, technical report of other changes to make.

Update On-page Elements

Obviously, the SERPs are smaller on a mobile screen. Search your high-priority keywords on a smartphone and pay attention to the results Google returns. How is the mobile experience different from desktop?

Update your meta tags if they are too long and don’t properly display in the mobile environment.

Remove Intrusive Interstitials

Do lead generation popups load when a user arrives on your site? These popups, or interstitials, may be easy to close on desktop, but can be detrimental to a good user experience on mobile.

Starting on January 10, 2017, Google will devalue a site if it’s bogged down by too many intrusive interstitials. (Google is looking at you, “No, I prefer to pay full price” popups).

However, since Google cares about mobile user experience, it would be wise to address aggressive interstitials before the mobile-first index fully rolls out.

Develop Mobile-friendly Content

Don’t wait until the end of a project to ask the question: “how does it look on mobile?” Consider mobile functionality from the beginning of an idea through its implementation. Most mobile users navigate their phones with one hand and in the vertical (or portrait) orientation, so scroll through your site in the same way to troubleshoot any potential user experience pitfalls.

Lastly, how does your content display on mobile? You’ll need to be much more concise because of the smaller screen real estate. Don’t just think about text, either.

How does your website visualize data, maps and other interactive content modules? One look at these visual content statistics will convince you of how important they are. Therefore, you may need to get creative with your development and design team to think of new ways to display your content.

Above all, improved user experience is the catalyst that dictates almost all of Google’s changes and iterations to their algorithm. As a digital marketer, make user experience the nucleus of all of your projects — on-page and off-page — for better rankings and results.