Google’s Mobile-First Indexing: Your Complete Guide
After years of promising it, Google has officially rolled out mobile-first indexing. If this is news to you, h’oh boy, we have lots to talk about.
This shift towards mobile-first indexing has been in the works since 2016, which is right around the time that mobile web browsing surpassed desktop browsing. It makes a lot of sense. Most users will rate your site based on your mobile experience, so why shouldn’t Google?
The writing is now very much on the wall: Your mobile site needs to be as good as your desktop site, or better. That doesn’t just mean SEO optimization. Your mobile site always needs to be fluid and flawless for user experience (UX) and conversion rate optimization (CRO).
What You Need to Know About Literally Every Google Update… Ever
I don’t care if we’re talking about mobile-first browsing, or the Possum, or the Penguin, here’s what you need to know: Your work isn’t done after this.
Success in SEO is never achieved, it’s merely maintained. So, once you have a nice fast and functional mobile site, the work isn’t finished. You need to maintain it.
If you don’t, your mobile site may pass the test today, so to speak. But, as the months roll on, you’ll wonder why it’s not producing any traffic or leads and why you’re not ranking for any of your keywords.
It’s about being proactive with your website as opposed to reactive. With any major Google update, you have to understand the history of algorithm updates to prepare for the next wave and what is likely ahead.
How to Build a Mobile Site That Ranks
Does meeting Google’s mobile requirements mean you will rank? Absolutely not!
Just because your site meets the initial standards of mobile-first browsing does not mean it will rank! Think of it as taking a test and getting a 65%. You passed, you didn’t fail, but you’re not exactly crushing it.
It simply means that your site doesn’t have any of the major issues (more on this later) that Google deems cumbersome to mobile users. This does not mean you’re guaranteed to rank now, because your mobile site may have some of the countless other issues that kill any site’s SEO every single day. Google isn’t going to warn you about those… but we will.
Here are the 2 major things that will keep your mobile site from performing or ranking, even if it’s “optimized” according to Google’s published mobile standards:
1. Slow Site Speed
When we first sit down with a new client, I tend to do a bit of an SEO pre-audit of their site so we can talk about what needs to be done. I can confidently say that 7 out of every 10 new clients we speak with have a speed issue. And nearly 100% of those people are surprised to hear it.
It can come as a shock if you don’t know that you need to be pruning your content and optimizing your speed every couple of months.
Clients will say, “But we just had a designer look at this a year ago.” We tell them that maintaining your site speed is an every-few-months thing, not a once-a-year thing. You need to audit your site to ensure:
- Your images are compressed and optimized
- You don’t have unused WordPress plugins weighing you down
Since the site was built, rebuilt, or optimized, you’ve probably added a year’s worth of content. Maybe none of the images were ever compressed and all of a sudden you have a ton of pages that aren’t loading quickly.
Even We Were Fooled About Our Site Speed!
Here’s something that we discovered the hard way: Don’t just run a speed test on your home page. You need to run it across the board!
Most people (us included) will just do site speed tests for their home page. They don’t do site speed tests for their top-rated blog post, which may have 3 gifs, 4 videos, and 10 images. And they don’t run a site speed test for their top product page or their top service page.
They’ve optimized the home page, which is lean and fast. But they didn’t do it on any of their internal pages or any of their blog posts. It’s a huge blown opportunity and can fool you into thinking your site is faster than it is!
Use These Tools to Ensure Your Site is Fast
Now that you know that you need to check your site speed (and not just the home page) every few months, here are the tools that can help you do it.
First of all, monitor and test your site using one of these tools:
GTMetrix.com: Gives you insights into how to fix speed issues on your site.
Page Speed Insights: Very helpful for web page loads on desktop vs mobile.
Pingdom: See how your website compares against other websites that have previously used the tool.
Yes, we know we just scolded you for having too many WordPress plugins. But, you do need a cache plugin for your site, such as:
- W3 Total Cache
- WP Super CacheSpeed Booster Pack
- WP Rocket
You’re also going to need something to compress your images like Smush.it. This plugin allows images to be compressed on upload and also allows you to bulk resize images that are already in your library.
2. No Simple Calls to Action
The essence of User Experience (UX) design is that a misplaced button or Call-to-Action (CTA) can cost you half of your traffic or leads. In mobile design, your ‘Click to Call’ button or your ‘Request a Quote’ button is an even bigger deal. You have a little screen and you need to be optimizing that user experience for that screen.
Most people are out and about when they’re looking at your site. They’re on the go, they’re on the train. If your CTA isn’t easily visible and clickable right at the top of the page, front of mind, you’ve already failed. It’s really that simple. They are literally holding the device they need to call you. Why would you make it hard for them to do so?
I don’t care how flashy your website is or how enticing it is, it all comes down to user experience. You have 10 to 15 seconds (if you’re lucky) to get that lead. If you can’t show them what they’re looking for in 1 or 2 thumb swipes, they’re moving on. And they will most likely move on to your competitor’s site. You just handed that lead over to “The Other Guys.”
In the web world, people argue about using this shade versus that shade of blue on the button, or where the placement should be. It’s not about the art anymore, it’s about the accessibility. You need a big phone number, and a clear ‘Click to Call’/ ‘Request a Quote’ button. Boom. It’s that simple.
Google’s Most Frequently Flagged Mobile Issues
Not sure if your site is ready? Don’t worry, Google will tell you if you’re not. Google will be notifying webmaster to let them know they’ve taken a preliminary crawl of their site and things need to be improved for mobile-first indexing.
If you do need to make any changes, it will more than likely be one of the following issues that Google frequently flags:
The Problem: The Touch Elements on Your Screen are Too Close
We’ve all encountered this. We try to tap a button on the screen and accidentally tap another because they’re too close together. It’s annoying. We all hate it and so does Google.
Think of everything we just said about the importance of your CTAs in the previous section. You can’t have people trying to hit your ‘Call Us’ button and hitting the ‘About Us’ button by mistake. This will agitate your users, cause them to bounce, and absolutely murder your conversion rate.
You need good spacing and appropriately-sized buttons so users can tap exactly what they want without trying to pinch or zoom in.
Follow Google’s guidelines for sizing and spacing your elements.
The Problem: Your Videos Don’t Play
Does your site have a video that won’t play on a mobile device? Does an error pop up that invites the user to save this video to a playlist and watch it on a desktop later? Guess what? Literally nobody will do that. They will just leave your site instead.
Your videos may not play because of license-constrained media, or because of issues with Flash, or you’re using a player that isn’t widely supported on mobile devices. In any case, a dead video is a black hole in your mobile user experience.
Try Google Web Designer. It makes it easy to create these animations in HTML5, which will play easily in most mobile browsers.
The Problem: Your Interstitials or Overlays Block Everything
Are your mobile visitors greeted by a pop-up that takes up their entire screen? That kills the user experience before they even see your content, as they’re immediately frustrated and try to click it away to access the actual website.
Whether it’s a CTA to sign up for your newsletter or download your mobile app, Google doesn’t want it intruding, or limiting access to the rest of the site.
Google recommends a simple and browser-supported app such as Smart App Banners for Safari, or Native App Banners for Chrome. Or you may consider a smaller HTML banner or image.
The Problem: Your Font Size is Too Small
Do your users have to pinch or zoom just to read what is on the page. Using a small font is not a mobile hack that allows you to fit more text on a small space. It actually hacks up your user experience.
Follow Google’s guidelines for text and copy on mobile sites.
The Problem: Faulty Link Redirects
There are really two URL-related breakdowns in the user’s journey experience. They click a desktop link from their mobile, and:
1. They get redirected to the home page, no matter what
2. They get a 404 screen
In either case, Google recommends you use responsive web design to ensure the same content is served up for both smartphone and desktop users. You should also configure your server to redirect mobile users to the equivalent URL on your mobile site.
At the same time, you will also want to make sure your user-agent detection is correctly configured, if you’re using dynamic serving.
Google also recommends that you should keep your visitors on the desktop page, instead of sending them to your mobile site’s homepage, because, “Doing nothing is better than doing something wrong in this case.”
Your site’s robots.txt file may disallow crawling of those assets, which prevents Google’s algorithms from indexing your content properly. This will hurt your rankings
Here are your options:
1. Leverage Google “URL Inspection tool” to see exactly how the bot will see and render your pages.
2. You can also test your robots.txt in Search Console.
3. Try their Mobile-Friendly Test to spot any number of potential issues.
4. If your site is using separate URLs (which Google advises against) for your mobile/desktop pages, test them both to ensure that your redirects can be recognized and crawled.
How to Add More SEO Content to Your Mobile Site
You need more SEO content, BUT you don’t want to sacrifice user experience, BUT you want to have increased dwell time, BUT you don’t want to sacrifice conversions… It’s a classic toss-up.
When you’re laying out your web page, you can’t just forget about SEO. Some people may say, “It’s mobile and all we have is this little screen to work with. I don’t want our users to have to scroll for five hours to read our site.”
Fair enough. But, on the flip side, if you don’t have any SEO content, you’re not going to rank.
There is a happy medium and I would recommend:
The Top Third of Your Webpage:
This is your Call-to-Action. Your big full-width image with a ‘Request for Quote’ button or whatever CTA you’re using. This is just standard web design UX.
The Second Third of Your Webpage:
This is sort of your sales-meat, if you will. This is where you have your three to five icons and your speaking points or offer. This could be where you put your social proof, with your awards badges, your ‘As Featured in’ badges, or some testimonials.
The Bottom Third of Your Webpage:
Then, on the bottom third above the footer is where you can slap in your extra-rich SEO content. My recommendation for the best mobile experience is to have a dropdown menu with a ton of content in there.
You want a block of content, with an image on one side and a little header. Now we add a ‘Read More’ button, and bam, you can add 500 to 750 words of really SEO-rich content with very strong contextual interlinking. This is very, very, important for SEO.
Another trick we like to use is adding a spot for Frequently Asked Questions, or FAQs. You can have a FAQ on your homepage as a dropdown. That is another great way to add SEO-rich content, with lots of great opportunities for links.
A Timeline of Google’s Mobile-First Browsing
We were warned! Google first announced the shift towards mobile-first way back in 2016. It has been rolled out in various phases ever since then.
Here’s how it happened:
Friday, November 04, 2016
Google officially announces they are moving to mobile-first indexing as a way of evolving along with all of our searching and browsing habits.
Google doesn’t commit to any hard deadlines or timelines yet, but they say, “We’ll continue to carefully experiment over the coming months on a small scale and we’ll ramp up this change when we’re confident that we have a great user experience.”
They provide an early list of things to do to prepare. This is essentially the first mass message that gives business owners and webmasters a chance to plan for what’s ahead.
Monday, December 18, 2017
A bit more than a year later, Google confirms that they have started slowly rolling out mobile-first and testing selected sites’ readiness.
It’s been over 12 months since their initial announcement, but they say they’re doing things properly and giving site owners plenty of time to adapt, stating:
“We continue to be cautious with rolling out mobile-first indexing. We believe taking this slowly will help webmasters get their sites ready for mobile users, and because of that, we currently don’t have a timeline for when it’s going to be completed.”
This serves as a bit of a kick in the pants for webmasters who were taking their time to get their site mobile-ready.
Wednesday, December 19, 2018
Almost exactly one year after the last announcement, Google says they are going to start notifying websites that have been switched over by contacting webmasters via Search Console.
Monday, March 26, 2018
They announced that mobile-first indexing is now being rolled out more widely, and that they have started to switch over websites that follow their best practices guide.
Tuesday, May 28, 2019
This was a big step forward. Google announced that mobile-first indexing will be enabled by default for any new sites (Any sites that were “previously unknown” to Google Search. Meaning never crawled) as of July 1, 2019.
They added, “For older sites, we’ll continue to monitor and evaluate pages for readiness, and will notify site owners through Search Console once they’re ready.”
The thinking here is that most new sites built these days are pretty much mobile ready… or at least they gosh darn better be!
Google’s John Mueller tweeted that, “Most new sites seem to work fine on mobile. If you’re creating a new site that doesn’t work on mobile devices, I suspect you will have a bad time regardless of SEO 🙂”
Mobile-First Indexing Means Mobile-First Planning
A few years ago, building a new website meant starting with the desktop site and treating the mobile experience as a bit of an afterthought. You would look at lots of desktop-sized mock-ups, without anyone really worrying too much about how this will all look on a mobile.
You can’t do this anymore. Period. If you’re planning a new site, or redesigning your existing site, you need to start with the mobile site first, because that’s where Google will look first.
This represents a major shift in thinking in how the typical web design process has worked for years and years. However, this is the new norm. Your design strategy and your SEO strategy need to be built for mobile right from the very start.
Google has been predictably tight-lipped about exactly how much weight is being given to which elements. However, there are a few things you can always count on:
- Someone dwelling on your page for a while is always good
- Someone clicking a CTA or any link on your page, also always good
- People bouncing from your site quickly without doing anything is always bad
These are the pillars of good SEO, whether you’re designing your mobile site or your desktop site.
Don’t mistake the July 1st deadline as the day Google flips a giant switch and mobile-first indexing is suddenly turned on. Mobile-first is already here! The July 1st deadline is simply when mobile-first becomes the default on new sites. And most new sites should be built with responsive design and mobile users in mind.
Have your webmasters been contacted about mobile-first browsing? Are you looking to do more than just meet the minimum requirements? You can take this as an opportunity to actually improve your SEO clout by following the steps and tips we’ve outlined above.
If you want to have a deeper conversation about mobile SEO, please feel free to contact me here.