When the May 2020 Google Core Update rolled out and search results stabilized, the analytics left marketers worldwide unhappy.
Mobile-First Indexing in 2020
As of July 2019, Google has enabled mobile-first indexing as the default. This is big news for marketers as we are now able to optimize specifically for mobile knowing that this is what Google and our users will see first. The featured snippet, or position 0, is also going to be pulled from mobile-first indexing and that is a major opportunity to snag traffic and rise in the ranks.
More than 60% of people are using their mobile devices over a desktop or laptop to search for things online. Additionally, voice assistants like Alexa, Siri, and Google Home are rapidly increasing in usage. This means that for search engines like Bing and Google to keep up with the rapid-fire demand of accuracy in searches, they too have to evolve with the times.
Due to the fact that we all now have mini-computers in our purses and pockets, we are able to access the internet at all times of the day. We are seeking out and consuming more information on the internet than ever, and technology has to keep up with demand. Not only are we searching more, but we are also working from our phones, paying bills, shopping, checking social media, and so much more. Mobile is the new frontier and Google recognized the shift and moved with the changes.
Mobile-first indexing is a trend in digital marketing that Google has initiated, but one that will likely become standard across all search engines in the near future.
What is Mobile-First Indexing?
Mobile-first indexing uses a website’s mobile pages for indexing. The mobile version of the site, that is.
For all new web domains as of July 1, 2019, mobile-first indexing will be the default. Older websites may have some issues around this, but optimization can be done to update for mobile-first.
Why Mobile-First Indexing Matters
When it comes to mobile devices, smartphones are the standard and mobile browsing is now a part of everyday life. To be most effective, brands need to make sure their web presence aligns with this behavior. Gone are the days of “mobile-friendly” as an additional feature. The mobile version of the site is now the literal money maker.
New websites are generally ready for mobile-first indexing, and Google’s smartphone Googlebot has been working hard behind the scenes to index from mobile first for over a year. By the end of 2018, more than half the sites on the internet were already indexed by the smartphone Googlebot, and now we are full-on mobile.
Several years before Google announced mobile-first indexing, it started to boost the ranking of mobile-friendly sites as well as introduced a feature to measure the page speed on mobile. This natural evolution to mobile-first has been many years in the making as Google watched mobile users grow by the day.
Taking a proactive approach and streamlining for Google’s mobile-first indexing will save you time, money, and ranking on Google. This is a great opportunity to refresh the site and re-engage with customers who may have bounded off due to the mobile site being too difficult to navigate or not even populating in search results.
If the site is already responsive, this is a great place to start. The content that is there will respond to a smaller screen and likely already be somewhat optimized in the direction of mobile-first. If the site is older or a mobile version was never created, there are still ways you can optimize for mobile-first indexing without feeling like you have to start over from scratch.
Google stated: “For existing websites, we determine their readiness for mobile-first indexing based on parity of content (including text, images, videos, links), structured data, and other meta-data (for example, titles and descriptions, robots meta tags). We recommend double-checking these factors when a website is launched or significantly redesigned.”
Dynamic serving and separate URLs for mobile websites are still supported, however, Google recommends responsive web design for new sites.
How to Optimize for Mobile-First Indexing
The mobile-first era is upon us and regardless of the nature of your website (restaurant, health care, tech, blog, etc) optimizing for mobile-first indexing is absolutely vital. To help you optimize your mobile site and maintain or increase traffic, follow these best practices:
Maintain Focus Above the Fold
Mobile users are accustomed to the near-endless scrolling on sites. With responsive sites, everything is more compact, but the layout will be different than a desktop version, which focuses heavily on the content above the fold. The importance of the content above the fold is not lost to optimizing for mobile-first indexing, however.
Maintaining focus above the fold on mobile will engage the user and give them a reason to scroll.
Expand Beyond Just the Mobile User
Mobile users are former desktop devotees. Just because everything is moving to mobile doesn’t necessarily mean that all users are necessarily ready for the shift. As the merge between mobile and desktop continues, many desktop users are still looking for the wide-open spaces and simple navigation of the desktop, but in the palm of their hand.
If you change everything too quickly, you could be doing your traffic and your users a disservice. Create a holistic approach that feels like a merger rather than a complete takeover.
Always Use Responsive Design Techniques
Responsive design will never be dead, and the techniques that were implemented for mobile still ring true. In the mobile-first era, responsive design uses media queries to display resolutions that the design will support. Between designs, you have a “breakpoint” that defines where the responsive design transitions.
This is important to implement in place of the m.website.com for mobile sites. You’ll also be using the most updated technology, which makes the smartphone Googlebot very happy.
Increase Site Speed with Code Rather Than Images
Site speed is a major player in traffic and conversions. Users will “bounce” off a site within 3 seconds if it’s loading too slow. Three seconds is a tiny amount of time to capture attention and encourage the user to stick around, and that means doing anything you can to increase site speed it a must.
Think in code rather than in images for simple things like backgrounds and colorways. Rather than upload an image, code in the backend of the site to display the same desired look. This alone won’t increase site speed a ton, but multiple images will surely add up and decrease site speed well beyond that golden 3-second window.
Customize WordPress for Mobile
WordPress has plenty of plug-ins for mobile optimization that are customizable. If you have a new site, there are even more available to you that are already mostly built-in. If you have an older site, installing a plug-in that you can customize for mobile is going to save the day and your traffic this year.
Some provide functionality for increased compatibility. Some of the best plug-ins are Duda Mobile and W3 Total Cache. You can also find plug-ins for minifying HTML and CSS.
Maintain Content Consistency Between Mobile and Desktop
Cloaking is something you definitely don’t want to be accused of by Google. Cloaking refers to the practice of presenting different content or URLs to human users and search engines. Cloaking is considered a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
Maintaining content consistency across all URLs and versions of the site will keep you in the clear and help the smartphone Googlebot properly index your site. Responsive design and a style sheet is the easiest way to keep content consistent and minimize work.
Don’t Use Intrusive Pop-Ups
Interstitials are those pop-ups that verify age or generally have free offers when you land on a site. These can become intrusive and difficult to navigate on mobile, sometimes rendering the site completely inaccessible. This is not only annoying for the user, but it makes them leave the site because they get stuck on a pop-up that they can’t close. This is bad for business and bad for customer loyalty.
Also, Google penalizes for intrusive interstitials so it’s important to follow their webmaster guidelines.
Stop Using Flash Video
This seems like an obvious one since Flash was discontinued to make way for HTML5, but there are still some sites that are using it and it must end. Flash is dead, and Adobe is abandoning Flash in 2020. There is a permanent security risk with Flash that is at its fundamental functional level.
The Issues with Mobile-First Indexing
Google has identified two main challenges or issues it sees when evaluating sites for mobile-first indexing. Now that this method is the default for Google, it’s important to understand how these issues affect you and your website.
However, just because this is now default doesn’t mean that your site is without issues and is being displayed to the user correctly. Additionally, if your site is not using responsive design, it’s likely that you are experiencing these two issues identified by Google.
Missing Structured Data on Mobile Pages
Structured data is a standardized format to mark up the information about the web page. It helps Google, Bing and other search engines understand what the web page is about. Structured data is also commonly used by search engines in position zero or rich snippets to provide an improved visual experience.
When this is missing from mobile pages in the mobile-first era, this important information is not crawled by search engines and ranking and traffic can plummet. If there is structured data on the desktop version, it needs to be on the mobile version as well.
You can test the versions against each other to ensure the structured data is present on both desktop and mobile.
Missing alt-text for Images on Mobile Pages
Screen-readers are an important part of the internet for people with impaired vision. Available on mobile as well as desktop, alt-text is very important to include on images to describe to the user what is being shown.
Alt-text makes it easier for search engines to understand what is happening on the page and index correctly, as well as conveying the images to the user. You can check the “IMG” tags in the source code for the mobile version. You can either use a desktop simulator for the mobile version or use Google’s mobile-friendly test to see what the version Googlebot has rendered.
How to Check for Mobile-First Indexing
Now that we are in 2020 and Google has had a solid amount of time to index the entire internet (what a feat!) your site should have been indexed for mobile-first and you will have received a notification from Google.
If you haven’t you can still look manually to see what shows up. Google’s URL inspection tool will tell you what was last indexed. You’ll want to look for “Googlebot Smartphone” as the answer in the “crawled as” field.
Thriving in The Mobile-First Era
These changes are major and will have an impact for a long time to come. Optimizing for mobile-first indexing will surely help your traffic and conversions in the long run as this is the new standard for Google. Bing seems to be far behind that grand leap, but with Google owning an overwhelming majority of the search engine market, they truly do set the standard.
Thriving in the mobile-first era is easy, you just have to know what you’re doing and, more importantly, what not to do. Working with a professional digital marketing company will make all the difference in your SEO, PPC, and UX. At Pico Digital Marketing we can help you optimize for mobile-first indexing and work through any issues that arise in ensuring your site is fully functional. We get excited about changes like these and we love the challenge of bringing an out-of-date website up to snuff. Get in touch with our professional team and we’ll help you make the changes your site needs to boost traffic and conversions.