How to Survive the Mobile-First Indexing Era

Girl on mobile phone, scrolling through mobile search results

In our previous blog post, we showed you six common SEO mistakes people are still making in 2018. One of those was not having a mobile-friendly site.

Google switched to mobile-first indexing in 2018, meaning the search engine looks at the mobile version of your site to determine your search visibility—not at the desktop version. Many sites have already made mobile optimization a priority. The sooner you do the same, the better your chances of improving your search visibility.

Are you ready to take on the new world of mobile-first indexing? Find out what you can do to help fully-optimize your website.

Mobile-First Indexing

Google doesn’t use a different index of the web for mobile search, contrary to what some believe. The difference between mobile-first and desktop indexing is in the way Google crawls sites looking for data that will influence ranking. Google’s web crawling bot, also known as “Googlebot,” collects pages from the web to build a searchable index for Google’s search engine.

Googlebot knows which device a user is searching with. Previously, the crawler looked for a desktop device, then a mobile device. As of 2018, Google’s crawler now identifies a mobile device first—hence, mobile-first indexing.

Bridget Randolph explains mobile-first indexing really well.

She writes, “Mobile-first indexing is exactly what it sounds like. It just means that the mobile version of your website becomes the starting point for what Google includes in their index, and the baseline for how they determine rankings.”

Delivering the Mobile Experience

Generally, websites deliver a mobile-optimized experience to users in one of three ways.

  • Responsive Design: Think same URL, same HTML code for mobile users. Your website will automatically adapt to the screen size and resolution of whatever device someone uses to search. Google prefers responsive design because it requires minimal effort for the site crawler: there is no extra code to index and no additional URLs to crawl. Note, however, that responsive design may not be an adequate standalone mobile strategy.
  • Dynamic Serving: Think same URL, different HTML code for mobile users. Websites with dynamic serving identify the type of device someone is using to search (mobile or desktop) and deliver HTML code specific to that device. For example, if an Android user clicked a URL for your site, they would see a different layout than a desktop user would.
  • Separate Mobile URL: Think different URL, different HTML for mobile users. Some websites choose to create an entirely separate platform for mobile content, either from another subdomain or another subfolder.

Each of these approaches has its pros and cons, though responsive design tends to present the least issues for mobile sites. Regardless of which one you decide to implement, and even if your website passes Google’s mobile-friendly test, you should follow this technical SEO checklist to fully optimize your site for the mobile-first index.

1. On-Page SEO

This step mostly applies to websites operating with dynamic serving or separate mobile URLs. For these sites, you’ll want to ensure that:

  • Your title tags and meta descriptions are fully optimized.
  • Your pages have clear, relevant headings.
  • Your mobile content is the same as your desktop content.

2. Structured Data

Structured data within your website’s pages can drive rich snippets in search results, which could increase your click-through rate.

If your mobile site doesn’t contain the same content or structured data as your desktop site, you’ll lose out on opportunities for rich snippets. Implement the same structured data on your mobile site, then verify your markup with Google’s structured data testing tool.

3. Pagination

If your mobile website is paginated differently than its desktop counterpart for readability and smooth user experience—using infinite scroll rather than links to deeper pages, for example—then Googlebot might not be able to see past your first page of paginated content. If Googlebot can’t see your other pages, Googlebot can’t crawl them.

Use rel=prev and rel=next to paginate your content, and make sure you have pagination meta tags on your mobile site as well as your desktop site.

4. Internal Link Structure

When Google crawls your site, it looks for links within your site to follow and crawl. Internal links are therefore essential for search visibility, both on mobile and desktop sites. Due to the nature of mobile experience—the smaller screens, the touchscreen interaction vs. mouse and keyboard, etc.—mobile sites tend to have fewer opportunities for links to deeper pages. This can impact your mobile SEO.

An excellent method to determine whether your internal link structure needs work is by crawling both desktop and mobile versions of your site, then comparing them. You can do this with a cloud crawler like DeepCrawl, which is a program that shows you how the flow of link value differs between versions of your site.

If some of your deeper pages have much less visibility on mobile than on desktop, you may want to address this by improving your internal link structure.

5. The “Reasonable Surfer” Method

In 2004, Google patented the concept of a “reasonable surfer” when determining the value of a link. If a regular user would likely click on a link, that link should carry more ranking weight than a link which a regular user would probably not click on.

Based on a link’s placement within your site, its value to Google will change. A link in the main body copy of your website, for example, will influence your search visibility more than a link in the footer or the margins.

When you evaluate the internal link structure of your mobile site, also assess the location of these links on your mobile site. Are they hidden or unlikely to get clicks? Or are they prominent and very clickable? Your most important links should meet the “reasonable surfer” criteria.

6. Site Configuration

You could be ignoring some critical components of your mobile SEO. The following aspects of your site’s configuration might not influence user experience but could have a significant impact on your search visibility.

  • Robots.txt: Robots.txt files help Google’s web crawlers know which sites to index and which sites to ignore. Make sure your mobile site’s robots.txt rules are the same as your desktop robots.txt rules.
  • Redirects: Redirects send users and search engines to the right pages when you change or replace the content on your site. Check that all redirects from your desktop site transfer to your mobile site as well.
  • Crawl Rate: Google might increase the rate at which it crawls your site to find all of your mobile pages. Make sure your site doesn’t slow down as a result. Slow site speed is another one of our common SEO mistakes of 2018 because it negatively impacts both SEO and user experience.

The mobile-first indexing era is upon us. Is your website ready? With this technical SEO checklist, you can take steps to improve your website’s search visibility. If you’re unsure how to implement some of these steps, or you need help navigating the complex world of SEO, contact GPO. We’re happy to provide a free SEO audit to show you how your site stacks up against the competition.

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