Google’s move to mobile-first indexing is under way, but there’s still a lack of clarity in a number of areas.

Remember that with mobile-first, Google’s going to be primarily crawling and indexing the mobile version of your website, and using that to determine rankings. This is an idea that Google first mooted in 2016 but has only recently started cautiously rolling out, with plenty of testing to make sure things run smoothly. 

Here are some of the issues that people are still asking questions about.

1. With so many fully responsive websites today is mobile-first really a big deal?

Many sites today use responsive technology, which means their pages automatically adapt to the device they’re viewed on – whether a desktop or mobile screen. It’s really only those sites that rely on a separate mobile subdomain that are going to be most affected by mobile-first. So why all the fuss?

The problem is, there are still plenty of sites that have separate domains. And it’s usually the bigger and longer established ones that do. For example: m.ebay.com, m.facebook.com and m.wikipedia.org! 

While the big brands such as Facebook, eBay and Wikipedia, will obviously have invested heavily in ensuring they are ready for mobile-first, others with mobile subdomains will still have work to do. They may have been focusing more on optimising their desktop sites (as until now Google has had more a ‘desktop-first’ strategy). And they’ll need to ensure their mobile version contains everything (content, structured data, meta, images etc.) the desktop version does – and to ensure it’s all optimised for mobile. It could all add up to a lot of work.

2. What will mobile-first mean for the value of external and internal links?

Links are still one of the cornerstones of Google search. The search engine looks at how websites are linked to each other in order to help determine rankings (sites with more recent high quality backlinks from relevant high authority sites are more likely to rank higher). It also relies on links as the basis for web indexing i.e. it needs links to find, index and rate as many websites as possible.

But the role of links after mobile-first is not yet sufficiently clear. We know that Google will eventually focus mainly on crawling and indexing mobile websites. So, if a site has separate desktop and mobile domains and the main desktop site has more backlinks (which is often the case), will Google no longer be acknowledging those desktop links? And importantly for marketers, will those links no longer help to provide a ranking advantage?

3. Should you now have exactly the same content for both mobile and desktop users?

With the introduction of mobile-first, many digital and content marketers are assuming that the best strategy is for desktop pages to be identical to mobile. But is that really true?

After all, content on a desktop is consumed differently. On larger desktop screens, users are comfortable consuming more content elements and more detail. People expect a richer experience and might be more ready (and expect) to digest content in greater depth than when viewing short snippets on the move using their mobiles.

On phones its possible (and helpful for the user experience) for webmasters to offer certain content optionally – for example ‘hidden’ behind tabs or accordions that users have to click. There might even be certain content elements that are considered less relevant (or unnecessary) to show to mobile users (sometimes because of where they may be in the consumer journey). 

The significant thing is – even with the introduction of mobile-first – it’s still going to be important to think about creating content for both mobile and desktop users, and to provide an optimised experience for each. And in ecommerce and retail especially, devoting resources specifically to the desktop content and user experience is going to remain key, because desktop sites still enjoy higher conversion rates than mobile sites.

4. Which KPIs are important for mobile SEO?

Another question that people are asking is how mobile-first will change which KPIs are important for SEO. Let’s start with the similarities – many of the mobile SEO KPIs are identical to the desktop KPIs. Where are my pages ranking? How is the technical optimisation of my site? Is the site accessible, is it fast and can the content be crawled easily by Google?

But especially for mobile, one of the most important KPIs (that webmasters can already measure) is what percent of my pages are already being crawled by the mobile Googlebot or crawler. Also, how often Googlebot comes and crawls the mobile pages is an important indicator of how Google ‘sees’ the site. These factors depend a lot on the size and freshness of your pages, but the more the mobile bot is visiting your site, the more “interest” Google has in the mobile version of your website.

5. Can we relax after mobile-first or are more big mobile search changes coming?

Mobile-first will very definitely not be the end. Google has already told us to expect the Google speed update in July which will make page speed a ranking factor for mobile searches. And some experts are predicting an even wider adoption of Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) – a Google initiative that’s all about providing a faster, more mobile optimised experience on media sites – across non-media sites. In fact Google has already confirmed that 60% of search AMP clicks go to non-news sites and Searchmetrics’ own data also backs this up.

But there’s another very interesting development in mobile search that could be next big thing: Progressive Web Apps (PWAs). These are a cross between responsive sites and mobile apps and you might think of them partly as an attempt by Google to react to the growing importance of content in mobile apps (which is harder to crawl and surface in search results).

PWAs can be crawled by Google, have the look and feel of native mobile apps and use caching technology which allows pages to load quickly even with a weak connection – but they don’t require users to actually download an app. They react quickly to user interaction (e.g. no delays when scrolling down the page) which helps deliver a high quality app-like experience. And they work on any device or mobile operating system.

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