Why Google’s Mobile Index Has Big Implications For Your Brand

UPDATE: Since the initial announcement made by Gary Illyes at Pubcon, Google has released new information via its Webmaster Central blog. This clarifies that, rather than being two separate indexes, the existing index will become mobile-first.

While this does not alter the principles outlined below in relation to a mobile-first approach to design and marketing, it does slightly alter some of the detail relating to how Google will assess and rank websites.

Chiefly, it is understood that websites which present an abridged version of a page to mobile devices are likely to lose visibility when Google’s changes come into effect. A mobile-first index means that the way Google’s smartphone crawlers assess a page will have a greater bearing on how that page ranks on all devices.

This does not change the fact that businesses which treat mobile as secondary will increasingly suffer in terms of their SEO performance.

Like clockwork, the advent of a New Year heralds a raft of experts predicting that it’s finally ‘the year of the mobile’. The problem is that, for most users, the year of the mobile has long since been and gone.

Rather than waiting for brands to get their house in order, Google is evolving towards a mobile-first approach to its search results. Businesses that live in a desktop bubble or don’t think mobile is important to their success are therefore likely to be in for a shock.

There are two key ideas which we will explore here:

  • What makes a website truly ‘mobile friendly’
  • Creating a mobile-first SEO strategy

First, let’s look at what Google has planned.

Google search is going mobile first

During his keynote address at the Pubcon conference in Las Vegas, Google’s Gary Illyes confirmed that a wholly separate index for mobile crawl data will soon be launched and that this will become Google’s primary index.

Google has long used a mobile version of its web crawler, Googlebot, which feeds data into a central indexing system. It is from this that its search results are generated.

This follows another recent announcement that page loading speeds, a factor within the ranking algorithm, will soon be measured separately for mobile devices.

These are major steps in an evolution towards a separate Google for mobile. The news that the new mobile index will be treated as the primary version, updating more regularly than its older desktop counterpart, shows in no uncertain terms where Google’s priorities are.

This change presents a number of challenges:

  • Mobile search results will increasingly differ to those on desktop
  • Google will be able to cater to needs on mobile devices within its search results to a greater degree than it already does
  • This has the potential to damage the visibility of sites that are not taking mobile seriously

This should be no surprise - it was nearly 18 months ago that Google confirmed that mobile devices had begun to overtake computers in terms of search volume. Just a few weeks before this, the first version of the search engine’s ‘Mobile Friendly’ algorithm had launched. This was designed to favour pages that offered a good user experience on a mobile device within Google’s mobile search results.

Google’s human evaluators have been provided with guidelines which have a strong focus on mobile. The AMP project is designed to speed up mobile browsing and provide a better user experience.

There is no doubt that the majority of Google’s efforts are now directed towards mobile.

This is being dictated by the different ways people use their mobiles to search. The obvious application is the ability to search for information on the move. Searches that would previously have required some level of forward planning, such as booking a table at a restaurant, can now be done spontaneously.

The immediacy of information means that people no longer need to wait until they get home before searching. This has enabled the rise of online price comparison while out window shopping, to name just one example.

Splitting out its operations in this way will give Google greater flexibility to cater its mobile search results towards these behaviours.

What makes a website truly ‘mobile friendly’?

Granted, most brands’ websites now meet a basic standard of usability on mobile devices. However, this is no longer enough. Many brands still treat mobile as a secondary consideration.

While responsive design has become the most common way of serving different devices, many fail to give proper consideration to the differences between mobile and desktop browsing needs.

This results in a ‘hack and stack’ approach where the site is designed primarily for desktop and this dictates the look and feel on a mobile device. Content blocks are simply stacked on top of each other to fit the narrower screen size, without any consideration for the users’ needs and interests specific to mobile.

Mobile-first is an approach where the creative design process starts by designing for mobile phone screen size first. Ollie Battams, Head of Web Development at Fresh Egg, states that:

‘By designing to mobile-first, you will be forced to make decisions about what is really important, and what needs to be focused on from a users’ perspective. You will make decisions that you would never be forced to make when designing for desktop first. The result is almost always a focused, cleaner, and more usable design.’

The thought process around the content is structured is also focussed on mobile screens first. At Fresh Egg, we believe that to make a truly mobile-friendly responsive website, the following techniques need to be considered:

  • Structure HTML for an adaptive website in order to optimize performance and prioritise flexibility
  • Write CSS that defines shared styles first, builds up styles for larger screens with media queries, and uses relative units
  • Write JavaScript to conditionally load in content elements depending on screen widths when the website is loaded
  • Using a good quality fluid, proportion-based grid that allows you to prioritise and restructure content to suit a specific mobile experience
  • Implement responsive images that only download optimised versions suited to a specific resolution and/or screen size
  • Make content easy to read without having to pinch or zoom to do so. This can be achieved by using the right fonts and sizes for text that suit the size of screen
  • Make sure that navigation designed and position intuitively and is easy to use on touch screens
  • Build your website to be light in size. Site performance is a key contributing factor for people abandoning websites because they are slow

As well as putting mobile-first thinking into place during the website design process, applying this principle to digital strategy is also essential.

Creating a mobile-first SEO strategy

A common feature among many of the businesses we speak to is how many of these think about desktop first and mobile a distant second when it comes to their SEO strategy.

This is going to have to change, and quickly. But what does mobile-first SEO mean in practice?

There is no one-size-fits-all in this respect. Different industries and markets will need to react in different ways depending on the specific needs of their customers. Understanding these needs is the first step.

For example, consider the following questions:

  • Do you know what days and times your target audience is most likely to search on a mobile?
  • What search phrases are being used on mobile? What do they indicate about what those people need?
  • At what point does mobile feature in people’s journey? Is it more likely to be the first interaction, or part of a longer engagement with your brand?

We use a process we call Audience Intent Analysis to analyse questions such as these and develop actionable strategies.

For example, within B2B markets it is not unusual to see spikes of relevant mobile search outside of business hours. For one client, we used search and analytics data to identify that this was happening during the morning rush hour – as people travel to work, they check up on the overnight news stories to ensure they are up-to-date before arriving at the office.

This insight has increased the client’s awareness of how important mobile is. Even though the total proportion of mobile traffic to their site is still quite low, it plays an important role in customer satisfaction and retention. This has triggered a reconsideration of how to prioritise content on mobile page templates.

Marketing strategies too often fail to account for specific behavioural triggers (what Google calls ‘micro-moments’) which lead people to Google while they are out and about. This results in content which does not serve users’ needs, and marketing activity which misses major opportunities.

For example:

  • Neglect of brand search and Google My Business optimisation can reduce the number of leads generated from people ready to engage with your brand
  • The growth of the AMP project is opening up new ways for brands to provide a high quality experience catered specifically to mobile
  • Lack of awareness of mobile behaviours can result in longer-form content where people are in fact looking for a very quick and concise solution

With Google soon to prioritise mobile search above its traditional desktop offering, it’s vital that businesses and marketing teams adopt a mobile-first attitude towards their websites and marketing activity. Failure to evolve will leave them trailing behind.

To discuss how Fresh Egg can help your business adopt a mobile-first approach to its digital strategy, please contact us.