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Mobile-first index set to be the way forward for Google

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According to industry chatter, Google has been testing its mobile-first index live within its search results in the last few weeks.

The company first announced the new index back in November 2016, as documented by Barry Schwartz from Search Engine Land. In a Google Hangout on 3rd October, John Mueller announced that Google is rolling out the first phase of the new index and is starting to experiment with live results.

What does ‘mobile-first’ mean?

Google is always working around the clock to improve its UX, and in recent years part of their mandate has been to acknowledge – and act upon – the shift towards mobile search.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few years, you’ll be more than familiar with the latest stats surrounding desktop vs mobile searches. To recap, Google itself has claimed that more than 50% of search queries on a global scale now come from mobile devices; an independent report conducted by Hitwise claims that this figure is actually nearer 60%. Either way, mobile is changing the way we search for information, and as it’s Google’s job to cater for the majority, it seems logical that they should update their algorithm to better service mobile users. Part of this involves evaluating the usefulness of a page according to what can actually be seen by a mobile user.

Google has traditionally always crawled web pages as if it were viewing them from a desktop browser. But at some point in the near future, bots will only look at page content as if it were being accessed from a mobile phone or tablet.

What’s interesting is that, up until now, Google was reassuring webmasters that if they didn’t have a mobile version of their website, the algorithm will automatically consider the content in the desktop version instead. Now, it’s becoming clear that their long-term plan is to shift to a mobile-only rating system and do away with desktop indexing completely.

This potentially has huge implications for webmasters, and specifically companies, who have not yet invested in a responsive design for their website.

How the index will be introduced by Google

As you can imagine, this move has sent some website owners into meltdown, but there’s really no need to panic. Yet.

Google is renowned for keeping schtum about its updates these days. However, in this case, company figureheads such as Google Webmaster Trends Analyst Gary Illyes have not only been confirming that mobile-first is happening, but they’ve also giving SEOs an idea of when we can expect it to happen. This transparency has already gone some way to easing anxiety amongst publishers (and, perhaps more importantly, online businesses who rely on search for sales and enquiries).

Responding to concerns that webmasters may not have time to adjust their websites before the changes come into play, Illyes has been quick to emphasize that the roll-out won’t immediately hurt sites that are not yet mobile friendly.

“[It could be] several years – maybe five years – before we reach an index that is only mobile-first,” he said at the recent SMX Advanced conference in Seattle, USA. He also mentioned that Google’s engineers’ initial goal for the launch was 2017, but this is now more likely to be 2018.

Barry Schwartz has suggested that “Google will roll out the first batch to pages that are equivalent between desktop and mobile,” softening the below further. And when it comes to talking to the web about what’s in development, his opinion is that “Google will likely begin some level of communication, be it via blog posts, direct communication and/or Google Search Console notifications for those who have issues.”

So, the mobile-first index is definitely on its way, but Google is going to be actively walking us through the changes.

Why is this important for businesses?

This long-overdue change in the way that Google assesses and ranks websites means that having a mobile-responsive platform is no longer a matter of choice – it’s absolutely essential if you want to perform well in organic search.

The official advice from Google is to prepare for the rollout by following the below steps:

  1. Get your responsive site ready.
  2. Configure 301 redirects on the old mobile URLs to point to the responsive versions (the new pages). These redirects need to be done on a per-URL basis, individually from each mobile URL to the responsive URL.
  3. Remove any mobile-URL specific configuration your site might have, such as conditional redirects or a Vary HTTP header.
  4. As a good practice, set up rel=canonical on the responsive URLs pointing to themselves (self-referential canonicals).

 

Depending on the state of your current website, these steps may just represent the tip of the iceberg. If you need help developing (or redeveloping) a responsive website, Freelance SEO Essex can help.

Our team will be happy to talk you through your options and make sure your business is 100% ready for Google’s new mobile-first index.

Visit our web design page for more information, or contact us directly.

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