Google’s 2017 Mobile-First Indexing: What Does it Mean for Your Site?

Toward the end of 2016 Google started experimenting with a mobile-first index to be rolled out in the new year. One month into 2017, Nina Hale takes stock of the changes and looks at how marketers and businesses can adapt to, and embrace, a mobile-first reality.

Background: What is Mobile-First Indexing

Google rolled out its first, much-anticipated, mobile algorithm April 21st, 2015. Since then the search engine has operated with two separate algorithms—one for desktop results and one for mobile.

While many factors obviously cross platforms – content quality and relevance, backlink profile, specific technical elements – each algorithm weighs factors differently based on their device-specific impact. The mobile algorithm weighs its own factors, for example: does a site fit on a mobile screen without the need for right-to-left scrolling? Are touch elements on a site’s pages large enough and spaced appropriately for optimal use on a smaller mobile display?

In November of last year, Google announced it was beginning to experiment with mobile-first indexing. Instead of using separate criteria (separate algorithms) for desktop and mobile search results, a site’s mobile experience (user experience, technical implementation, content) would be the primary focus of Google’s algorithm and used to order its search results regardless of the device used to access them.

How Does Mobile-First indexing Affect a Site’s Performance in Search Results?

Mobile-specific content and technical factors will become even more important to a site’s ability to rank well in search. Offering users a site-experience that is not mobile-friendly will now affect results across all devices, not just mobile results.

Site elements that heavily impact mobile experience include:

  • A mobile-optimized experience (preferably a site that employs responsive design or at least an alternative mobile-specific (m-Dot) site
  • The spacing and size of clickable elements on the page
  • Site speed
  • Content structured in a way that makes it easy to consume on a mobile device

Current Status: What Do Marketers Need to Know Now?

After beginning early testing in November 2016, initial indications suggested a full roll-out for early 2017. However, Google is now indicating that they are still in the testing phase. Most users are still being served the desktop index on desktop while others are seeing mobile-first results. Ultimately, if Google deems the mobile-first index to provide the best user experience (and most expect they will), they’ll make the switch to mobile as their primary algorithm.

Even with a wider roll-out of a mobile-first algorithm, webmasters should expect to see the algorithm altered and tweaked over time. For example, Google’s Jon Mueller has indicated they probably won’t factor in your site’s speed on mobile initially. However, site speed is crucial to user experience on mobile and something all sites should be conscious of moving forward.

While Google has given no exact date for when the switch will be made, webmasters anticipate the roll-out will occur sometime after the first quarter in 2017.

How Can Marketers Prepare for the Mobile-first Index?

If a brand has already made strides to improve a site’s mobile experience ahead of the mobile-first algorithm shift, the work certainly wasn’t in vain. Google is still committed to moving to mobile-first indexing and the percentage of traffic coming from mobile devices will only to continue to grow, and at a more rapid pace.

If a site still has mobile usability issues, the good news is marketers still have time to address them ahead of the algorithm’s complete roll-out.

Not sure how a site stacks up on mobile? Nina Hale can identify the most pressing mobile issues facing a site and help prioritize and devise a plan for addressing these issues in a timely manner.

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