Experiments with Google's mobile-first index are underway
On Friday, November 4, 2016 Google announced that they launched an experiment on their mobile-first index. This announcement came as a surprise to many industry professionals. Google indicated a few weeks ago that they were working on a mobile-first index, but it seemed as if there were still many issues to iron out before it could go live. Google’s experiment with a mobile-first index currently impacts only a small percentage of users. Google says,
“We’ll continue to carefully experiment over the coming months on a small scale and we’ll ramp up this change when we’re confident that we have a great user experience."
In fact, Paul Haahr of Google has said that right now, users and webmasters should not see many changes.
How will the mobile-first index impact websites?
The current experiments should not have much impact, but the impact in the future will likely be more significant. Google explained that they will not maintain two separate indexes. There will be only one index, and it will take mobile pages into account before desktop pages. In a Twitter conversation, Gary Illyes said that this new index will be based off of the mobile version of your site.
He also explained that it is too early to tell if the desktop version will have any impact. For many marketers, this of course raises questions about various ranking signals, such as backlinks. Google understands that many sites have more links pointing to the desktop version of their website rather than the mobile version. The search engine giant has indicated that they are working to take this into account. It is also important to note that sites that truncate the content available on the mobile version of their page might notice changes in their rank if they do not use the time during these initial experiments to bolster their material.
nterestingly, Gary Illyes also began to speak about the potential impact of these changes on Rel=Canonical and Rel=Alternate tags. Illyes said that asking people to change these would take ‘decades’, so Google is looking for ways to make the current system work. He claims that essentially, the rel=canonical will start to perform the same job as the rel=alternate now.
How does the mobile-first index impact how I optimize my website?
Google themselves have issued a bit of advice for those preparing for the mobile-first index. But the main takeaway is that it's now more important than ever to deliver compelling mobile experiences. If you haven't identified and optimized for the moments when your target audiences engage via mobile, then it's time to take action. But, we also need to be mindful of when our audiences prefer to engage via desktop. For example, people often turn to mobile devices when looking for very specific information. However, when they are preparing to sit down and do more time-consuming research, they often turn to desktop. comScore's latest research underscores this multi-device trend, showing that "multi-screening” is still the norm, where 76% of internet users use both mobile and desktop.
Customers may start on mobile and finish on desktop, or vice versa - and in many cases go back and forth between devices depending on where they are and what they are looking to accomplish at any given moment. Although the importance and impact of the mobile-first index cannot be underestimated, brands that want to serve customers throughout their entire lifecycle need to optimize and track performance on both mobile and desktop. To do this in a way that aligns to what your customers want - and to business results - it's critical to know which moments matter most to your audiences, and the preferred device type and content for each of these moments. With this in mind, the path forward is to:
- Identify audience demand by device type for the moments that matter to your business
- For high-demand moments, optimize content and websites to deliver the desired experience by device type, ideally using responsive design or AMP to ensure mobile-friendliness
- Over time, ensure all your web experiences are mobile-friendly - this is critical to maximizing the amount of content catalogued by Google's mobile-first index
- Measure the business impact (e.g. lift in traffic, engagement, conversions, and revenue) of these improvements to share with internal stakeholders and substantiate the need for investment
Fortunately, BrightEdge has led the industry in keeping marketers ahead of the changing mobile landscape. This means you can easily identify, optimize and measure the moments that matter - across both mobile and desktop:
- BrightEdge Data Cube, the industry's largest webwide repository of search and content data, gives you the most accurate insights by device type on the moments, or topics, that your target audiences care about - so that you can create the right content.
- BrightEdge Intent Signal is the first and only capability in the industry that tells you which moments are the most organic-friendly, so that you prioritize your optimization efforts to maximize downstream business results, such as traffic, conversions and revenue.
- BrightEdge Recommendations help you optimize your web content for mobile so that it aligns to your audiences’ needs, and with AMP support for Top Stories, you’ll know when you need to AMP-enable content.
- BrightEdge StoryBuilder enables you to track and measure business results by device type, even creating side-by-side charts within StoryBuilder to gain an accurate and complete picture of how the mobile index is impacting your site.
Google has already begun to run experiments with their mobile-first index, indicating the value they place on mobile. Brands that want to remain relevant will need to make sure that their mobile sites prepare for this shift and continue to work towards an outstanding user experience, on all devices.