Are You Ready for Google's Pending Switch to Mobile-First SEO Indexing?

Posted on Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Another Google algorithm update? Didn’t we just go through that with Panda and Penguin?” We know the feeling: you’re just catching your breath, but we can’t sugarcoat this for you. If you don’t have a truly and fully responsive website, it’s about to hurt just a little more.

In the past, Google has said that unresponsive websites will only be penalized in searches from tablets and phones. But with nearly 30% of all global search queries (make that 50% in the US and Japan) being made from mobile devices, Google has decided that it’s time to make the move to mobile-first indexing across all devices.

While Google’s mobile-first indexing is still considered in trial stage, we’re confident it’s going to be THE definitive indexing method sooner rather than later; it’s simply a matter of time. So, if your website isn’t responsive, you’d better hope your top competitors are in the same boat or you’re about to give them an edge in the search engine optimization (SEO) game.

The “mobile site” shortcut isn’t going to cut it anymore either; Google wants to see your content, all of it. The good news is, responsive development is maturing and there are plenty of resources out there, including us, that can help you get your site ready for the mobile-driven web*.

Why is Google Implementing Mobile-First Indexing?

Traditionally, Google’s algorithm has indexed a web page and assigned it a position in Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) based on the desktop version of a page. When a site was unresponsive, this practice provided a poor user experience (UX) to mobile users for two reasons. They were either presented with the mobile version of a site that typically contained reduced content for ease-of-use, or the site was difficult to read and navigate on a smaller screen. By moving to mobile-first indexing, Google’s aim is to encourage website owners to provide the best user experience to its visitors regardless of device or screen size.

How Important is Responsivity in Comparison with Other Google Ranking Factors?

It’s difficult to know which factor is MOST important to Google. We can say with confidence that if

your site is responsive,

has a boat-load of fresh, user-driven content,

and has been built using industry best practices for SEO,

then you’ll be in the best shape to appear on the first page of organic SERPs.

Load time is another critical SEO factor. In terms of web development, you want DRY (Don’t Repeat Yourself) code. This will come into play when we discuss less-attractive alternatives to responsive development in the next section.

If you’ve put a mobile site out in the past and are hoping it fills the void a little longer, keep in mind that content is king. Mobile sites are notorious for providing less content. Until now, that was fine because Google based its rankings on your desktop site anyway. When that is no longer the case, you’re going to want to put as much optimized, keyword-rich content as you can out there and provide a fully responsive user experience.

As a small business, we understand that cost is always a factor. If you’re working towards optimizing your site and can only manage one upgrade at a time, tend to your content first; make it so good that people will deal with the less-than-perfect UX on a mobile device. Then work on making your site responsive for optimal delivery.

You’ve Got Options

When making your site mobile-friendly you have options but, if we’re being honest, there’s only one that Google is recommending, and that’s going responsive all the way. We want you to have all the facts though, so let’s briefly discuss each potential approach.

Mobile Sites

Mobile sites, also referred to as mDots, are separate sites that serve different, often limited, content geared toward mobile devices.

Good News

Mobile sites won’t suddenly stop indexing. In some cases, they’re considered an OK option because they provide just enough content and functionality to give the user what they need on a mobile device and won’t compromise speed, which is an important factor in UX design. They’re also still an option for unique mobile-only marketing ideas that don’t have a strong SEO requirement.

Bad News

With Google now looking exclusively at mobile content and performance, a brief glance at you and your information via a mobile site is no longer a good choice. You’re going to want all of your content to be accessible to viewers and indexable to search robots.

Adaptive Design

Adaptive Design is a somewhat awkward hybrid solution. It’s better than an mDot, but still not as effective as a Responsive Design. In Adaptive Design, multiple layouts that target different devices are created, one for mobile, one for tablet, and one for desktop.

Good News

Adaptive Design works and it doesn’t sacrifice content like mDots do. Adaptive sites are also easier to code and obviously anything that takes less time to accomplish tends to be less expensive.

Bad News

The Adaptive Design approach is code-heavy and therefore slower to load. With speed being a critically important factor in mobile indexing, adaptive sites won’t rank as well as similar sites that employ Responsive Design. They also “snap” into place if you adjust your screen size yourself, which is less friendly than the smooth reaction a responsive site provides.

Also, Adaptive Design isn’t as flexible as responsive design. Yes, it does resize the site content based on screen size, and that would be an awesome solution if all mobile, tablet, and desktop devices had the same screen size and resolution, but they don’t. So, while adaptive design is initially a less expensive, slightly easier solution to implement in the short run, it’s really not ideal unless you’re into adding a new layout every time a new device comes out.

Responsive Web Design

Similar to Adaptive Design, Responsive Web Design (often referred to as RWD, Responsive Design, or simply Responsive) is similar to Adaptive Design in that website content is served based on device size.

Good News

Responsive sites are built on a grid defined by CSS classes that use breakpoints to determine how the layout will appear based on device size. In addition to layout, some functionality also changes to create a better UX. The most obvious example of this is classic vs mobile navigation where, on mobile devices, the classic navigation menu will be replaced by a “hamburger” button that expands on click or hover. Responsive layouts are by far the most user-friendly in terms of confluence among pagespeed, functionality, and content provided.

The really good news is that, when planned properly, when implementing a responsive design you’ll have the opportunity to update everything else that matters to search engines, such as URL structure, headlines (H1s and H2s), meaningfulness and depth of content, and adding strategies and tools to keep your site fresh at all times.

Bad News

The goal of Responsive Design is to create a streamlined user experience regardless of device type or browser. With the number of browsers and devices continually evolving, this is no easy feat. Thus, Responsive Design implementation, even when left in the capable hands of an experienced developer, tends to take more time and money to bring to fruition than adaptive.

Now What?

We’ve given you the facts, you know your options, now it’s time to get moving. Mobile-first indexing is still in it’s early stages. It hasn’t yet replaced desktop-first indexing just yet so you’ve got a little time to get your act together.

We recommend talking to your friendly neighborhood web developer to get the ball rolling on your responsive site. If you don’t have a developer in mind, don’t hesitate to reach out to us by email or phone, we’d be happy to answer your questions. Until then, be sure to stay informed by signing up to get our updates on all things related to today’s best practices in technology and industrial marketing.

Already have a responsive website and wondering “now what”? That’s another blog altogether. Stay tuned.

*To be clear, Google will still index non-responsive websites, they just won’t perform as well in search engine results pages (SERPs) as responsive sites.

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