In the past, Google examined the desktop copy of your website to decide where it should rank on search results. Soon, Google will only look at the mobile phone version of your site. Oh, dear.
Why has Google changed its policy? The answer is simple. In the last few years, the number of searches on mobile devices has overtaken the number performed on desktops. Therefore, Google wants to ensure it recommends websites that perform well on mobiles.
Why does mobile-first matter?
I want to be clear how Google examines (indexes) your website. There are not two indexes; there is not one for desktop and a separate one for mobile. Google only has one index – and from March 2021 it will be 100% mobile.
So if your website is not constructed to perform well on mobiles, if it gives the user a poor navigation experience and if the text is illegible or videos/photos too small, your bounce rate* and ranking will suffer.
Also, some large and complex websites omit certain content from their mobile version. The small screens on smartphones are not suited to displaying huge volumes of material. So, if there is content that’s been omitted from your mobile version it will no longer be indexed by Google.
Given that research has shown up to 60% of website traffic comes from search engines (and probably 80% of that is Google), you can see why any change to the way Google ranks your website is pretty important.
By December 2020, Google had already indexed and ranked about 70% of websites based on their mobile-first policy. To check if it has indexed your mobile version, you’ll need to use Google Search Console.
Go to ‘Settings’ at the bottom of the page and look in the ‘About’ section. It will either say Googlebot Desktop or Googlebot Smartphone. Google started indexing the mobile version of my website on 7 September 2018 (see screenshot).
There are several things you can do to prepare for the new ‘mobile-first’ policy. Let’s take a look at three of them.
1. Technical preparation for mobile-first
To ensure a good user experience and no loss in ranking on Google’s search results, you will need to examine the loading speed of your website, the interference of pop-ups and the design of your mobile version.
Google will measure your page speed based on your mobile site. The best place to check this is on Google’s PageSpeed Insights. It will tell you the load speed of both your mobile and desktop version. Concentrate on mobile as that is the version Google will monitor.
PageSpeed Insights will give you helpful hints on what to fix for improved speed. You can also check your competitor’s websites to see if they are faster. Note that very few websites get a perfect score, even LinkedIn’s mobile website gets an average score of 82/100 (see screenshot).
Take a look at your website on both an iPhone and an Android device. Be objective. Are those pop-ups extra annoying on such a small screen? Are there too many adverts getting in the way of your carefully crafted content?
Be the customer and ditch the things that give a poor user experience and that might potentially increase your bounce rate*.
‘Text too small to read’, ‘Clickable elements too close together’, ‘Content wider than screen’ are all errors that will negatively impact your ranking on Google. Fortunately, Google will help.
Once again, log in to Google Search Console and navigate to Enhancements, then Mobile Usability. It will list all the errors and which pages are affected.
2. Preparing content for mobile-first
It’s often impossible (and maybe unwise) to show everything you have on your desktop site on the mobile phone version. There simply isn’t space.
Sidebars, extensive tables or mega-menus are often excluded or hidden. Your mobile site doesn’t have to be a carbon-copy of the desktop version, but excluding important content simply because it’s too long is a bad idea.
Make use of tabbed content (like in the section above). Google no longer discounts hidden content if it is used to improve the user experience.
3. Preparing navigation for mobile-first
Make sure all the important links still exist on your mobile version. For instance, a mobile site may have skipped breadcrumbs to save space or use a smaller menu. These could impact your ranking as they may change how Google flows through your site.
Web designers like to paint on a big canvas, and so the mobile version of your website is often an after-thought (and the desktop version will always impress your CEO).
But that is not how Google now sees things. For most of us, search engine marketing is free, provides pre-qualified leads and volume traffic. Failing to focus on the mobile phone version of your website will reduce ready-to-buy visitors.
So the next time you are building a new website or upgrading an existing site, do the mobile version first then expand on the desktop. Google will reward you. For more SEO tips check ‘How to get a higher ranking on Google’.
* Bounce Rate is the percentage of single-page sessions in which there was no interaction with the page. A bounced session has a duration of 0 seconds.
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