January 8, 2019 | by Jon Fletcher

Reacting to mobile-first indexing: best practices for publishers in 2019

Towards the end of 2018, Google announced that over 50% of global search results were already being displayed using mobile-first indexing. For many publishers, this came as an unpopular surprise, a sudden upheaval that would require a new optimization strategy.

This milestone comes as a shock to some because although Google first publicized their intentions to prioritize mobile results back in 2016, by December 2017 only a ‘small handful of sites’ had been transitioned. The speed at which mobile-first grew from this ‘handful’ to the majority will have caught sites and publishers unaware, leading to an unwelcome, uphill start to 2019.

By publishing this information Google has decided to make it clear that the wheels of mobile-favored search results are not just in motion but the decided future direction of online search. If your site is not well optimized for mobile, you are likely to suffer from reduced traffic and revenue in the very near future.

So, as mobile-first creeps into the ascendency, we’re outlining the best practices publishers can use to stay at the forefront of a mobile-first world.

How do I know if Google is indexing my mobile site?

This part is simple: Google will let you know. Log in to your Google Search Console. If your site is enabled you will have received a message saying that mobile-first indexing has been activated for your website. You will then see a noticeable increase in the crawl rate from Google’s mobile bot.

mobile-first indexing check

How do I optimize my site for mobile-first indexing?

There are 5 key areas that you need to focus on to make sure you’re still ranking in a mobile-first world.

You need a high-speed mobile version

We’ve known since July 2018 that mobile page speed will be used as a ranking factor in mobile search results. So, with the rise of mobile-first indexing, it is more relevant than ever to make sure your mobile site is as fast, or faster than the industry standard.

Optimization and speed now have their own distinct categories in the Google search algorithm and you may even see a good optimization score alongside a ‘slow’ speed score.

This speed score is run on an emulated mobile network, reviewing First Contentful Paint, Speed Index, Time to Interactive, First Meaningful Paint, First CPU Idle and Estimated Input Latency. To help you see how well your site is performing, Google created a speed insight tool.

One of the simplest ways you can improve your site speed is to reduce the resources required by your site. But, as seen in the next key point, this might not be a viable option.

Offer the same, quality content

If you offer a pared-down version of your desktop site’s content, stop.

As Google is indexing your mobile-site first, it’s integral to let them crawl the complete content. Include images, video, and the same level of detail-rich quality you would include on your desktop version. Make sure this content is crawlable and indexable by including alt-tags, descriptions, and meta-data.

Google wants your users to have the same, rich experience you offer on desktop and they expect you to make it work well, rather than simplifying it for mobile.

Create a responsive design

If your mobile page is identical to your desktop version, mobile-first indexing will not affect your rank. But, your design needs to be responsive. This means adapting to fit the device it is being displayed on, and also adapting to the different requirements of a mobile reader which can include faster page load times, simplified navigation, and a more app-like UI/UX.

Ranking factors can be seen as objective and quantifiable but Google will always aim towards providing results that provide a more satisfying experience for the user. The elements and metrics that depict this satisfying experience are being constantly collated and measured. Therefore you should consider your website experience as a potential factor in future ranking.

This can be helped by simplifying the interactions and navigation on your page, adding swiping interactions, hamburger menus, interactive buttons, and image galleries.

It’s important to remember that Google’s updates are reactive, and the stimulus they frequently react to is consumer behavior, leading to a generally favorable response to user-focused designs.

Verify your mobile site in Google Search Console

Originally, Google would crawl the desktop version, check for a mobile version, and then boost the mobile rank before determining the final rank for mobile and desktop. With mobile-first, Google attempts to crawl the mobile version first, reverting to the desktop version if there is no mobile site.

This structure means that if your mobile site has a separate URL, known as an m-dot, it needs to be verified as a separate property in the Google search console. You will need access to the data and messaging for this site, as you may experience a data shift once your site is transitioned. You should then ensure your servers will be able to handle the increased traffic to your mobile website.

Add structured data

Structured data is the name given HTML code snippets that are generally used to generate ‘additional’ information surrounding search results and a page’s content. Think of it as giving these search engines direct signposts to fetch core information such as phone numbers, opening hours, and social media links.

You can see in this search for the David Bowie album, Hunky Dory, structured data is used to display the recording dates, release date, length, and the producer.

Moble-first structured data

The structure in structured data has been agreed upon by Google, Bing, Yahoo! and Yandex back in 2011. This allows them to apply a standard process to generate rich snippets, rich cards, carousels, knowledge boxes, etc.

This information helps Google quickly understand your content, improving your relevancy score even if it isn’t a direct ranking indicator.

You can access Schema.org to see the community-built schemas for structured data. This data should be the same for both versions of your website and will help Google users find your content more easily.

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