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Google’s Mobile-First update: what it means and how to prepare

by Dan Callis
17th Nov 2016 - 13 min read

On November 4, 2016, Google announced the gradual roll out and testing of a new mobile algorithm called Mobile-First. This means Google will be putting even more focus on mobile as a standalone entity and giving ranking benefits to sites optimised for users searching devices, such as phones and tablets.

Mobile has been a shifting focus on Google’s behalf for a few years with the first Mobile-friendly update, ‘Mobilegeddon’ as nicknamed in the SEO industry, rolled out in April 2015. Although this update aimed to cause the same disruption in search results as Panda or Penguin did, most SEOs found themselves scratching their heads as rankings saw little-to-no movement in the following weeks.

What can we glean from the information Google has given us, combined with statements Google has previously made about mobile SEO?

Mobilegeddon vs Mobile-First

The first paragraph of Google’s Mobile-First blog states something quite interesting:

“… our ranking systems still typically look at the desktop version of a page’s content to evaluate its relevance to the user. This can cause issues when the mobile page has less content than the desktop page because our algorithms are not evaluating the actual page that is seen by a mobile searcher.”

When Google rolled out the Mobile-Friendly update in April 2015, it said the following on the Webmaster Central blog.

“This update:

  • Affects only search rankings on mobile devices
  • Affects search results in all languages globally
  • Applies to individual pages, not entire websites

While the mobile-friendly change is important, we still use a variety of signals to rank search results. The intent of the search query is still a very strong signal — so even if a page with high quality content is not mobile-friendly, it could still rank high if it has great content for the query.”

This suggests that the 2016 Mobile-Friendly update focused mostly on the usability of your website on tablet and mobile devices (likely based partly on the factors the Mobile Usability tab in Google Search Console flags) and content is still heavily judged on desktop ranking signals. The forthcoming Mobile-First update is tipped to be an additional layer that Google will use to determine mobile rankings using the content a mobile user sees on the site.

However, this does not mean a standalone mobile ranking algorithm for the time being. As Google makes it clear, desktop signals will remain a part consideration for mobile rankings:

“Although our search index will continue to be a single index of websites and apps, our algorithms will eventually primarily use the mobile version of a site’s content to rank pages from that site, to understand structured data, and to show snippets from those pages in our results. Of course, while our index will be built from mobile documents, we’re going to continue to build a great search experience for all users, whether they come from mobile or desktop devices.”

Long term however, it appears Google’s goal is to treat mobile and desktop search results differently.

Rolling out the update

We don’t expect to see sudden increases or decreases in organic traffic in the same way Panda or Penguin updates hit many sites. In the Webmaster Central blog post, Google states that the roll out will be on a small scale for now -at least until it’s comfortable with the quality of results:

“We understand this is an important shift in our indexing and it’s one we take seriously. 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.”

There is no confirmed final roll out date yet. This is probably because the update is in the experimental phase for now. Google has previously rolled out signals and later scrapped them (see authorship) as the results have not been as fruitful as hoped, although it’s unlikely Google will stop moving towards delivering better mobile results, even in the rare event Mobile-First doesn’t pan out.

We’re not mobile-friendly, help!

Internet usage on mobile devices continues to grow, particularly in developing countries where handheld device usage often outweighs desktop. If you are not offering a mobile version of your site to these users, you are probably missing out on improved rankings, engagement and conversions already. This isn’t a problem that’s going to go away any time soon, so you should be taking a ‘go hard or go home’ approach to solving it.

The options available to improve user experience for mobile users are:

Responsive design

This is when you have a single website where the content resizes and adjusts based on the user’s screen size. Below you can see this is how Further’s website works, the way content is displayed changes based on a user’s screen size:
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Dynamic serving website

This is when you have two websites; a desktop version and a separate version for mobile users. Twitter is a good example of this. It sends desktop users to www.twitter.com and mobile users to mobile.twitter.com:

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Going down the responsive design route is often the easiest to manage and maintain long term, whereas a dynamically served site often requires more time investment to keep up-to-date. It’s best to consider the pros and cons of both options and do what you feel is best for you as a business.

“I’m mobile-friendly already, I’ll be fine!”

Perhaps you’re right, but we’d still recommend checking the following to ensure you’re not going to come across any issues.

Check mobile usability in Google Search Console

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Even if your site is already responsive, Google could still be finding issues for your mobile users. The core elements of the GSC Mobile Usability report are:

  • Flash usage“Most mobile browsers do not render Flash-based content. Therefore, mobile visitors will not be able to use a page that relies on Flash in order to display content, animations, or navigation. We recommend designing your look and feel and page animations using modern web technologies.”

  • Viewport not configured“Because visitors to your site use a variety of devices with varying screen sizes—from large desktop monitors, to tablets and small smartphones—your pages should specify a viewport using the meta viewport tag. This tag tells browsers how to adjust the page’s dimension and scaling to suit the device.”

  • Fixed-width viewport“Some web developers define the viewport to a fixed pixel size in order to adjust a non-responsive page to suit common mobile screen sizes. To fix this error, adopt a responsive design for your site’s pages, and set the viewport to match the device’s width and scale accordingly.”

  • Content not sized to viewport“Pages where horizontal scrolling is necessary to see words and images on the page. This happens when pages use absolute values in CSS declarations, or use images designed to look best at a specific browser width (such as 980px). To fix this error, make sure the pages use relative width and position values for CSS elements, and make sure images can scale as well.”

  • Small font size“Pages where the font size for the page is too small to be legible and would require mobile visitors to “pinch to zoom” in order to read. After specifying a viewport for your web pages, set your font sizes to scale properly within the viewport.”

  • Touch elements too close“Pages where touch elements, such as buttons and navigational links, are so close to each other that a mobile user cannot easily tap a desired element with their finger without also tapping a neighbouring element. To fix these errors, make sure to correctly size and space buttons and navigational links to be suitable for your mobile visitors.”

  • Interstitial usage“Some websites have begun advertising their mobile apps by opening an interstitial popup when users browse their site on a mobile device. This is a bad user experience since screen space on a mobile device is limited; in most cases, an interstitial obscures the page content, and often it can be difficult to dismiss. If you want to promote a mobile app on your website, consider using iOS Smart Banners, Chrome Native App Banners, or App Indexing to show an install button for your app directly in Google search results.”

Remember, if you are dynamically serving a separate mobile version of your site you will need to have Google Search Console account set up for the domain or subdomain it is hosted on to find any issues.

Check your mobile site load time

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“The PageSpeed Score ranges from 0 to 100 points. A higher score is better and a score of 85 or above indicates that the page is performing well.”  – Source

Site speed remains a ranking signal for Google: the faster your site, the better possibilities of strong rankings. With mobile signals getting more prominence as a separate entity on the horizon, it’s important that your pages load fast on all devices.

There are some useful tools out there to test mobile speed, we recommend Think With Google and Mobitest at Further.

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Some key things to remember here are:

  • Google does not have a single-figure benchmark for all websites in terms of acceptable speed. Results are judged against your competitors, so it’s best to take a benchmark of your main competitors as well as your own site to see how you perform.
  • Google treats mobile performance on a page-by-page basis, therefore we recommend you take a benchmark not only of a handful of your highest value organic traffic pages, but your competitors too.
  • Page load speeds can be affected by temporary things, such as server issues. Taking an average speed benchmark by doing several tests at different times of day will help you get a better idea of performance.
  • There has been a lot of user research into page load time and abandonment. The general findings tend to say anything over four seconds for a page to load will raise the risk of losing visitors.
  • Again, if you are dynamically serving a separate mobile version of your site you will need to test that domain and not your main domain.

If your mobile site speed is not performing as well as your competitors, make it a priority to improve page load times. And even if you are beating your competitors in this area, there’s no harm in getting further ahead in the game!

Another consideration for improving mobile speed is to start moving towards AMP (accelerated mobile pages) on your website. This involves serving mobile users a drastically simplified version of a page to speed up page load times.

Content crossover

Another point of note in Google’s Mobile-First blog post is the emphasis put on content between what a desktop user sees and what a mobile user sees.

“If you have a site configuration where the primary content and mark-up is different across mobile and desktop, you should consider making some changes to your site.”

A review to ensure the unique content of each page on your site is available on the responsive or mobile version of your site will be beneficial to SEO performance in the future.

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On top of this, if you are using a dynamically served mobile website, ensure your mobile redirects, rel=”canonical and rel=”alternate tags are between like-for-like pages. Having a single page all mobile users are sent to could already be hampering SEO performance.

Unblock your resources

Using your robots.txt file to block resources (such as .CSS files) on your site means Google’s crawlers cannot render your site correctly.

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Google specifically states not to block certain resources, and flags potential issues in Google Search Console’s Blocked Resources report. This can be problematic for mobile rankings as blocking styling elements means Google cannot render your page correctly as a mobile user would see it.

“If you have web pages that use code to arrange or display your content, Google must be able to properly render your content to get it into Google Search. Often the core textual content of a dynamic website can only be retrieved by rendering the pages so Google can see your site just like anyone else on a web browser would. If your site experiences faulty rendering, Google might be unable to get any of your content.”

We recommend checking your Blocked Resources report in GSC and testing some of the issue URLs using the robots.txt Tester to find and remove/edit any offending rules.

Structured data?

Perhaps the most interesting part of Google’s Mobile-First announcement is the large focus placed on use of structured data.

“Make sure to serve structured mark-up for both the desktop and mobile version.

Sites can verify the equivalence of their structured mark-up across desktop and mobile by typing the URLs of both versions into the Structured Data Testing Tool and comparing the output.

When adding structured data to a mobile site, avoid adding large amounts of mark-up that isn’t relevant to the specific information content of each document.”

This continues to be something Google encourages site owners to do. The benefits of using structured data mark-up are gaining rich snippets in search results, which can improve click-through rates.

If you are using a responsive website, it is important that any existing structured data code is included in the smaller resolution version of the page as well as the full-size desktop version. If you are using a dynamically served site, ensure your structured data is reflected on both versions of a page.

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And if you are not already using structured data on your site, be it to its full potential or none-at-all, it’s never too late to start!

Conclusion

Online mobile usage shows no sign of slowing down soon. Google will continue to improve the experience of its search results to mobile users. The good news for everyone is that it’s never too late to adapt.

We recommend a few of the following tools to help with mobile SEO:

* Tool is a paid service, the remaining are free!

If you have any questions in relation to mobile SEO, please do get in touch with us.

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