Google Moves to Mobile First

Earlier this week, Google began migrating sites to a system it calls mobile first indexing. The move hasn’t come without fair warning. The search engine has told webmasters it was going to start prioritizing the mobile versions of websites and thus favour mobile friendly websites in search results for the last eighteen months. It flipped the switch on Monday. Even so, the announcement at the Google Webmaster Central Blog (https://webmasters.googleblog.com/2018/03/rolling-out-mobile-first-index...) has been met with confusion and unease.

Though Google has never been particularly good at explaining itself, it knows exactly what it wants to do and why it wants to do it. It has been three years since the number of searches conducted on mobile devices exceeded the number of searches conducted on a desktop computer in April 2015. Google had been anticipating mobile long before then but that 50% threshold was a watershed moment for them.

Mobile first indexing means search results will increasingly feature websites designed to function well and deliver a good user experience on mobile devices. Such sites will receive more attention from Google’s mobile search crawlers and, all things being equal; will tend to place better in most search results than sites designed solely for desktops will. Mobile friendly sites will always place better in results generated by a search on a mobile device.

Mobile first does not mean desktop only sites are never going to achieve search rankings in Google organic results, but chances are a mobile friendlier website contains similar information and that site will produce higher ranking pages. Over time, desktop-only websites will be pushed out of search results for all but the most arcane of search queries, but for the most part, desktop-only websites are going extinct.

Mobile friendly websites and documents will fare better in search moving forward. For webmasters using WordPress or Drupal, a healthy base of responsive design templates, which automatically adjust for screen size, eliminates most of the worry about page-sizing issues. This leaves two main areas of concern: content and speed.

Content

Assuming Google is using all of its twenty years of experience to filter the best information sources towards the top, the mobile first environment is primarily about user experience. Google believes mobile users are fickle and wants to ensure they keep using Google search by only serving up sites that load quickly and make finding information easy. Think about how mobile devices display information: the orientation is portrait rather than landscape. Even though basic templates now automatically correct for how the screen is sized against most mobile phone browsers, it’s up to webmasters and designers to lay out the information on their sites so users are able to quickly find it on-page with minimal scrolling or clicking.

Google’s mobile first stance has also affected how the search engine composes search results pages (SERPs). Many associate search results with sets of blue links arranged with the most relevant results found near the top, but there are several ways a search results page might be constituted, often based on the type of query the user is making. In some cases, a search for a definite answer, such as “What time is it”, will even produce a single definite answer in a result-set devoid of links to individual pages.

Lastly, content is affected by another component of mobile device usage, voice search. As more people use the voice search option on their mobile phones or personal home assistance devices, the type of search query Google has to process changes. People are more prone to phrase their search as a question when they verbally phrasing a search rather than typing it. For Google Home and Android devices, the phrase, “Hey Google” activates voice search. Now that they are addressing something with a proper name, the search user asks, “Hey Google, where can I order a pizza?” rather than typing, “Pizza, Seattle, Wallingford”. Also, as the search is conducted on a device that contains a GPS unit, the geographic modifier is no longer critical to the searcher, though it still is to the webmaster who wishes to be found.

Google knows what it wants when it comes to content, the best possible answer to questions about any given topic, laid out in the most user/search-friendly ways possible. Google wants its search results pages to be primarily helpful, especially if in doing so they retain the traffic. Google wants to provide the best references possible and in a world of information those references differentiate themselves by providing the best user-experience they can. That often comes down to speed.

Speed

Google rewards fast loading documents. For technical SEOs, speed is the goal of everything beyond the basics. The faster a page loads or is rendered, the better Google is going to score it against similar pages addressing similar queries. This is leading some webmasters to strip down WordPress templates or to adopt pure-bootstrap builds. It’s leading others to make web apps that function as pages and can rank in certain mobile search results as a normal page would, but deliver a faster and more easily personalized experience.

For websites built in CMS environments, designers will have to get by with fewer plug-ins. Any plug-in they do choose to use will have to be inspected to ensure it is housed at a secured server and that its use doesn’t slow the site notably. Collectively, an array of plug-ins and third-party add-ons can slow loading time considerably.

Eighteen months ago Google created the Accelerated Mobile Page format, AMP for publishers and information heavy content providers. AMP documents are the ultra-stripped down pages users see when visiting a major media outlet on their mobile devices. They were designed to be lightning fast in order to speed up the web-experience for Google users. Google even provided exclusive areas on certain mobile search results pages for AMP format content. In Google’s mobile first universe, that changes. Google now says it would prefer to promote the non-AMP version if a site has a mobile friendly version of the same content.

If designers and webmasters have been putting off making their own sites mobile friendly, this is their very final, ultimate, get it together or else warning. The user-base has moved to mobile and the majority of them now access the Internet via a mobile computing device. While the days of the desktop are not numbered, the days in which the desktop is the only device worth considering for B2B websites are. It is likely a small majority of people reading this article are reading it on mobile devices and Google is most certainly well aware of that. Get moving.

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