Digital Marketing & Production

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Mobile-First or Desktop? How Google’s Indexing Change Impacts Your Site’s Traffic

As far as conundrums go, this isn’t the chicken and egg debate.

Google’s mobile-first index update has settled any debate over where your design and development attention belongs, leaving little room for interpretation. For those who want to rank well, the days of treating mobile pages as watered-down versions of their desktop counterparts are over.

If your organic web traffic has dropped, mobile-first indexing could be the reason.

Why mobile-first indexing?

You can get lots of content onto a webpage. The available space has led to robust websites full of exciting content, user options and ads.

High-functioning pages are difficult to reproduce effectively on a mobile screen, leading to a poor user experience. One quick fix for this involves dropping or changing content, leaving a trimmed-down and faster mobile page behind.

With an increasing number of mobile-only users, you’d be right to question that approach.

Consider this:

  • Mobile devices account for 70 percent of digital media viewing
  • More Google searches take place on mobile devices than on computers in ten countries including the US and Japan
  • Mobile users spend more time online than those on laptops or PCs

Despite continuing mobile growth, the indexing update does not reduce the importance of desktop pages. Instead, its intent is to encourage improvement of mobile sites, so they provide the same quality experience as their corresponding desktop pages.

Mobile First Isn’t About Mobile Friendly

Being mobile-friendly has nothing to do with mobile-first indexing. Mobile-friendly refers to factors, such as text size and load times, that Google examines to determine your site’s alignment with mobile best practices. These factors impact your site’s ranking.

Mobile-first indexing isn’t about ranking factors; it’s about where Google looks when it indexes your site. For many, it’s more important than ranking factors.

In a nutshell, Google wants a better user experience for their searchers. Whether it’s content, purchasing options, navigation or submitting forms, a user shouldn’t need to switch devices to take action or access information. They want mobile and desktop engagement to be equally positive.

As an added benefit, developing with a mobile-first mindset tends to result in cleaner, easier-to-navigate desktop pages; a look that users prefer.

How Mobile-First Indexing Affects You

Mobile-first indexing doesn’t require that you have a mobile-friendly site; or a mobile site at all. If you don’t have mobile pages, your current site will still be indexed just as it has.

Simply put, if you have a mobile site, Google will index it instead of your desktop pages. If your mobile site is lacking, you may have already experienced a drop in traffic.

Mobile-first indexing impact:

  • Desktop site only. If you don’t have a mobile site, nothing changes for you.
  • Responsive design. Sites built with responsive design use one URL and one set of code regardless of device. If your site uses responsive design, you won’t need to make any changes.
  • AMP HTML. Like responsive design, sites using AMP HTML have one URL and are the same. There are no changes for you, either.
  • Separate URLs. If you’re using different URLs, like an m-dot site, Google now indexes your mobile site only.
  • Dynamic serving. These pages have one URL, but they deliver different content based on the device. Google now indexes the mobile content only.
  • AMP and Non-AMP. For sites that have both AMP and non-AMP versions, Google now indexes the non-AMP mobile version only.

The more you know: Google directs desktop searchers to desktop sites, and a mobile search returns mobile sites; but the indexed data that determines relevance and ranking comes from mobile, for both searches.

What to do?

Good news for sites using responsive design and AMP. This update doesn’t affect you. For everyone else, there are decisions to be made.

If you’re using separate URLs or delivering varying content for different devices, your Google indexing has changed. Consider aligning your mobile and desktop sites.

There are a couple of ways to do this:

Responsive Web Design

Responsive web-designed pages have the same content and one URL. They use one set of code that’s adaptable to screen size and orientation, improving user experience by providing the same content while reducing or eliminating the need to pan or pinch.

It’s hard to argue with responsive web design when Google recommends it themselves:

“If you’re ready to build a mobile-friendly site, choose responsive web design.” There’s no ambiguity there.

Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP)

AMP differs from responsive web design in that it captures the content from your page and delivers it to mobile users in a streamlined, simple design; with a different URL. The user never actually visits your website (use canonical tags for ranking and duplicate content issues).

AMP HTML significantly reduces load times by, among other things, limiting JavaScript and giving less priority to desktop ads.

While some see AMP as Google’s attempt to optimize more pages for their ads, it can be quite beneficial for publishing or other content-heavy sites that take longer to load.

Tip: If you use a combination of AMP and non-AMP pages, Google will index the non-AMP version of your mobile pages.

Best Practices

For those stalwarts who aren’t ready to align their sites, it’s essential to follow these best practices:

  • Be sure your mobile pages have the same properly-formatted content as their corresponding desktop pages.
  • Include structured data on both mobile and desktop. Structured data is crucial as it helps Google understand information in your content.
  • Use metadata and meta descriptions on both mobile and desktop pages.
  • Ask questions. There’s a wealth of information and professionals available to assist you.

The Next Step

Search-algorithm updates will continue as consumer and search behaviors evolve. It’s important to stay on top of coming changes to be sure your site receives the traffic it deserves.

Running a business is hard work. Finding time for these chores is challenging, but if you rely on web traffic for revenue, then these tasks are critical.

If you’d like to discuss ways to make these updates easier, contact us today.

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