Google’s site indexing and ranking algorithm, seemingly able to scour the entire Internet and instantaneously conjure up exactly what you had been looking for, may seem like magic. But it’s not; Google assiduously builds and tweaks the algorithm to have maximum utility for any searcher. Each of these tweaks is based on Google’s collected data, which it uses both to examine the recent efficacy of its algorithm and, more importantly, to alter it to be even more efficient for future searchers.
But the data has, quite recently, demanded more than a tweak. It shows that more search queries now originate from mobile devices than from traditional desktop devices. This shift in the type of device from which the majority of searches originate created an incongruence; it simply makes no sense for Google to serve up desktop-oriented results to primarily mobile searchers. This has led to the introduction of what Google calls its “mobile-first” index: Google’s algorithm will now base its rankings primarily on the mobile version of a site’s content.
What does this shift to mobile-first indexing mean for your business? To answer this, I’ll first discuss the some of the key differentiations already apparent between mobile and desktop searching. Then I’ll dive into Google’s mobile-first patent to show how the shift will change how Google indexes and ranks your site. Finally, I’ll discuss what you—a business owner—can do yourself to best adapt.
So how do mobile and desktop search already differ? Think about a person searching on their cell phone. Their device—likely an iPhone—has weaker processing capacity than that of a conventional desktop or laptop; thus, any delay in loading time will be multiplied when observed on a mobile device. This leads to, on average, uniformly higher bounce rates for mobile searches.
Also, the screen of said iPhone is tiny compared to that of a desktop computer; fewer results will initially be displayed after a mobile search. This smaller “digital shelf,” coupled with an observed decrease in user proclivity to scroll on mobile devices, makes ranking first even more important. Indeed, dropping from first to fourth ranking in the mobile index can lead to a decrease in your click through rate of over 90%.
Third, searches including the term “near me” have increased over 30x since 2011; this, combined with the inference that mobile searchers are more likely to want locally-oriented results, has led to Google placing more weight on local results for mobile search than they otherwise would have for a desktop search. There are other, more nitpicky differences, but the main differences are that mobile search features higher bounce rates, increased importance of ranking #1, and local-oriented results are more likely to appear.
With that said, what’s changing now? Thankfully, we can simply read Google’s patent on how they will blend mobile and desktop search results. The mobile-first algorithm will contain a series of signals that indicate whether a site is more likely than not mobile-oriented so that it can boost the quality score of content that corresponds to the needs of mobile searchers.
One way Google will do this is by identifying which web pages link to what is unambiguously downloadable mobile content—such as an app or ringtone—and boosting the quality and relevancy of said web pages. The new mobile index will rely on a bevy signals to do this; it is important to note that if the index is triggered by multiple signals, quality scores of mobile search results may be modified in a non-linear manner.
The patent also claims to boost mobile pages by identifying duplicate sources of content—this is when the same site’s mobile and desktop version would otherwise appear in search results. Once mobile-first indexing is implemented, Google will begin removing your desktop version from search results, and the mobile version will then be placed in the rank of the mobile or desktop site, whichever was initially higher.
So how should your business adapt to such changes? First and foremost, you absolutely must have a mobile version of your site. Not having one, no matter how great and relevant your desktop site is, will end up decreasing your quality score and subsequent ranking. Moreover, if you do have a mobile site, verify that you have added it to Google’s Search Console. Doing so will ensure Google will find and index your site so that it appears when a relevant search query is submitted.
Mobile sites should be concise, clear, and simple. If the 90% drop-off in CTR from first to fourth in mobile search should teach you anything, it’s that mobile searchers don’t like scrolling. So you should minimize the amount of essential scrolling on your mobile site; your most valuable content should appear as soon as the page loads. Also, you want to avoid the higher bounce rates caused by slower mobile loading times. Do this by optimizing your site speed; WordPress, for example, offers quite a few plugins that make it possible for even a technological layperson to do so.
Jeffrey Radin is the founder of Sherman Square Marketing.