It was way back in 2016 that Google first announced the development of a search engine with new crawling, indexing, and ranking systems made for the mobile experience. The mobile-first index finally started feeding search results to some members of the general public this past spring, with wider rollouts and algorithm adjustments continuing ever since.
Many SEOs are confused about what these changes mean, exactly.
It makes sense conceptually that people performing web searches on their smartphones and people at their computers want different types of answers, presented differently. But what does the mobile search index really mean in terms of maximizing SERP exposure?
Is having a mobile version of your website enough to carry your desktop search positionings over? Is there anything else you should be doing to improve your rankings? And what does it mean to the average business owner?
And perhaps most importantly… how will it evolve from here? Will voice search get its own index? Will onsite engagement signals play a larger role?
It’s only been a few months since Google rolled it out, and there have already been some significant changes to how it operates, including “The Speed Update” of July. So how Google’s mobile-first index might change in the near or far future is anyone’s guess.
Which is why I’ve been reaching out to top SEO experts and digital marketing thought leaders to ask them all about the mobile-first index, its incremental rollout, and how it will change in the months and years ahead.
Here’s what they had to say.
Head of Technical SEO, Atlassian
In the years ahead, I can see Google weighing usability higher, as in how easy is it to "use" the site. In many cases, I still see mobile sites that you have to zoom in on to click certain elements or read the text because the font is so small. Any type of friction should be reduced on mobile.
I think Google is rolling the mobile-first update out in steps because the implications are huge. It's a migration to a different platform, not just a ranking algorithm update. There is only so much you can test before migrating to a new platform, so you have to keep it "agile": roll out, learn, refine. That's the approach Google is running.
Putting an emphasis on speed makes sense for mobile when you think about the occasions people use mobile devices. They're often on the go and want to get some information quickly. They don't read a full article about Tolstoy’s life on an iPhone – they want quick facts like prices, navigation, or product comparison.
That's why it's important to make mobile sites light and fast.
Always think about how the user is evolving their search behaviour with mobile. Especially in terms of local searches and how people are searching on mobile vs. desktop.
More and more we are searching for local content with terms like "best coffee near me." And voice search is growing on mobile as we rely more and more on our AI phone assistants. People search with the brevity of two- or three-word phrases when typing with their thumbs, but they might ask a longer question in audio while driving.
So while it's going to be more important than ever to answer your customer's questions in blog and website content, don't forget to consider how people are asking those questions in the first place.
Even if you get less mobile traffic than desktop traffic today, I think that switch will flip quickly. I'm pretty obsessive about optimizing the page load speed of MobileMonkey.com.
A laggy site is going to annoy users and drive them away, mobile or desktop.
Rankings would naturally follow.
In my opinion, the most important mobile UX things to think about are whether any content is lost in the mobile version (links, text, navigation), unusable pop-ups on mobile, and text or tap targets that are too small. Make sure that's all covered.
Search is a big website traffic referrer, but depending on your distribution channels, you might be looking at a mobile-first user base sooner from mobile-based applications growing in popularity. Millennials spend more time in apps and chat than in browser windows. That's why I started MobileMonkey, a marketing platform for the Messenger app.
Founder and CEO, Duda
The mobile-first index represents a major shift in the way Google catalogues the world’s information, so it’s a substantial change, and it follows that they’d want to ensure there are no major disruptions while going through this evolution. But even though the rollout of the mobile-first index has taken a little while to get going, it was definitely a smart play, as mobile is now the primary point of search.
The move from Google to include speed as a ranking factor makes a lot of sense and is consistent with a message the search giant has been sending for a while now with their initiatives around AMP and PWA. It seems that Google views slow-loading websites as the biggest problem it has with the mobile web today, and they want to use their influence in the market to force website owners to do better. Our team at Duda agrees that website speed is one of the core components that makes up the UX of a website, and we believe lowering load times is the best thing a website owner can do to improve their web presence today.
I think providing the right information to users and solving problems that searchers have are still the best approaches to SEO. The focus should be placed on providing the right answers and helping searchers, rather than unnecessarily optimizing for the wrong things. Links and content are still the fundamental ranking factors for Google. It also helps to work with a web design platform that takes care of a lot of the technical optimizations for you, so you only have to worry about finding the exact right SEO tactics.
Senior SEO Account Manager, Two Octobers
I think Google is being more intentional about the mobile-first rollouts because of the differences in mobile and desktop searches. Mobile searches have the voice component that desktop searches lack, as well as a much bigger impact from location based and "near me" searches.
Page speed is going to continue to be a major factor due to the impact is has on conversions and user experience. Personally, I feel that people are even less patient waiting for something to load on a mobile device, so they will bounce off the site if things aren't loading.
Bounce rate obviously goes hand in hand with UX and is an important factor to consider, but could be tricky to turn into a ranking factor, especially with the rise in featured snippets and answer boxes. Time on page would be interesting for Google to consider as a ranking factor as well, as it can speak to whether or not users are finding what they are looking for.
Google is approaching the rollout of the mobile-first index slowly because they're juggling a grenade that already has the pin pulled. If they roll it out too fast, then they'll have problems bigger than Panda in 2011-2014, where they had to make corrections and search result quality suffered more than it needed to. They also caught a lot of bad press around Panda (not so much Penguin), so they've learned from that, in my opinion.
Faster sites make for happier users. Faster sites usually also require less bandwidth to download, which makes mobile users happier, since their data is not being eaten up as quickly. Data also shows that mobile users are much less willing to wait for a page to load than desktop users, so faster sites lead to longer dwell times, which is better for business as well. Speed and mobile-first must go hand in hand.
The web has become bloated with "SEO content," and SEO pros are nervous about having less content on the page because the fear is that they won't rank as well. I'd encourage the SEO community to study UX and conversion design, because there are ways to keep the same content that is useful for users, but also to do it in a way that helps conversions.
General Manager, Perficient Digital
Google has repeatedly said that the speed ranking factor only impacts sites that are very, very slow. That means for most sites that speed is not a direct ranking factor. However, I also believe that Google makes use of overall user experience on a site as a ranking factor too. While there is no clear data on how they might be doing that, the reality is that faster sites get much better overall user engagement than slower sites.
As a result, I don't care much whether speed is a direct or indirect ranking factor. And, even if it isn't a ranking factor at all, its impact on user engagement and revenue is material. You should want to make your sites faster. It has a high likelihood of paying off.
In order to predict ranking factor changes, you need to consider what Google can already measure. I'm convinced that Google already has a solution in place to measure content robustness, and I think they're already doing things to measure how well pages match up with a user's query intent.
They will expand upon these concepts and do more with them. Beyond that, perhaps they'll develop better methods for measuring overall user engagement on websites, but I do believe that they need to be able to break this down by query and market. For example, if someone is looking for a phone number for a business, a long visit is a negative experience.
For a second example, if someone wants to go to a restaurant website, find their menu, and call in the order, a visit of more than two, maybe three web pages, indicates a problem.
That said, I do think that this is an area that they will explore more and more as they work out ways to breakdown the various query scenarios. This is true whether you're on a mobile device or not. The nature of the device the user is using does not change the nature of their need.
Chief Human, PureMatter
The mobile-first index makes sense, because people are spending more time on our mobile devices. I recently started traveling without my laptop and it feels glorious. I can accomplish most things with my voice. And mobile is quickly turning into a voice search world.
Speed equals time. This has always been a challenge for most humans who don't want to wait. We are impatient and need information faster. If it takes time, we quickly click to the next thing. With all the content we have to now absorb, the only thing we have left to work through is speed and quality of that content. That said, globally speaking, speed is the easier of the two.
I think that mobile development and SEO should be its own specialty. This area is a super niche that needs direct ongoing focus. We can't just be mobile-friendly anymore. And while UI/UX and content create the best scenario, optimizing with analytics and understanding the entire mobile customer journey is critical. That said, no two mobile strategies are the same. It's an exciting time to be living in a mobile-first world.
SEO Strategist and Consultant, Sure Oak
Page speed is an important ranking factor for user experience both on desktop and mobile, but definitely more so on mobile. When most of us are using our mobile phones, we're connected to the internet through our cell phone carrier, which might be over 3G, 4G, LTE, etc. Cell phone carriers have substantially slower internet speeds, therefore mobile page speed is even more important.
Aside from page load times, mobile UX hinges on page elements and layout/design, font size, button size, no pop-ups, menus, and so forth. While it is difficult to dissect all of the individual components that comprise a great user experience on mobile, just ask someone to go to a website on their phone, and you can watch just how hard or easy it is for them to navigate the website and take an action on it.
I believe that Google is rolling out their mobile-first index slowly so that they can get a feel for how the changes will truly affect search results. The mobile-first index is in some ways one of the biggest changes they have made in many years, and if there are any unexpected issues that arise, it would be better that Google do this in smaller steps to mitigate risks than to implement it all at once and “break the internet,” so to speak.
Director of Marketing and Growth, Bookmark Content and Communications
Too much change at once can lead to chaos. Making incremental advances will most likely lead to better, more sustainable results. Google can also learn and adapt as they move forward with this rollout method.
Ranking on page one of search results doesn’t mean much anymore. Being part of the local pack and getting featured in rich results – snippets, cards, carousels, knowledge panel – is the key to get noticed on Google. However, making sure that your site is fast, mobile-friendly (ideally responsive) and full of relevant and useful content is not all it takes.
Implementing structured data on your site will help Google understand your content and display it the way (it believes) users will find it most useful. Searchers will be able to rely on Google to find the best answers to their queries, compare options, read reviews and make purchases directly from the search results, without ever visiting a website.
Adapting your SEO strategy to feature your content, products and services in this way may lead to less site traffic. But, this change provides potential to increase brand awareness and conversions, even if it doesn’t take place on your site. The tricky part is figuring out how to track it all.
Ian Anderson Gray
Founder, Seriously Social
Google likes to be a champion of best practices and sometimes tries to push through changes. That's been the case with pushing sites to go HTTPS with the latest Google Chrome updates. And so with the "Speed Update" it's making site owners focus a lot more on the speed of their websites.
With image and video rich websites, it's easy for speed optimization to take a back seat, but Google is holding out a carrot to site owners so that they are more likely to optimize their sites for speed and giving the stick of reduced mobile rankings if they don't.
Sites that aren't optimized are going to load much slower, and Google wants to give people the content with the best experience. Slow sites are annoying, but on a mobile device this can be excruciating and for some more expensive, depending on their data plans.
Co-founder, Growth Ramp
Google's speed update is simply putting into practice what they have set out to achieve since day one: a search engine that provides the best answer to someone's question.
A large part of "the best answer" is when a site provides an excellent user experience. This is one reason Google made a huge push for Google AMP – it increased the site speed, and made the content even more mobile friendly.
CEO, Razor Social
Despite many years of telling people how important mobile is, a lot of companies still don't provide a good mobile offering. I think the slow release of the algorithm updates gives companies a chance to improve.
When we use a mobile device, time is not something we have a lot of. We could be on the train with a minute to spare or walking along looking up something. So speed is extremely important for the user experience, especially on a mobile device, when we have less time and patience.
I don't think the SEO community is investing enough time on voice searches. Increasingly on our mobile devices, this will become our primary way of searching Google. This has huge implications for search, so I think more planning needs to be put in place now for the future.
Michael B. Brenner
CEO, Marketing Insider Group
Google continues to prioritize websites that deliver the best user experience. That’s why page speed, especially on a mobile device, should be a priority for every business.
Pop-ups, some of which may result in a Google mobile index penalty, can be a huge annoyance for web visitors, especially on a mobile device. I would strongly recommend site owners consider removing pop-ups for all mobile users.
Founder and CEO, Pole Position Marketing
Switching to a mobile-first index is huge, and I think Google is taking the responsibility of that very seriously. They don't want a PR nightmare on their hands that indicates mishandling of so many people's businesses and livelihood.
A slow approach shows they are at least attempting to do this carefully.
When using a phone to surf the internet, nobody wants to wait for pages to load. Google, therefore, has to consider this as part of delivering a good user experience. If Google sends their users to sites that they don't like, ultimately, that's a loss of credibility for Google.
CEO, VUDU Marketing
Google has always wanted the same core thing: to provide a fast, accurate answer with as little friction as possible. Slow load speeds are a serious point of friction for mobile visitors, and there are now so many sites that can answer a query equally well, so why wouldn't Google want to emphasize those that minimize friction over their competitors?
Also, faster sites are usually smaller sites, which means less bandwidth and storage space needed on Google's end, which saves them an astronomical amount of money at scale over time.
In the next few years, I think people need to focus on UI, like tap targets and properly functional buttons and navigation systems. Soooo many mobile sites are still difficult to use, because the onscreen UI elements don't function properly. Going forward, I also think Google will be even harsher to mobile pop-ups and other obtrusive and annoying site features.
Many SEOs don’t understand that you aren't going to be "penalized" if your site isn't as mobile-friendly as it maybe should be. Rather, you simply won't see the same boost that other, more mobile-friendly sites are going to see, and the CTR and dwell times on your non-mobile friendly site may also put a damper on things. Still, it’s not a "penalty," so it shouldn't be presented that way.
The main purpose of the mobile-first update was for it to be widely marketed in advance, to try to push the rest of the web over to using responsive designs or dynamic serving.
Some other updates deal with Google going after what they feel are abuses in terms of quality. Some of those targeted things like link manipulation, poor user experience, ad heavy layout that hid the website's content, etc. Websites that are hard to use on mobile devices might rank a bit lower, but it is not like publishers were gaming the system by failing to have a responsive design. And if not having a responsive design harms user experience significantly, then that impact is already seen in the aggregate usage data.
People won't spend a lot of time on a website they think is hard to use. And they probably won't recommend it to others nor repeatedly visit and actively seek out something they think has a poor user experience.
Over the next year or two, I do expect Google to keep aggressively promoting their various proprietary formats like AMP or Google Posts. Ultimately, they would love to turn the search results into a news feed. And if they could acquire something like Twitter, they would integrate it quite heavily the same way they have maps, flight search, hotel ads and YouTube.
It is also worth mentioning that the more complex things get, the less diverse the web becomes. Go back five years or a decade, and many websites just had a single version that just about anyone could troubleshoot and edit. Now there is desktop design, responsive design, AMP, Facebook Instant Articles, HTTPS, apps, progressive web apps, etc. Each additional layer of effort duplication or technical cruft increases the chunk size of competition and lowers the diversity of the web. Time spent addressing technical complexity is time not spent creating content.
All of these changes can be quite scary, especially in the beginning. You’re not sure whether you’re doing the right things or whether your ranking will suddenly drop when you wake up in the morning.
That said, the focus on mobile is not exactly unexpected. More and more people use their mobile devices to browse online and are moving away from desktop versions.
So, even if it weren’t for Google’s mobile-first indexing, you should still have an amazing mobile version of your website. Or, I guess, now it’s the other way around: your desktop version of your mobile website.
What do you think of the evolution of Google’s mobile-first indexing?