Google has already begun the process of rolling out its “mobile-first” index. You might notice some slight changes in your rankings as a result.
So what is the mobile-first index and how will it affect your SEO efforts? Here are a few things you need to know.
The Mobile User Agent
In the past, Google crawled your site as a desktop user. Tech-savvy people would say that the Googlebot used a desktop user agent.
Now, however, Google is opting for a mobile user agent.
What that means is this: Google is traversing your site as a user with a smartphone instead of as somebody with a laptop or desktop computer. That’s significant for a couple of reasons.
First, some mobile versions of websites eliminate whole sections on certain pages. For example, your website might not display a sidebar for smartphone users in portrait mode because there just isn’t enough screen space for a sidebar.
And when that sidebar is gone, so are all the links on it. That means the Googlebot won’t crawl those links because they aren’t there.
Of course, Google also ranks sites based their mobile-friendliness. If your site takes a long time to load or is difficult to navigate for mobile users, then you’ll likely take a hit in rank.
That’s why the best response to Google’s “mobile-first” indexing policy is to adopt a “mobile-first” SEO strategy.
An Index for the Modern Era
So why is Google moving to a mobile-first index?
Because the times are a-changin’.
For starters, recent stats show that the number of mobile users exceeds the number of desktop users.
Also, Google is on record as stating that there are more mobile searches than desktop searches.
Google is obsessed with delivering a great experience to its user community (take note, other software companies), so it’s no surprise that the company would change its indexing policy to something that’s more favorable to the mobile community.
Non-Responsive Sites Still Get a Seat at the Table
If your website doesn’t adapt well to a mobile display (i.e., it’s non-responsive or smartphone optimized), you might be concerned that you’ll drop out of the index entirely under Google’s new policy.
You don’t have to worry at all. Google will still crawl your site with its mobile user agent, even if it’s not a site that’s fully optimized for a mobile platform.
Keep in mind, though, that you should definitely make your site more responsive. There’s just no way that you can stay competitive or make any kind of convincing statement online unless your site looks great on a smartphone or tablet.
Hidden Content Gets Indexed
If you have a site that uses accordions and tabs, then you know that certain content is effectively hidden from the users until they click a navigation link. As a result, you might be asking yourself: “Does Google find and index the hidden content?”
Although the hidden content isn’t visible to a “real” user, the Googlebot will find it as it traverses around your site.
In fact, Google’s Gary Illyes is on record as saying that hidden content is given the same weight as visible content.
So rest easy. Google isn’t going to demote your site just because you’re offering mobile users a great experience.
Rankings Won’t Change Much (Probably)
Will your rankings shift a lot now that Google is crawling your site as a mobile user?
If you’re thinking that you’ll see your rank bounce up or down significantly for certain keywords because Google is crawling your site with a mobile user agent, you’ll be happy to learn that that’s probably not going to happen.
At least that’s not the plan. The mobile-first index is still a work-in-progress, so there might be some surprises ahead.
It Has Already Begun
Google’s mobile-first indexing is already underway. It’s going to take several months to complete, though.
Also, Google won’t disclose a formal release date. That’s because the company is still testing the new index.
As Google becomes more confident that the new code is working as designed, you can expect to see more pages indexed with the mobile-first Googlebot.
You Can See What Google Sees
So how does your site “look” to Google’s mobile user agent? You can see for yourself.
Fire up the Google Search Console, select the web property of choice, and click on “Crawl” on the left-hand sidebar. A new context menu will appear.
Click on “Fetch as Google” from the new menu. You’ll see a page that lets you enter a URL and crawl that URL as Google.
You’ll also see a drop-down menu that’s defaulted to “desktop.” Change that to “mobile smartphone.” Then, click the “Fetch and Render” button.
Wait for a few moments and the tool will show you what Google sees when it crawls your site as a mobile user.
One Index to Rule Them All
As we’ve seen, Google has already started crawling sites with its mobile user agent. However, it hasn’t stopped crawling sites with its desktop user agent.
Now, there are two indexes: a mobile index and a desktop index. Some Googlers will see results from the mobile index while others will see results from the desktop index.
But that’s only a temporary situation. Eventually, Google will eliminate the desktop index and everyone will see results from the mobile index.
Crazy enough, this is not the future of SEO.
Artificial intelligence is really what people are optimizing for now.
Expect articles from me on this in the future.
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