Mobile-First Indexing

The master Google search index is now mobile-first, mirroring shifts in user behavior.

This past November, Google announced the roll out of a new mobile-first search index, which we can expect to take full effect within the next few months.

As the future of mobile continues to take hold, Google’s mobile-first index shift is among many updates that cater to a more mobile-friendly web. Previously, when a user conducted a search (via desktop or mobile) with desktop-based indexing, Googlebot crawled desktop versions of webpages, and ranked them based on the relevance to their desktop-based index. To the inconvenience of mobile searchers, Google’s desktop-based ranking index couldn’t evaluate mobile properly. This was largely due to the tendency for mobile sites to have less content than the desktop version – so users weren’t finding the information they came looking for.

While this transition may be alarming to some, the mobile-first index shift is a natural progression to adapt user experience to an increasingly mobile-dominated world. In 2015, Google announced that mobile search queries had surpassed desktop-based search queries, and this number has only continued to rise. So, once Google completes testing and decides their mobile-first index is ready to give users the best overall experience, mobile-first will be the primary search engine index for all users on both desktop and mobile devices.

In essence, mobile-friendly sites are what matters.

If you have an adaptive or responsively designed site where content is the same across mobile and desktop, you won’t need to change anything to accommodate the mobile-first index. To check if your site is optimized for mobile, Google offers a mobile-friendly test console.

If you have a site configuration where the primary content and markup is different across your mobile and desktop sites, the mobile-first index shift is a prompt to consider change. Particularly, mobile-first indexing presents an opportunity to develop a more targeted user experience.

In Google’s Search Console, site owners can register both a desktop and mobile version of their site, to be crawled accordingly. So, when building your mobile site, consider the content that users come for. The mobile-first index will demand you to tailor your site experience to customer’s expectations, wants, and needs.

Let’s look at this opportunity in application.

We know that mobile users tend to be more utilitarian in nature, searching for specific information in store or on the spot. Google refers to these fragmented, purpose-driven engagements as micro-moments, which are deemed extremely formative to shaping customer preferences and purchasing decisions. Google data shows that when in store, 82% of smartphone users turn to their mobile devices to help make an in-person purchasing decision, and in 2016 alone, mobile shopping-related searches have increased by over 120%.

In order to make a more confident purchase decision, customers want the exact information they came to your site for at the exact moment they need it.

How should multi-channel retailers with brick-and-mortar locations react to this data? By prioritizing mobile-site content that will augment the customer’s in-store purchasing experience. Most importantly, by considering the context of customer’s micro-moment search needs, then placing this content front and center on the mobile site.

For example: Customers considering coming to your physical store need on-hand hours and locations, so this information should be concrete, convenient, and mobile-friendly. When customers are on the fence about a product in their hand, include mobile-site customer reviews that will help close the purchase. If a customer is in store, considering questions like, “which variation of this product did I get last time?”, ensure a detailed order history is easily accessible on your mobile site. In understanding that users navigate your site to quickly find solutions and answers, keep a logical, consistent navigation hierarchy of categories and subcategories that speak directly to the content offered on each page.

In contrast to mobile’s need-based interactions, desktop users tend to spend more time browsing, with more pages viewed and half the bounce rate. So, with leisure in mind, desktop users are more open to design elements like boxed testimonials of quotes, a highlighted funnel to the brand’s blog, and large carousel images, which may be seen as an inconvenience to information-intent mobile users.

Considering customer context and motivation for mobile and desktop visits can provide a foundation for multi-channel retailers to manage content more effectively across mobile and desktop sites.

And while the imminent mobile-first index may leave you quick to jump-the-gun on your mobile site launch – be weary. In a final note, Google warns, “A functional desktop-oriented site can be better than a broken or incomplete mobile version of the site” – so take your time to develop a mobile site that is organized, specific, engaging, and ready to meet your customer’s expectations.