Google Mobile-First Index Myths

Patrick Coyne
Patrick Coyne Director of Organic & Local Search

As with every major Google update there’s plenty of misinformation and confusion. And with the recent news that Google has started rolling out its Google’s Mobile-First index, this new update is no different.

mobile seo exampleAs a quick refresher, Google indexes the web using a desktop user agent – essentially seeing the web as a desktop user would. Google then uses this data to create an index of the web, and then finally uses this index to retrieve Search results for the user, regardless of whether the user searches on desktop or mobile. Adjustments are made to the rankings based on some mobile Search factors, but mobile Search results are derived from a desktop-centric index.

Until now. Google is flipping the script, as all searches will now be based on a mobile index. It makes total sense from Google’s perspective as more people search on mobile devices than they do on desktops now. But for the average website owner, this can mean all types of confusion. And this change also invalidates a lot of the recommended best practices for mobile SEO from just a few years back.

So as a means to address some of this confusion and help you get ready for the looming Google changes, read below as we bust some of the most common Mobile-First myths. (or check out the “Too Long Didn’t Read (TLRD)” section if you’re in a time crunch!).

Google’s Mobile-First Index – Myths and Misconceptions:

  1. The Mobile-First Index affects Bing too:
  2. If your site is not responsive, you have no chance of ranking:
    • Having a responsive website that automatically adapts to any device is a huge advantage in a Mobile-First world. Responsive design means you have the same content and same code on both desktop and mobile, meaning if your site is optimized, it’s automatically optimized for both desktop and mobile platforms. But does that mean a responsive site is required? What if you have a separate desktop site and a mobile site?responsive design The truth is you can still rank. The problem becomes that often times a mobile site, because of its size, will have less content than the standard desktop site. So, you have to ensure that the mobile version of your website has enough content in order to rank in the first place. Try to make your mobile experience as close as possible to your desktop experience (while still keeping it built for the intent of a mobile user. Beyond content, there are also some technical updates you may need to make in order to compete, but it is absolutely possible to outrank responsive websites.
    • TLDR: You can still rank, but you’ll need to do some extra work for it.
  3. You need AMP to rank:
    • “Accelerated Mobile Pages” are pages that load very fast on mobile devices. Google favors these pages because they believe they will keep users within the mobile web (aka, Google’s home turf) instead of going into mobile apps. Google has officially stated that AMP-usage is not a ranking factor. However, Google has also stated that mobile page speed may be used as a ranking factor “in upcoming months.” That article was written in June 2016, by the way, so I guess that means now-ish? Whether page speed is a direct ranking factor or a UX factor that influences ranking factors, we know that fast-loading pages tend to rank higher, and therefore you should do everything you can to ensure your mobile pages are loading quickly. But the question now is do you need AMP to rank well in a mobile index? Furthermore, if you already have a fast-loading mobile site, do you also need accelerated mobile pages? There’s lot of unknowns here, which means you need to make a few assumptions as well. For instance, do you really believe Google when they say they will not give special preference to a AMPs? Plus there are disadvantages with AMPs – when viewing an AMP in a mobile browser, the page URL does not appear, which could potentially affect Direct Traffic (note: This will apparently change in 2017). And confusingly, Google isn’t necessarily indexing the AMP versions in all cases. For instance, if you have a desktop-only website and then build AMPs without building a mobile-version, Google will by default index your desktop version in the mobile index.
      TIP: In this case, you’ll need to implement a rel=aternate tag to explicitly let Google know that there is an alternative version of the page.  Your best course of action is to see where you stand with your load speeds on mobile, see what improvements can be made, then decide if AMP or other page improvements are the right way to go. Project Website
    • TLDR: Google says AMP is not a ranking factor, but who knows? AMP can help your Search rankings, but it may not be your best option.
  4. If you don’t have a mobile site, you won’t be indexed. Alternatively, it’s better to only have a desktop site:
    1. A Mobile-First index doesn’t simply mean that all desktop-only websites will disappear from Google. This would be a ridiculous idea for a number of reasons – mainly, Google will be presenting an incomplete snapshot of the web and not necessarily serving users with the best possible answer to their query. If you only have a desktop website, Google will still crawl and index it for their Mobile index. However, with all things being equal, Google would favor a mobile-optimized site over a desktop one. But now that that’s been answered, you have to ask if you even need a mobile version of your site in the first place, or can you stick with just your desktop website. The truth is, there is no blanket answer for this, but our recommendation is that all businesses should have some mobile presence. Arguably, there are local businesses that get the majority of their leads from directories such as Google My Business and/or from social media, but wouldn’t you want to have every possible avenue available for potential customers? If not for your customers, but for Google that is prioritizing mobile over desktop. As another example, if you’ve got an e-commerce website and it’s nearly impossible to navigate the site on a mobile device, you need to optimize for mobile ASAP.
    2. TLDR: Desktop-only sites will still be indexed, and although not every website necessarily needs a mobile version, it’s better to have it than not.
  5. Expandable content is discounted:
    • Another confusing bit of misinformation. It’s true that content within a click-to-expand box used to be discounted in the eyes of Google. The idea being that if the content isn’t good enough to appear when the page first loads, it can’t be that important. But in a Mobile-First world, the ideal way to present content is changing and it makes sense to have hidden content in order to create a better mobile experience. Therefore, Google will treat all content on mobile equally – hidden or otherwise. But confusingly, there’s still lots of content out there that says the exact opposite. Therefore, it’s important to keep in mind that such content refers to a Desktop-First index.
    • TLDR: Expandable and hidden content has recently become a-okay in the world of mobile.
  6. It’s impossible to do linkbuilding for mobile sites/All the links for my desktop site are meaningless now
    • Links have virtually always been, and for the foreseeable future will remain, an important ranking factor. But linking behavior is very different on mobile compared to desktop. Users don’t generally link in the world of mobile nearly as often as they would to a desktop website. So if you’ve done a ton of great linkbuilding to your desktop site, is all that hard work now down the drain? Also, since linking doesn’t come natural to the typical mobile user, is it even possible to do mobile linkbuilding without seeming unnatural and potentially incurring Google’s wrath? Unfortunately Google hasn’t shared much information on how they will treat backlinks moving forward, so it’s impossible to tell what will happen next. Some possibilities are that Google could put more emphasis on other ranking factors (for instance, social sharing) that come more natural to mobile users. Or, as Search Engine Journal speculates, Google could “carry the weight of your links directed to your desktop” website over to the Mobile-First index. But again, at this point it’s anyone’s guess. Also, keep in mind this is only referring to websites that have separate desktop and mobile websites and not responsive websites, which will be unaffected. At this point, the best advice is to just stay the course and continue doing your usual linkbuilding. You should consider creating more content as well as updating existing content to make it more appealing to the mobile user, but until we get more information on backlinks and the Mobile Index, no drastic changes are necessary.
    • TLDR: It’s too early to recommend any changes (or to know if any changes are even necessary), so stick with the plan for now.
  7. This will have a huge impact on my rankings
    • It could. But like a lot of other items on this list, that all depends. Google has said that they don’t expect any major ranking fluctuations, but honestly, how can they know for sure? Undoubtedly once this update is mobile searches on googlefully rolled-out, how could desktop-only websites not be impacted? I’m aware of some websites that have slight variations in keyword rankings between desktop and mobile, but even those minor differences could result in big increases and decreases in Traffic. While it’s impossible (and ultimately unhelpful) to guess as to what overall impact this change will have, the most important thing is to get your own house in order. First, check your websites desktop keyword rankings against mobile. If you don’t already track desktop and mobile rankings get that setup ASAP. Look for any major differences in the rankings. You’re going to see some slight variations (for instance, you might be ranking #5 for a particular keyword in desktop and #7 in mobile). What you want to look for is major changes in keyword rankings. Is there something you’re ranking for on desktop and not ranking for at all on mobile? If that’s the case, explore that particular page further and see what the user experience is like on desktop vs. mobile. Does desktop have more content? Is it hard to navigate the webpage on mobile? After you’ve done this, adjust the page so that the experience is close to identical across all devices.
    • TLDR: The only way to know for sure is to track and compare your desktop and mobile rankings. If you see any issues, make adjustments.
  8. You need to drastically change your content for Voice Search
    • If you read an SEO blog in the last 18 months, you’ve definitely seen an article about how Voice Search is the next big thing and how Voice Search is going to drastically change the way your website does SEO. In seo reportfact, there’s been lots of hyperbolic articles about how Voice Search will change the way we do internetz forever and ever. What we’re not talking about here is personal assistants like Alexa who give you an instant answer when you ask her who won the World Series in 2008 (it was, of course, the Phillies and I would never need Alexa to tell me that). Instead we’re talking about Voice Search through your mobile device – you ask your device for sushi near you and you get Search results based on your location. Usually these Voice Searches are longer than a typed Search query. For example, you might say something conversational like “what is the best sushi place near me?” vs. typing something simple like “best sushi near me.” By the way, when I typed those two queries into Google just now, the Search results were identical. But let’s consider Voice Search from a website owner’s perspective – what could you really do to better optimize your site content for Voice Search anyway? Sure, you could utilize microdata and also make sure you have claimed and optimized local directory listings (particularly Google My Business), but you should do that anyway. The truth is that Voice Search isn’t going to change the way websites are optimized. Years ago when a website was optimized it meant dropping an exact match keyword into the webpage every 100 words. Now the focus is on including variations of your target keywords naturally within your content. If you’re writing content in a way that is conversational, focused, and ultimately delivers what the user is looking for, you’ll do just fine in Voice Search.
    • TLDR: If you’ve already got good content that is written for the user (and not just for Search engines), you’ll be fine.
  9. You need a mobile app in order to rank higher
    • Mobile apps are great, but here’s the truth: apps have little to do with Google’s Search Index. Yes, apps can be indexed by Google, but not every app is indexed and users only see apps in their Search results if they’re signed into Google. App downloads is a ranking factor, however, that only affects users who are both signed into their Google account AND have your app downloaded on their phone already. Finally, Google will likely prioritize websites over apps because they want users to remain on the web. Needless to say, while a mobile app can be a huge boost to other aspects of your marketing, it’s not a replacement for a website (mobile or otherwise) and will not have any real impact on your site indexation or ranking.
    • TLDR: Not everyone needs a mobile app. Regardless, it’s not the most important arrow in your mobile quiver.
  10. This is just another one of Google’s Experiments:
    • Actually, yes. This one is true. Google has already admitted that the Mobile-First index is an experiment, and depending on what they see after it is fully implemented, they may decide to go back to their Desktop-First index. Google has a history of rolling out big, sweeping changes only to roll them back later on. But don’t let this discourage you, and don’t assume that this means you should wait and see. The fact is, more people Search on mobile then they do on desktop. So regardless of what Google does, doesn’t do, or does for a short time then undos, you should cater to mobile users and work to provide the best possible user experience.
    • TLDR: Don’t sweat Google so much. Your top priority is providing the best possible experience to your users.

With all the misinformation and SEO myths out in the world, how can you know what’s phoney-baloney fake news and what’s the real deal? Luckily you can check out our 79 SEO Myths and Misconceptions.