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Toward the end of 2016, Google announced what many in the SEO community had suspected for years: the company was using a separate index dedicated to mobile search, and it planned to adopt the algorithm for desktop search shortly thereafter. Although the move was unsurprising, it resulted in leaving traditional SEO in a kind of limbo state. Was Google’s mobile-first index going to kick desktop SEO best practices to the curb? If there were going to be exceptions or considerations, where would they come into play? This announcement left developers and site owners everywhere wondering if they needed to convert all their web pages for the new internet of mobile indexing.

At the time, it wasn’t just SEO professionals who needed answers to these questions, but online marketing experts, too. As a collective, we worried that traditional marketing efforts like banner advertisements, pop-up ads, and opt-in forms would no longer be as effective on mobile as they were on desktop. Case in point: on January 11, 2017, Google penalized web pages with intrusive interstitials (aka pop-ups) that partially or fully covered web page content when users moved from a SERP to the web page. Users often had to dismiss these pages before they could access the information on the website, hence their intrusive title. 

In the years following Google’s 2016 mobile-first index switch, our team learned to adapt, so here are the most important takeaways we gathered as we transitioned along with the rest of the internet’s best SEO specialists and online marketers.

Optimize Websites for Mobile Indexing

Up until 2017, the common practice was to build, design, and optimize a website for desktop with mobile optimization coming after everything else was finalized. Pieces of on-page copy would inevitably get lost in the translation, but the most important thing was that the main content was registering well and everything was loading quickly on mobile screens. However, with the mobile-first index now ruling the SEO world, it only makes sense to reverse the conventional web development process and begin with designing user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) with a mobile-first format. For example, when uploading a video on a website, choose a mobile-compatible format like AVI and MPEG-4 instead of Flash video.

Although desktop indexing is not obsolete, Google’s practice is to look at your mobile pages first and base your website ranking on the quality of your mobile content. Today, if your website doesn’t have a mobile version, Google bots will then opt to crawl your website’s desktop version instead. Therefore, it’s better to brush up on your mobile SEO rather than risk having Google come across a poorly-optimized mobile version of your site.

Mobile User Behavior Should Factor into Your SEO & Marketing Strategies

In this mobile-first index world, experts note that users treat mobile search differently from desktop. Mobile searchers prioritize speed, as well as concise and precise information. They use their phones for specific queries with specific answers, like the happy hour times of a restaurant, the release date of an upcoming movie, or local, geo-targeted searches. Mobile search users tend to use natural language queries and if they want to find or know something through Google, they type or speak their entire question in a full sentence format. Some examples of this include:

  • Who was the lead actor in The Princess Bride?
  • Where do Prince Harry and Meghan Markle live now?
  • What is the title of the song in the Thor: Ragnarok trailer?
  • How tall is the Burj Khalifa?

Internet users are more likely to use desktop search if they are doing extensive, in-depth research, especially if their query involves a more complex subject matter. This behavior makes sense: a mobile screen, even if it’s a tablet, shows a significantly more limited amount of information compared to the screen of a desktop, with certain functionalities also being limited or restricted in mobile indexing. Interactive features like drop-down menus, interactive graphics, and Java for PDF documents (like those used on academic websites for published papers) load slowly–if at all–on mobile phones.

The rapidly rising popularity of voice search has also driven website content from the keyword-heavy language of previous years to more natural verbiage and casual sentence structure. Users don’t naturally speak in a string of nonsensical keyword combinations; they give clear search commands or ask straightforward questions using complete sentences.

Expanded Title and Meta Description Character Count

With the mobile-first index, it’s likely that the use of natural language in mobile search is one of the main reasons Google increased the length of SERP snippets. The company applied this update to both mobile and desktop searches, expanding the character count for meta descriptions (also known as search snippets) from 160 to 230 characters. Search Engine Journal remarked that Google lengthened the snippets for certain topics and SERPs so much that searchers are likely to find the answers they’re looking for directly in the SERPs, sometimes without ever needing to navigate to another site.

SEO specialists and digital marketers can take advantage of longer titles and snippets by including not just the business name, but also the keywords and descriptions of its products or services. However, the old practice of dumping keywords into the meta description is no longer effective and is more likely to cause Google to see your snippet as low quality. Mobile indexing is more likely to rank pages with keyword-rich yet well-written meta descriptions.

Informative snippets are also more attractive to mobile users. The mobile SERP layout maximizes the limited screen space in such a way that the focus is on the meta descriptions present. Given mobile users’ behavior and intent, they are more likely to gravitate towards snippets that promise relevant information rather than a SERP with a missing or poorly written snippet.

Implications for SEO

Based on the information above, we can safely deduce that mobile-first index for search will change some SEO practices, including those that have become a staple in both ranking and marketing campaigns. But don’t worry, because these changes are not entirely different from the theories and concepts that have ruled desktop SEO for years. Here are a few recommendations on how you can keep up with Google’s mobile indexing.

Prioritize Your Content Marketing

Besides the mobile-first index’s preference for natural language, Google also uses the RankBrain. This is a sophisticated, machine-learning AI system that enables the search engine to interpret queries and find pages that contain the most relevant answers. By creating value-rich content (i.e., blogs, articles, videos) and deploying them in key domains, you can get valuable backlinks, leads, traffic, and even encourage customer action.

Modify Your Website’s Interstitials

As we discussed with the mobile-first index above, Google is not banning pop-up ads and opt-in pages; it just doesn’t like it when they appear before web pages that users click on from the mobile SERPs. Digital marketers are free to push them live on desktop versions of websites. A good rule of thumb from now on is to steer clear of Google’s penalty for intrusive interstitials by making your pop-up ads appear when users navigate from one internal page to another.

Maximize PPC Ads on Google SERPs

As with desktop search queries, mobile indexing still prompts SERPs to continue to display ads before organic results. This is an advantage for businesses that serve customers within a certain geographic region. As we tell our clients, geo-targeted mobile ads prove beneficial to both SEO and marketing campaigns. Desktop search includes national data unless the user specifies a location in the query, but– with mobile search–a customer in Denver looking for a restaurant in the area is more likely to see Denver-based pay-per-click (PPC) ads even without adding “Denver” in the query.

Convert Your Desktop Web Pages to Mobile Format

You don’t have to do everything immediately since Google will still index a desktop version of a page if a mobile format isn’t available, but you can start with the pages that often receive the most mobile traffic and referrals. It’s also a solid practice to begin as early as possible if your website has hundreds of indexed pages. This will save the backlinks you’ve earned from your desktop version. Although Google says it will take these backlinks into consideration, there’s no surefire guarantee that the mobile-first index will still crawl the desktop version once it has seen the mobile version.

The shift towards mobile-centric SEO has only grown in the past seven years, and the changes it has wrought are apparent. The mobile-first index SERPs have made their way to desktops, so time is of the essence if you haven’t yet adapted your SEO strategy to accommodate the shift. It’s better to be ahead of the curve than to act at the last minute, after all. If you need an expert in your corner to help you navigate mobile indexing and mobile SEO, RefractROI is here to help. If you already have a website, our team is ready to help you transition from desktop to mobile, so you maintain your lead in the industry. Get in touch with our SEO specialists today.

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