“We don’t have a timeline for the launch yet. We have some ideas for when this will launch, but it’s probably many quarters away. Our engineers’ timeline was initially end of 2017. Right now, we think more 2018.”
But eventually, Google will consider mobile content as primary to evaluate a page’s rankings. And needless to say, your online visibility will greatly rely on how well you’ve prepared for it. I’ve already shared with you what I believe is a must-do for each organization that wants to ensure their mobile site is properly optimized to drive their rankings.
If you’ve gone through my checklist, you know what the most crucial elements you need to take into account on your mobile site are. But I bet you sometimes wonder how well others sites' are prepared for the mobile-first index.
That’s why, together with my team, we’ve researched five leading eCommerce companies to see how well they’re prepared for the mobile-first index. And of course, in the process, we’ve identified the most common issues that might prevent them from retaining their search visibility once it launches.
(Unfortunately, due to a highly sensitive nature of this information, I cannot reveal what domains we’ve analyzed. However, I hope that in spite of this limitation, you’ll gain good insights into what’s required to optimize a site for the "new" index).
First, let me briefly explain our methodology behind this research. We’ve initially surveyed 38 leading eCommerce sites, and shortlisted 20 of them that utilize a separate, mobile URL.
Out of those 20, we’ve identified 5 sites that we closely examined against the following six criteria:
- Content parity
- Mobile meta-tags
- Schema Markup
- Mobile Speed
- Content Accessibility/Article Content
And here are the overall results:
*Green = ready for the mobile-first index, Yellow = moderately ready, Red = not ready for the mobile-first index, i.e. the mobile version of their page lacked the information
So, let’s go through them in detail:
#1. Content Parity
I couldn’t have put it better than Jayson DeMers, who wrote over at Forbes (note, the emphasis in bold is mine):
“[...] the impact of mobile-first indexing will come into play if your mobile and desktop sites are significantly different.”
If you’re mobile and desktop content are identical, for example, by using a responsive layout, then the launch of the mobile-first index should make no difference to your rankings. However, as you can see from our study results, content parity is not always the case with the domains we’ve analyzed.
*Green = ready for the mobile-first index, Yellow = moderately ready, Red = not ready for the mobile-first index
Three out of five sites we looked at either truncate or even completely remove sections of content between desktop and mobile sites.
In the case of one domain, the difference was 80% of the desktop content was not present on the mobile site. Others present main headlines but remove their body copy or even use different content between both versions of their sites.
Now, it’s easy to understand the reasoning behind serving an abbreviated version of the content on the mobile. The reason that sites have truncated their mobile content initially was to help provide a better user experience on a smaller screen and present users with only the information that’s easy and quick to load on their device. SEO leads should identify ways to accomplish a full content/information experience on mobile by creating a UI that will still accomplish the best user experience (i.e. by adding content "cards" or a side "map screen" for easy content navigation, rather than cutting it).
However, this practice might be the biggest correlation with negative impact to rankings once the mobile-first index goes live.
#2. Mobile Meta Tags
Luckily, the situation is far better when it comes to optimizing meta tags on the mobile site.
We’ve found only one domain that did not provide mobile meta tags. However, some serve different titles and descriptions between both website versions. And although we’ve marked them as passing the criteria, I’d strongly suggest that sites update to match the desktop tags on their mobile site moving forward.
#3. H1 Tag
I have to say; these results came as a total surprise. Two of the five domains either do not transfer their desktop tags to the site, using a generic H1 instead or have no H1 tag whatsoever. If "mobile-first" is coming soon then key elements like this are easy wins to have in place. Similarly, some domains feature a well-optimized H1 tag on the homepage. However, they completely omit it on product or category pages.
Given how much we know about the importance of the H1 tag, it would seem only logical that it’s the first element to optimize, after meta-tags.
(A graph from Chris Butterworth’s study on the importance of H1 tags for SEO)
#4. Schema Markup
I’m sure you already know the benefits of using schema markup on your site. It helps to tell search engines what your content means, not just what it is. Just like the aforementioned <h1> tag, for example. For the most part, it explains how to display the information. But it doesn’t describe what it explains.
Schema, on the other hand, tells the search engine what the specific data means. And needless to say, using the schema markup improves your click thru rate via Rich Snippets.
But in spite of this, not all domains we’ve analyzed implement schema in their mobile markup. In fact, only two of them used the exact same schema markup on both, mobile and desktop sites. One didn’t utilize it on either version of the site, and the rest display only some of the schema tags on their mobile site.
This disparity might come at a huge cost in the new index. As Google explained (note, the emphasis in bold is mine):
“To make our results more useful, we’ve begun experiments to make our index mobile-first. Although our search index will continue to be a single index of websites and apps, our algorithms will eventually primarily use the mobile version of a site’s content to rank pages from that site, to understand structured data, and to show snippets from those pages in our results.”
In other words, once the mobile-first index goes live, Google will look for the schema on the mobile site, and use what it finds there to display rich snippets. So if not present, than these sites should lose their rich snippets in the SERPs, is how I'm reading that.
#5. Mobile Site Speed
We already know that site speed will be one of the rankings factors in the new index.
And given how crucial the overall site speed is to achieving higher rankings, I imagined that companies would put effort into ensuring their content loads fast on mobile devices. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem the case. Almost every site we’ve analyzed performed poorly on site speed compared to Google's expectations.
And it doesn’t matter whether we looked at category pages, homepage, products, content… the results were far from satisfactory.
*MC = merchandise category, Cat = category, P = product, Con = content
But what’s important is that assessing your page’s load time isn’t difficult. Tools like seoClarity’s Page Speed can help you assess how fast your pages load on mobile devices. And furthermore, identifies the issues and ideas on how to make them load even faster.
#6. Blog Accessibility
All of the domains in our study allow their articles to be accessed by mobile devices with no restrictions. However, we’ve found some minor issues with this factor as well.
Some domains simply redirect mobile users to the desktop site (i.e. they did not present their article content in a mobile version). In some other cases, the article content used a responsive design layout, meaning that users will have no problems consuming the content on their device.
Others have mobile versions of their blogs. Only. one company in our research provided no article content on either version of the site.
Based on this research, we can clearly see which domains should see the biggest ranking losses once the new index goes live. Any site with significant content differences between desktop and mobile sites will most likely experience a drop.
One or two domains, although failing in certain factors, might still outperform their competition due to the strongest site speed. Not to mention that sites with the poor schema will either lose or have difficulty gaining rich snippets presence.
And all that just because they haven’t properly optimized their mobile sites.
What about you?
How do you think your mobile site will fare in the new index?