The Mobile-First Web – Get Ahead of the Coming Changes

The folks over at Google have been talking about a mobile-only index for years now. It might finally be coming our way within the next year.

Gary Illyes, a webmaster trends analyst at Google, was on the latest episode of Search Engine Journal’s Search Engine Nerds Podcast, where he talked about the move to focus on mobile and dropped some nuggets of information about Google’s plans.

Although the SEO experts have spoken about a mobile-only index for awhile, it looks like it’s time to start planning your upcoming digital marketing assets with the new way of indexing in mind. On the podcast, Illyes hedged expectations about this timeline:

We don’t like to give concrete timelines because it depends on many things. We are trying to stay away from that. But even internally, we have quite a few dates or time ranges in mind, and yes one of them was the end of this year, but we agreed that that probably will not happen. Then there was next year, early next year, that’s more realistic.

The trend is heading mobile. Mobile devices continue their upward trend of dominating consumer’s browsing habits. With that in mind, Illyes said that Google is trying to make the transition without wreaking too much havoc:

[We want to] slowly move toward a mobile-first index and without that being noticed externally. That’s a very difficult thing to do, so we are thinking very carefully about what we can do and how we can do it. And that part takes a lot of time, and obviously, testing also takes a lot of time, because we can’t just flip a flag, and then say that ‘Okay, now everything is mobile-friendly’ because that could very much harm sites.

If this is the case, migrating an existing site won’t be very traumatic to the site owner or their rankings in the search engines.

But as we’ve seen before, whenever Google makes a major shift like this, there will be casualties. For example, the way a site owner goes about making their site mobile friendly could adversely affect the sites rankings of not handled properly by an experienced SEO/Digital Marketing expert.

As Illyes points out, choosing a responsive design is the easiest way to ensure that your site isn’t penalized by the upcoming changes. But ultimately, as long as your site is correctly mobile friendly, there won’t be a problem.

[We at Google] were saying that we don’t particularly care about what kind of setup that you use for your mobile site. There are three possibilities:

  • Responsive.
  • Dynamic serving.
  • M-site or different site.

While thinking about this mobile-first index and looking at the data that we collected, we realized that the sites that are using responsive design are barely affected by this change. We don’t have to be smart or to outsmart those sites in order to move them to mobile-first index.

But then there is some M and dynamic serving, where we have to come up with really weird setups on our end to ensure that their traffic is not harmed. Ultimately, we would want to shift our communications into a direction where we strongly recommend responsive web design, versus saying that, ‘Yeah, we don’t care.’

The key takeaway is that it’s going to become imperative that you focus on your site design and how it views on a mobile device. Responsive design is the safest and carries the least threat of ranking loss but it often requires a complete redesign of your site. The other two methods, dynamic serving, and m-site can both be done but could incur penalties and loss of rank.

Ultimately, thinking about how your site looks and operates on mobile devices cannot be put off any longer.

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