Google announced in 2017 that in early 2018 it would be transitioning site and content indexing to be “mobile-first”. What this means is that the content displaying on the mobile version of your site will now serve as the basis for Google’s index versus the old desktop-version based index. Technically speaking, what this means is that the Smartphone Googlebot will be crawling your site’s pages and the cached versions of a page will typically be the mobile version of the page.

So what does Google’s shift to “mobile-first” indexing mean for your business?

For many businesses who have fully-responsive, mobile designed sites, this should not impact them for the most part, however, sites which are only partially responsive or who decided to constrain mobile site navigation, content depth and breadth and alter site architecture for their mobile versions, this definitely matters.

To be mobile responsive your site needs to have content which is crawl-able via JavaScript and CSS, load rapidly, be properly sized for mobile-sized screens (fonts, fixed width features) and provide an engaging user experience in a smartphone medium.

[You can test your site here with Google or use a mobile version tester like Google Chrome Developer Tools or Screaming Frog site crawl using the Googlebot smartphone crawler.]

Here is the list of the 6 most important implications you need to be aware of for mobile-first indexing:

  1. Impacts to SEO
    1. Reduced depth/breadth of optimized content
    2. Fewer inbound links associated with content
    3. Higher mobile page load times due to uncompressed/unoptimized images, videos and other dynamic elements
    4. Lack of correct structured data markup (specific to mobile url)
  2. Source for hreflang tags for internationalization
    1. Mobile URLs’ hreflang annotations should point to the mobile version of your country or language site
  3. Completeness of social metadata
    1. OpenGraph tags, Twitter cards and other social metadata should be included in the mobile version of your site
  4. Accessibility of XML sitemaps and privacy policy
    1. Make sure that any links to sitemaps and your privacy policy are fully accessible in the mobile version.
  5. Accessibility of robots txt
    1. Make sure that your robots.txt and on-page meta-robots tags are accessible on mobile version.
  6. Site verification in Search Console
    1. Make sure the mobile version of your site is verified not just the desktop version.

What clues to the future of SEO lie in this new mobile-first direction for Google’s indexing of internet content?

Speculations by experts like Cindy Krum at MobileMoxie hint at Google’s move toward indexing of entities over url’s as a new systemic change underway for the basis of the index behind the internet:

“Huge amounts of data and information that is not HTML formatted is processed in the background of the Internet. This type of information is becoming critical for the Internet of Things (IoT) and Big Data style calculations. It is accessible only through API’s and direct access to the databases, and Google wants to be able to leverage this information in their algorithm.”

Remember when databases went from binary to object-oriented? Now we are moving one step further towards a world directed by relational databases (e.g. Google’s evolving index) and by artificial intelligence.

The implications are intriguing:

  • The continued expansion of voice activated search (completely unreliant on urls)
  • Apps competing with websites in an SEO context
  • The ability to deliver on-demand, real time content (served up from servers where the content changes but the url doesn’t)
  • Content “entities” identified by signals such as schema/structured markup and xml feeds vs by a url it lives on
  • Increasing dependence of Google on feed data, API delivered data accessing site databases (think flights, weather, recipes, sports scores, product listing ad shopping results all delivering up search content via the Knowledge Graph, Answers, featured snippets)

Krum notes:

“Schema is much easier for Google to crawl and understand than regular HTML, and with the transition from JSON to JSON-LD [linked data], it has become even faster because it is separate from the page code and available directly from the server. Google is so interested in Schema that they now are even requesting that certain kinds of Schema be added in-app markup.

Linked Data empowers people that publish and use information on the Web. It is a way to create a network of standards-based, machine-readable data across Web sites. This is how Google plans on building deeper understanding of content and content relationships without relying on links and URLs.”

In the long run, there will be a clear incentive for Google to aggregate web content on their own cloud-based servers in the Google Cloud so that they can:

  1. Improve load times for content delivery to users
  2. Capture engagement data and better understand user intent and behavior
  3. And reduce the need for crawling content hosted on other servers, which is more expensive and time consuming.

And as more content needs to be device-agnostic, this makes total sense. It is just both more efficient and effective.

Finally, will websites be forced to become apps?

Krum projects:

“Our guess is that Google will begin to incentivize webmasters to transition their websites into Progressive Web Apps.”

PWAs are HTML5, JavaScript-heavy web apps that behave like native apps. They are available on web URLs, but also include an option to be downloaded and added to a mobile home-screen like native apps.

Google will probably entice webmasters with the following PWA advantages over websites:

  • better cross-device tracking
  • free database or asset hosting
  • improved ability to track and manage crashes
  • better user-engagement and conversions
  • decreased reliance on data
  • increased speed
  • the ability to work offline.

Krum thinks developers are likely to move in this direction because “once web content is set up as a PWA, it will likely be much easier for webmasters to package and repackage content into different Google Actions or pull elements of the content into other app experiences, like Android Auto with minimal effort”.

Get ready for more trends in this direction as Google’s monopoly over search and online advertising gives them carte blanche to decide how content and information and data will flow in the future on the internet.