For many, it’s our desktops that facilitate much of the SEO work we conduct – not our mobile phones. All of our apps and software are downloaded there, and no doubt all the web applications we use are neatly bookmarked within our desktop browsers to provide their easy access.
I’m sure we all have similar daily routines, too. Again, these will still be largely desktop-based. We pour ourselves a cup of coffee every morning, check our emails and monitor clients’ performances, all before carrying on with our prescribed SEO strategies and all before the comfort of our keyboards and monitors.
The notion of swapping all these factors out with a mobile is indeed bizarre, but this is the realisation of mobile-first indexation; it won’t change our methodology, per se, it will just change what we look at and how we look at it.
This blog post unpacks things we need to continue looking at as SEOs but adapted to suit a workflow in a mobile-first world. Technical SEO, on-site optimisation, content creation and promotion will always be constructs of our core methodology in some capacity, but starting now, we’ll need to start analysing these factors through the viewport of a mobile phone first, not a desktop.
What is mobile-first indexing?
Google’s current search listings are made up from the crawling and indexation of desktop-based content. That is, Googlebot (Desktop) crawling your web pages and sending it to a desktop-first index engine for interpretation. The idea of mobile-first indexation flips this on its head, using Googlebot (Smartphone) to crawl web pages before sending the information to a mobile-first index.
This means that, eventually, your site’s ranking potential will be solely determined by the quality of your mobile content, not desktop-content.
Right now, the mobile-first index is being tested to only some users across search. The current state of SERPs is therefore a mix between the desktop-first index and mobile-first index (with likely much more focus on the former).
This is as Google experiments and tweaks the algorithm until it’s confident its search engine can handle an entirely mobile-first index. It’s likely, according to Google’s Gary Illyes, that the mobile-first index won’t be fully rolled out until 2018, at the earliest.
The introduction of the mobile-first index is the next logical step from Google in its pledge to make the web more mobile-friendly.
Above all, it’s a direct response to our general uptake of mobile devices. This has been well documented around the web for a while now, with mobile search first exceeding desktop search in May 2015 and general web browsing on mobile increasing over desktop after that in November 2016.
The inapt and ridiculously coined “Mobilegeddon” back in early-2016 can even be considered a precursor to the mobile-first index. Remember that? When Google announced an algorithm change that was set to favour mobile-friendly sites? Of course, the reality was that nothing actually happened, immediately anyway. While it was a lot of commotion initially, the effects were much clearer as the algorithm developed months later.
So, we know that Google will eventually rank our sites based on our mobile content first. But in a desktop-based work environment, how can we adapt our SEO workflow to accommodate this? I’ve collected a few tips below to help you along the way.
Using Chrome’s Device Toolbar to emulate a Smartphone
Many SEOs, including Mike King, have started acknowledging the power of Chrome’s “Inspect” feature for Technical SEO benefit. And as the mobile-first index begins to roll out properly, I believe its use will become ever more popular and prevalent within our industry.
As a starting point, we need to start viewing web pages through the viewport of a mobile phone, not a desktop.
To do this via Chrome, first access the “Inspect” panel by right-clicking anywhere on a web page. Once the panel opens, find the device toolbar icon situated nearer the top-left of the UI. I’ve highlighted this in my screenshot below:
From there, you’re able to toggle through several iOS and Android devices (also highlighted in the above screenshot).
It’s a good idea to “pin” this tab to your browser window for instant access. That way, you’ll always be prepared for the mobile-first approach as you’re analysing your web content.
Alternatively, use BrowserStack
Granted, Chrome’s Device Toggler does an excellent job of interpreting a mobile view but remember; it is only an emulator. For more precise mobile browsing from your desktop, we recommend using tools like BrowserStack.
While it is a paid platform, it’s flexibility between changing mobile devices and even mobile browsers is unparalleled. You’re testing from real devices too, which are being physically streamed to the web app from device factories and virtual machines- clever, eh?
View your website through the eyes of Googlebot (Smartphone)
Though still relatively new compared to other functionality within Search Console, “Fetch as Google” has quickly become one of the more widely adopted tools on the platform, especially for requesting indexation of newly launched pages on your site.
The process of viewing your web pages as Google (Smartphone) is mostly similar to before on Search Console, just ensure to select “Mobile: Smartphone” before rendering your URLs.
If you haven’t got access to a Search Console profile to action the above, you can achieve similar results via Screaming Frog. However, there are a few more steps involved.
“Fetch and Render” via Screaming Frog
Firstly, you want to change Screaming Frog’s crawler to Googlebot (Smartphone). To do this, navigate to Configuration > HTTP Header > User Agent.
Once clicked, the “User-Agent Configuration” window will open. From there, select “GoogleBot for smartphones (post April 18th 2016)” as highlighted in the screenshot below and click “Okay”.
Get into the habit of auditing with Googlebot (Smartphone)
We touched upon changing Screaming Frogs crawler to Googlebot (Smartphone) above. This mentality now needs to be used regardless of the site crawler you use.
Most major site crawlers like Ryte/OnPage.org, DeepCrawl and Botify all support user-agent adjustments, so you need to make sure you opt to audit with Googlebot (Smartphone) where needed. If your mobile site opts for a responsive design, don’t expect to see much difference between your reports. It’ll be where you use an alternative mobile configuration where you’ll need to keep more of a keen eye.
Start monitoring smartphone keywords
There’s still some discrepancy as to whether SEOs monitor their smartphone keyword rankings in addition to their desktop keyword rankings. I’m inclined to believe that it hasn’t been entirely adopted, but with the impending rollout of the mobile-first index, it now needs to be.
Comparing your smartphone rankings to your desktop rankings is great insight into how Google perceives your content on both devices. The more insight you can retrieve from your mobile positioning, the better off you’ll be when mobile-first lands. This is because, eventually, the mobile-first index will be the single index used by Google (see “Will Google have different indexes for mobile and desktop?” heading on this article by Barry Schwartz).
Smartphone rankings are now supported by most keyword ranking providers, including STAT and AWR. However, how they’re billed may differ, and this may require some additional research depending on your needs and resource available. For a list of the best rank tracking providers available, see this comprehensive list from Dan Shure.
Above: STAT is Impression’s software of choice when it comes to keyword monitoring
Start reporting on KPIs by device
You’ll also need to start examining your performance by device through Google Analytics if you don’t already. Irrespective of the move to the mobile-first index, this is still invaluable insight to see how your audience behaves cross-platform and how they utilise smartphones as part of their customer journeys.
Viewing mobile engagement through Google Analytics is a simple task and can be achieved through several approaches.At the bare minimum, heading to Audience > Mobile > Overview will allow you to see how your traffic engagement compares over desktop, tablet and mobile for any period given.
You can then select the checkboxes next to each device and click “Plot Rows” to see these plotted over-time against your total traffic.
However, the simplest approach to viewing organic mobile traffic is by creating your own custom segment via Google Analytics.
To do this, start by making a copy of the “Mobile Traffic” custom segment that should exist by default.
All you need to do from here is give your custom segment a name, i.e. “Organic Mobile Traffic”, and create a new filter under “Conditions” that exactly matches the medium “organic”. After clicking “Save”, organic mobile traffic engagement will then be displayed across the entirety of your Google Analytics property. By adding other custom segments to this view, you can then analyse how organic mobile traffic compares to other marketing channels and devices of yours.
Your organic mobile traffic isn’t indicative of how your overall organic traffic will perform come the launch of the mobile-first index, but the exercise is still important to adapt our SEO workflow more towards a cross-device and modern browsing mentality.
There can be no doubt that the launch of the mobile-first index will cause a significant paradigm shift to the SEO industry and organic marketing in general. Though the full rollout isn’t expected for some time, even knowing it’s in Google’s pipeline is beneficial enough. It allows us to have the foresight to plan and implement our new workflows so we can hit the ground running with it.
I’ve mentioned a handful of approaches to get this implemented. If you have any more ideas, feel free to let me know in the comments below or by tweeting me @petejov.