Google’s mobile-first index has set sail. Are you on board? 5 SEO essentials

After a relatively lengthy wait, Google has started to roll out its mobile-first index. First announced back in 2016, the mobile-first index is a direct response to one of the most significant shifts in consumer behavior over the past few years.

Last year, research revealed mobile devices now account for 57 percent of all traffic, so it stands to reason that Google should use a mobile user agent to crawl and index content.

Google’s aim is to launch this index worldwide, in a move that will see the search giant access the mobile version of a website to index and rank content. Even if a consumer searches on a desktop device, Google will query its index of mobile content to find the most authoritative, relevant response. The mobile version of your site will become the primary version once the index switches over.

There has been a lot of speculation about this seismic shift since the initial announcement, but we are past the point of conjecture now. Search marketers need to be at their most vigilant to ensure their sites are optimized for mobile and in prime position to benefit from this development.

The five tips below should be the first ports of call for all search engine optimization specialists (SEOs) as we enter the mobile-first age.

Monitor Google’s crawl activity

Google will send a notification via your Search Console when your site has been switched over to the mobile-first index. This is welcome news, but site owners will want to dig deeper to see Google’s crawl activity in more detail, both before and after the switch occurs.

By monitoring log file data, it is possible to see how search engine bots access a website and what they see when they get there. This will flag any increased activity from smartphone user agents and highlight any decreases from their desktop counterparts. These patterns may not necessarily be conclusive, as there will be fluctuations as Google performs tests. A rise in smartphone user agent activity could be followed by a fall in the number of uniform resource locators (URLs) it visits each day while Google tries to calibrate your site’s performance.

That said, we know that Google will test each site’s readiness in isolation, so this analysis will help you identify and resolve any crawl issues you observe. If there are significant differences in the internal linking structure of your mobile and desktop versions, for example, this will be an essential task.

The mobile-first index is coming, so it’s best to keep an eye on this if you want to maintain and grow visibility when it inevitably does arrive for your site.

Understand the mobile user journey

Attention spans among audiences are even shorter on mobile devices than they are on a desktop, so it is vital to understand the concept of the micro-moment.

During these short windows of opportunity, brands can engage customers just as they express their desire to know something, go somewhere, or even be inspired by content.

This requires brands to meet users at the source of demand, which can only be achieved through a data-driven strategy. By incorporating intent signals into your content marketing plan, you can go beyond keywords to get to the heart of what your customers are really asking for.

This demand landscape is fundamentally different on mobile, so each brand should make this one of their first considerations for the mobile-first world.

Mobile devices also create and share more data than desktop devices, which creates new opportunities for content to partner with other marketing channels to create innovative mobile experiences. This could involve a voice search strategy to target specific micro-moments.

All of this data should be used to map out the structure of the mobile user journey, which can then be populated with increasingly personalized content.

Deliver tailored content for mobile

One of the great fallacies about the mobile-first index is that if you have a responsive site, there is very little you need to do in preparation.

For some, that may be the case, but only if your content already caters to a mobile audience.

If your content is the same across devices, there are no guarantees your rankings will remain steady, too. BrightEdge (my company) research found that 79 percent of keywords return different results across mobile and desktop, which points to the fact that users expect different content depending on their context.

Many brands will view the mobile-first index as an opportunity to provide a better experience for their audience, which may see them rewarded with higher rankings. Without necessarily doing anything wrong, those who don’t take the time to tailor their content could lose out.

Sophisticated marketers will use their mobile customer journey map to pinpoint the stages at which mobile is of the highest importance. Combined with analysis of current content performance across all devices, it will then become possible to tailor specific content assets for the mobile-heavy stages of the journey.

On mobile devices, content needs to help users achieve their goal quickly. That can mean incorporating progressive web apps into a mobile content strategy to provide the fastest experience possible, for example. Start with the data to understand where the demand lies, then devise the most appropriate strategy to delight customers.

Cover the technical basics

The greatest content in the world will still need to follow some technical best practices before it can be served in response to a text or voice query. A quick checklist to prepare for the mobile-first index would include:

  • Structured data. This markup helps search engines understand and retrieve your content, making it one of the cornerstones of a successful SEO strategy this year.
  • Verify the mobile site.  Add the robots.txt to your mobile site and verify in Google Search Console that it can be crawled, if you are still using a “m.” site.
  • Hreflang. Ensure that any hreflang tags on your mobile site point to the mobile versions of your URLs.
  • Metadata. It is worth revisiting metadata to see if you can optimize for higher click through rate (CTR) on mobile devices.
  • User experience. Analyze your data to see where the bottlenecks are within your site journey. These tend to occur when users have to wait a long time for a site to load, when content is simply too long to read on a smartphone or when they have to pinch and zoom to read text.
  • Test for speed. Use Google’s much-improved mobile site speed test to identify any areas you can accelerate. If in doubt with mobile optimization, make the site faster.

Set up a new measurement framework

Marketers need to know if their content is nurturing leads from awareness to research through to conversion and retention. Looking at this through the lens of a last-click attribution model will miss much of the picture. The industry is growing in sophistication in a lot of areas, including performance measurement. The mobile-first index is an opportunity to bring new metrics to your reports and go beyond conversion data.

By attributing some of the “credit” for each conversion to earlier stages of the purchase journey, you can start to understand the real value of those micro-moments in attracting new customers.

Combined with metrics like customer lifetime value, marketers can start to develop a much more nuanced picture of their audience. This approach helps to integrate content with other marketing channels, too, which only enhances its impact.

Of course, it is also essential to monitor your rankings across mobile and desktop. Performing a share of voice analysis both before and after the switch to the mobile-first index will reveal the positive impact of following these handy tips to get your site in shape.

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