Earlier this month, Gary Ilyes from Google announced during his keynote address at Pubcon that the search engine will be moving forward with an entirely separate mobile web index. The idea has been mentioned previously but only in relatively offhand terms as an experiment being run – now, however, Illyes has said that the separate mobile index will happen within “months” which brings it sharply into the reality of search marketing.

A Separate What?

At present Google only keeps one index of pages and content for the entire web. When the index is queried (i.e. when someone searches for something) the standard ranking algorithm runs to produce the output results in the determine order, but with some “modifiers” by device. “Mobile friendly” and site speed measurements, for example, are applied as modifying “filters” to mobile search results at present.

Nonetheless most SERPs end up looking very similar, with only minor disparities between mobile and desktop sample rankings and visibility. In fact Google have previously said that while they do compare mobile and desktop pages to make sure nothing fishy is going on, most of the time a mobile page will be “ranked” according to the content and other signals associated with the desktop version of the page. As a result, a lot of sites choose to trim down content or omit rich markups like structured data from their mobile-only pages in order to save costs and improve speed.

Needless to say, this may well have to be something that needs revisiting. Update 4/11/2016 Google’s official Webmaster Blog has confirmed in their discussion of mobile index experimentation that brands should be ensuring structured markup is present on mobile-only pages. No explicit statements on content (yet) but we can certainly infer that this suggestion would carry over too.

The New Mobile-Led Google World

Google has been making “mobile first” noises for a long time but these have been mere whispers compared to the “omnichannel” and “unified user experience” shouting they do, so the apparent decision to entirely separate desktop and mobile indexing is a slightly odd one that (at least in my view) doesn’t quite marry up with Google’s overall “users first” channel-independent experience message.

Nonetheless, here we are (or will be). From one desktop-centric index to two entirely separate indexes for mobile and desktop, with mobile becoming the “lead” one that will be more up to date. There are lots – and I mean lots – of questions churning around the industry about this almost offhand revelation from Google. Just some of the most frequently raised are

  • Will the two indexes really be entirely separate and independent?
  • What about tablets or “phablet”-type devices that straddle the desktop/mobile divide?
  • Will the mobile index only contain “mobile friendly” content?
  • Just how out of date will the desktop index end up being?
  • As both offsite links and onsite content tend to be scarcer within mobile environments, especially for transactional sites, how drastically will ranking signals change for the mobile index?

Lots more questions than answers at this point, it seems – as more information starts to circulate everyone in the organic space is going to be pouncing on it. It would be nice if Google issued a firm release as they did with the mobile UX update as they did last year but of course we can’t rely on this level of transparency being forthcoming.

Edit 9/11/2016 SEL has put together a useful FAQ article about the mobile-first index which includes useful information on things like rollups/compressed content, Google’s aim to minimise ranking position changes and the nature of the experimental rollout. Very worthwhile reading.

So, what now?

Getting Ready For The New Indexes

With very limited information on the index split and any potentially drastic differences in organic visibility signals around at present, the to-do list for preparation isn’t as comprehensive as I’d like, but let’s see what we can extrapolate.

  • Make sure you have a mobile-friendly website. This should be a no-brainer in 2016, really!
  • Move to fully responsive if you can. Google has shown clear preferences for responsive websites in the past and this will potentially save a lot of hassle rather than having separate HTML and/or URL sets for your mobile content.
  • Ensure rich markup is present across both site versions. Soon to be gone are the days when you can omit structured markup elements from your mobile-only pages and still get their benefits.
  • Not practical to go fully responsive? Make sure you have the right markup and HTTP headers in place to clearly indicate the relationship between your mobile and desktop page versions. We don’t know how (or if) the two indexes may interact yet, but better safe than sorry.
  • If you aren’t already monitoring visibility of key terms on both mobile and desktop SERPs, start now. Knowing the differences in visibility and how they change after the dual index launch will be critical to dissecting future opportunities and upgrading your organic strategy.
  • Review your mobile site for core optimisation opportunities. Start with the basics like heading tags, code hierarchy and meta data. Move on to structured data and supporting content. Now’s the time to brush up your mobile site so it really can stand on its own two feet without leaning on your more expansive desktop content in the background for support.
  • Boost your site speed. Again you should be doing this anyway but with a mobile-only index on the way, mobile-specific ranking signals are very likely to get beefed up. That means a slick, tap-friendly UX and super-fast speed options. Look into getting a “from the edge” CDN in to supercharge your infrastructure. Optimise your multimedia assets. Talk to your developers about clever techniques like RESS to improve cross device delivery. Get serious about AMP, even if you’ve got a mere blog rather than a full-fledged publishing platform.

Above all, make sure mobile is an integrated and mature part of your overall digital strategy. Google is officially going mobile first, and the days of relying on desktop websites to boost the visibility of poor or “just-an-afterthought” mobile sites are officially numbered.

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