Google’s big change scary for some website owners

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Over the last couple of months Google has been rolling out a big change to the way it indexes websites, which could dramatically affect the rankings of some sites.

The big change is called “mobile-first indexing”.

In the past when Google crawled your website to examine the content and determine what your site was about, the Googlebot viewed the desktop version of your site. But now, if your site has been switched over to mobile-first indexing, Google will now assess just the mobile version of your site.

For some website owners, this won’t have any affect. For others though, it could change rankings dramatically.

Why is Google making this change? The answer is simple: The majority of Google searches are now conducted on mobile devices.

Research released in 2017 showed that 57 percent of all searches on Google were on mobile devices. So, since most searches are conducted from mobile devices, Google wants its index to accurately reflect the experience that users will have when they tap to view a website.

Google’s name of “mobile-first” is because it will still fall back to viewing the desktop version of a site if there is no mobile-friendly version.  But, if your site is missing a mobile-friendly version, your rankings will be demoted for mobile users. (And some commentators expect it could negatively impact your rankings for desktop users too.)

So which sites will be affected?

If you have a nice, modern website that uses well-planned responsive design, and all of the content can be viewed on both desktops and mobile devices, then there is no change. Googlebot will still see the exact same content as now.

However, for sites that display a different version to mobile users then this change could well affect your rankings.

If your website is responsive (so it resizes to fit on mobile devices and the URL stays exactly the same), check if there is any content that is hidden for mobile users.  For example, many websites will hide the home page feature image and heading from mobile users. If your site does that, you need to check that the important H1 heading is not being hidden on mobile.

The H1 tag is extremely important for search engine rankings, and if you’re hiding a the section on mobile devices that has the H1 tag, then Google will no longer view that H1 tag when it crawls your site.

Some DIY website systems, such as Weebly, switch out the whole page template for mobile users (depending on the theme selected). So, while all of the content is visible on the mobile site, the H1 tags might be quite different (e.g. wrapped around the company name instead of the main heading). In this situation you often don’t have full editing control of the mobile version of the site.

Alternatively, some websites redirect mobile users to an “m-dot” domain – e.g. m.yourdomain.nz. Often this is done to display a more simplified version of the website to mobile users. With mobile-first indexing, only this simplified version of the site will be indexed, which could dramatically affect your rankings, as Google will only see the content on your simplified site.

So how do you know if Google has switched to mobile-first indexing for your site, and what steps should you take?

Firstly, you or your web developer should have your site registered with Google Search Console. This is how Google communicates with website owners. If Google has switched your site to mobile-first indexing they will email your Search Console account and also put a message in your Search Console messages section.

Next, make sure your website works well on mobile devices. The simplest test is to view the site on your own phone. You can also run Google’s Mobility Usability Report in Search Console. This will reveal all problems that Google identifies as being detrimental to mobile users.

Finally, make sure you don’t have crucial content missing from the mobile version of your site. If you’re using m.domain.nz you need to look closely at the reasons for this, and check whether the mobile site is as comprehensive as the desktop one. If it’s not might be time to upgrade your site to a fully responsive site.

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About Author

Josh Moore

Josh Moore is the managing director at digital marketing agency, Duoplus. www.duoplus.nz