Mobile First and Fast--Rules to Rank By

Google's market domainationYou've heard it said . . .

     If you want to play, you have to play by my rules.

Google doesn't actually say that. But with nearly total dominance over search, Google could say it, and it would be true.

Over 90% of search queries worldwide are now handled through Google. In the US, Google processes 86.39% of searches on all devices and a whopping 93.86% of mobile searches. And Google's algorithms decide which websites rank in those searches.

Over 200 factors are used to determine search rank. What some of those factors are and how they work together make up those algorithms Google guards with almost legendary secrecy. So when Google comes right out and announces updates that affect search rank, it's a good idea to pay attention.

Two Important Updates

Google has announced two updates over the last four months:

  • Mobile-first indexing
  • Page speed in mobile search ranking (Speed update)

If you haven't already done so, right now is a good time to make sure your website passes these new criteria. Don't worry—we're going to explain what these updates are and how to check your site for compliance.

Ready? Let's get started.

Mobile-First Indexing

Google has been experimenting with mobile-first indexing since 2015. Initially, they hinted at separate indexes for mobile and desktop. But by November 2016, Google announced that since most searches were coming from mobile devices, "our search index will continue to be a single index . . . and our algorithms will eventually primarily use the mobile version of a site’s content to rank pages."

Sample notification from Google of mobile-first indexingMobile-first indexing went live on March 26 of this year, and the first batch of notifications to webmasters went out on April 30. (See the sample notice pictured.) If you haven't received one of these notifications, you might not need to worry. Then again, you might.

Google's announcement said, "Sites that are not in this initial wave don't need to panic."  But they also strongly urged that all websites need to become mobile-friendly.

And this is where you need to pay careful attention because even Google's announcements can be a bit cagey. Google explained that websites enabled for mobile-first indexing have "no ranking advantage" over mobile content that has not yet been mobile-first indexed or over desktop content. BUT it also stated that mobile-friendly content "has been performing better since 2015." In other words, while mobile-first indexing may not be a ranking factor—at least, not yet—mobile-friendly content IS.

In fact, as far back as 2015, Google revealed that mobile-friendly sites are more likely to appear in searches performed on mobile devices. Translation—If your website isn't mobile friendly, your website is less likely to show up in searches on mobiles devices. Currently, that's an estimated 58% of US searches. Let that sink in: ranking aside, if your site isn't mobile-friendly, more than half of searchers probably won't see it. As mobile use continues to grow, non-mobile-friendly sites may continue to fade from view.

How do I know whether my site is mobile friendly?

Ask Google. Their Mobile-Friendly Test will check your website and tell you. If the site isn't mobile-friendly, Google will tell you what the problems are. This  test gives you a Yes/No answer to mobile-friendliness based primarily on four criteria:

  • Is the font size readable on mobile? (Anything smaller than a size 16 will likely cause problems.)
  • Are tap targets or links too close together? (On a mobile device like a smartphone screen, a user should easily be able to click one button or link without accidentally clicking another.)
  • Is the viewport set correctly? (The viewport is the size of a user's visible screen area, which varies by device. Well-developed, responsive web design includes a meta tag that sets the viewport to adapt to the user's device.)
  • Is the site content accessible to mobile devices? (The site's content should not require apps that are unlikely to be accessible on mobile devices.)

A well-developed, responsive website should not have difficulty passing this test. But as we noted earlier, mobile-first indexing is just the first of two updates.

The Page Speed in Mobile Search Ranking Update

Google calls this simply "the speed update." It's based on what Google discovered in an extensive research study:

  • The average mobile site takes 15 seconds to load.
  • 53% of visitors leave a mobile site that takes longer than 3 seconds to load.
  • After 5 seconds, the bounce probability increases 90%.
  • After 6 seconds, bounce probability increases 106%; after 10 seconds, it increases 123%.

Google's conclusion is that "speed equals revenue." Seconds matter. Thus, the speed update.

Google's announcement clarifies that speed has been used to rank desktop searches for some time. They also point out that "great, relevant content" is still hugely important to page rank. But with mobile-first indexing, "content that is slow-loading may perform less well for both desktop and mobile searchers."

How do I know my website speed?

Google has a test for that too. Just enter your site URL, and Google will give you the results along with suggestions for improvement and a free usability report.

If your site doesn't pass the speed test, you'll definitely need to make some changes. Some of Google's recommendations (e.g., compression, leveraging browser caching, minifying resources, and eliminating render-blocking scripts) may require the help of professional developers. They can address the problems Google identifies. Site hosting also impacts speed. Qualified professionals can help you determine whether your site needs to be hosted on a new server, alloted more server resources, or possibly have a dedicated server for complex site processes.

Mobile and Fast

It's a recipe not just for search rank but also for success. To crystallize Google's findings: mobile-friendly equals visibility, and speed equals revenue. These factors affect how many potential customers show up at your virtual door. If your analytics have taken a hit after these updates, or if you just aren't getting the results you want from your website, call or email us.

We'll be happy to listen to what you need and talk about how we can help.