User Experience

SEO: What Google’s Mobile-first Index Means for Ecommerce

Google started experimenting with a mobile-first index two weeks ago, making the mobile ecommerce experience even more critical to natural search performance.

Shopping is a core behavior for mobile users. Last year, four in five smartphone owners used their phone to shop during those micro-moments between doing other things, according to data from Google. Read “SEO: Rethinking Mobile Search, for Ecommerce” for more on why mobile and ecommerce are so intertwined.

But even more than shopping, search and mobile are inextricably intertwined. Most searchers on Google are mobile searchers, and, in many countries, Google is synonymous with search. To serve that majority of searchers better, Google is experimenting with using mobile sites as the content analyzed to determine rankings instead of desktop sites.

What that really means is that the bot that Google uses to crawl web pages and assemble this experimental index will be mimicking a mobile browser instead of a desktop browser. To learn about bots and what they do, read “SEO: To Drive Shoppers, Let the Bots In.”

What Do Searchers See?

Traditionally the desktop version of a site has been used to determine rankings, even when the content on the mobile site was different. Google’s reasoning for the change to mobile is that it should use the content that most searchers will see — the mobile content — to determine how all content should be ranked.

Most searchers on Google are mobile searchers, and, in many countries, Google is synonymous with search.

The mobile-first index experiment isn’t cause for immediate alarm. Google ranking engineer Paul Haahr said on Twitter, “I would be very surprised to detect any effects of mobile-first indexing at this stage.”

But should this experiment become the new status quo, your ecommerce site’s performance in natural search would be tied to the strength of your mobile site, versus your desktop site. For those who haven’t prioritized mobile, Google’s mobile-first focus would be a negative development.

At this point, though, Google is just experimenting. That means that it shows the change to a small number of searchers and then judges the difference in their behavior. If the data indicates a more positive searcher experience, the experiment presumably grows and potentially becomes the new way that Google determines rankings. If the data indicates a negative searcher experience, the experiment is potentially stopped and it’s business as usual with a desktop-first index.

It’s important to note that Google’s criteria for a successful experiment will be largely based on searchers’ experiences, not on the performance of ecommerce sites. Google’s mobile-first index may potentially be a reality whether we like it or not. Even if Google deems this experiment unsuccessful, mobile will not go away. There will be other new experiments and algorithm updates that favor mobile sites, because searchers are mobile enthusiasts.

It is therefore incumbent upon ecommerce businesses to change their digital experiences to accommodate mobile shoppers, which will also benefit their natural search performance to drive more shoppers, who will make more purchases.

No Change for Responsive Design

Sites with responsive design don’t need to change their search engine optimization strategies based on this new development. That’s the beauty of responsive design. The desktop site is the mobile site and vice versa. Ecommerce sites using responsive design will appear optimally for mobile searchers and Google’s mobile bot. Use Google’s mobile-friendly test and the Google Search Console Mobile Usability report to identify issues to fix.

For sites that have no mobile presence, the desktop site will still be indexed as it always has been, but it will not have the mobile-friendly rankings boost applied to it. That’s not a penalty, as such, because the content will be judged by the same standards as mobile content in determining core rankings. But mobile-friendly content will receive a rankings boost for mobile searchers in mobile search results and desktop content will not. This is no different from how mobile-friendly works today, but the mobile-first index casts it in a very different light.

It’s more complicated for ecommerce businesses with a separate mobile site. Dedicated mobile sites — sites hosted separately from the desktop site, such as an m. subdomain or a /mobile/ directory — need to be search-engine optimized using different methods. See Google’s mobile help section for guidelines on mobile annotations and device detection for separate mobile sites. If you already use mobile annotations (also known as canonicals), there’s no need to change them at this point, Google says.

Make sure to use the mobile-friendly test as well, and to look in the mobile report in the Google Search Console Mobile Usability report to determine your current level of mobile search friendliness.

If your mobile site is on a different subdomain, you’ll need to verify it separately on Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools. If your mobile site is responsive or in the same directory as your desktop site, it’s covered with the desktop verification.

Jill Kocher Brown
Jill Kocher Brown
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