Towards the end of 2016, Google announced what many in the SEO community had suspected for quite some time: the company uses a separate index dedicated to mobile search, and it plans to adopt the algorithm for desktop search soon. Although the move is unsurprising (after all, over 60% of search happens on mobile devices), it does leave traditional SEO in a kind of limbo.

Does Google’s mobile-first index kick desktop SEO best practices to the curb? If there will be exceptions or considerations, which are they? Should developers design websites for mobile now? What about existing desktop-optimized properties? Should owners convert them right now?

It’s not just SEOs who need answers to these questions but also Internet marketers. Traditional marketing efforts like banner advertisements, pop-up ads, and opt-in forms may no longer be as effective on mobile as they are on desktop.

Case in point: On January 11, 2017, Google penalized web pages with intrusive interstitials or pop-ups that partially or fully cover web page content when users go from SERP result to web page. Users often have to dismiss these pages before they can access the information from the website, hence the term intrusive. Banner ads that block content are also a big no-no.

These changes barely scrape the surface of how mobile search index has shaken up the SEO world at large. Below are the important points that we feel are relevant for both SEOs and Internet marketers:

Optimize Websites for Mobile First

Until last year, the practice was to build, design, and optimize a website for desktop; mobile optimization came after everything else was done. Bits of on-page content could get lost in the translation, but the important thing was that the main content registers well and loads fast on mobile screens.

With the mobile-first index in effect, however, it only makes sense to reverse the conventional web development process and begin with designing user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) for mobile. For example, when uploading a video on the website, choose a mobile-compatible format like AVI and MPEG-4 instead of Flash video.

Although desktop indexing is not obsolete, Google will look at your mobile pages first and base your website ranking on mobile content. If your website doesn’t have a mobile version yet, Google bots will then crawl your website’s desktop version. It’s better, therefore, to brush up on mobile SEO than risk having Google come across a poorly-optimized mobile version of your site.

Mobile User Behavior Should Factor into SEO and Marketing Strategies

Experts note that users treat mobile search differently from desktop. Mobile searchers prioritize speed, as well as concise and precise information. They use their phones for specific queries with specific answers, like the phone number of a restaurant or the release date of an upcoming movie. They also tend to use mobile devices for local, geo-targeted search searches.

Mobile search users tend to use natural language queries. If they want to find or know something through Google, they type in their question. Here are some examples:

  • Who was the lead actor in The Social Network?
  • How old is the Dalai Lama?
  • What is the title of the song in the Thor: Ragnarok trailer?
  • How tall is the Empire State Building?

Internet users are more likely to use desktop search if they are doing intensive and extensive research. This behavior makes sense: A mobile screen, even if it’s a tablet, shows a limited amount of information compared to a desktop screen. Functionalities are also limited on mobile. Interactive features, like drop-down menus, interactive graphics, and Java for PDF documents (which many academic websites use for published papers), load slowly or not at all on mobile phones.

The popularity of voice search is also driving the shift from keyword-centric verbiage to using natural language in website content. Users don’t utter nonsensical keyword combinations onto their phones; they give clear search commands using complete sentences.

Expanded Title and Meta Description Character Count

It’s possible that the use of natural language in mobile search is one of the reasons Google made SERP snippets longer. They’ve applied it to both mobile and desktop, expanding the character count for meta descriptions (or search snippets) from 160 to 230 characters. Search Engine Journal remarked that Google lengthened the snippets for certain topics so much, searchers are likely to find the answers they’re looking for right there on the SERPs.

SEOs and marketers can take advantage of longer titles and snippets by including not just the business name, but also the keywords and descriptions of its products or services. However, the old practice of dumping keywords into the meta description won’t be as effective this time. Mobile search index is more likely to rank pages with keyword-rich yet well-written meta descriptions.

Informative snippets are also more attractive to mobile users. The mobile SERP layout maximizes the limited screen space in such a way that the focus is on the snippets. Given mobile users’ behavior and intent, they will gravitate towards snippets that promise relevant information.

Implications for SEO

Based on the information above, we can safely deduce that mobile search index will change some SEO practices, including the ones that have become a staple in both ranking and marketing campaigns. But don’t worry; these changes are not entirely different from the theories and concepts that have ruled desktop SEO.

Below are our recommendations on how you can keep up with Google’s mobile-first movement:

  1. Do content marketing. Besides the mobile index’s preference for natural language, Google also uses the RankBrain It is a sophisticated, machine-learning AI system that enables the search engine to interpret queries and find pages that contain the most relevant answers. By creating value-rich content (i.e., blogs, articles, videos) and deploying them in key domains, you can get valuable backlinks, leads, traffic, and even encourage customer action.
  2. Modify your website’s interstitials. As we discussed above, Google is not banning pop-up ads and opt-in pages; it just doesn’t like it when they appear before web pages that users click on from the mobile SERPs. Also, you’re free to put them up on your website’s desktop version. Steer clear of Google’s penalty for intrusive interstitials by making your pop-up ads appear when users navigate from one internal page to another.
  3. Maximize pay-per-click on ads on Google SERPs. Mobile SERPs continue to display ads before the organic results. This is an advantage for businesses that serve customers within a geographic region. As we tell our RefractROI clients, geo-targeted mobile ads provide benefits to both SEO and marketing campaigns. Desktop search includes national data unless the user specifies a location in the query. But, with mobile search, a customer in Denver looking for a restaurant in the area is more likely to see Denver-based pay-per-click ads even without adding “Denver” in the query.
  4. Convert your desktop web pages to mobile format. You don’t have to do everything now, but you can start with the pages that receive the most mobile traffic and referrals. It’s also a good idea to begin as early as possible if your website has hundreds of indexed pages. It will save the backlinks you’ve earned from the desktop version. Although Google says it will take these backlinks into consideration, com says there’s no guarantee that the mobile-first index will still crawl the desktop version once it has seen the mobile version.

The shift towards mobile-centric SEO is happening right now, and the changes it has wrought are apparent. Mobile SERPs will soon make their way to desktops, so time is of the essence if you haven’t yet adapted your SEO strategy to accommodate the shift. It’s better to be ahead of the pack than to act at the last minute, after all.

RefractROI can help you navigate mobile SEO. If you already have a website, we can help you transition from desktop to mobile, so you maintain your lead in the industry. Get in touch with our SEO specialists today.