9 Questions to Ask in the Age of Google’s Mobile-first Indexing

Francis Gary Viray

Author & Editor

Founder & CEO

Published on: Sep 18, 2018 Updated on: May 22, 2024

SEO is part of every business organic growth strategy — it is table stakes. And it’s no longer just about keywords.

Fast forward to 2018, the spread of smartphones put mobile percentages of “everything” at the top — the percentage of mobile searches, mobile shopping, mobile transactions. And among SEOs worldwide, page performance optimization in the time of mobile-first indexing has been quite a talk.

In our first Take-off Sessions, Propelrr President Gary Viray sits down with Myers Media Group SEO Director Benj Arriola. The topic? Something that has really created a buzz for quite some time: Google’s switcheroo with going mobile-first in terms of indexing your content.

SEO or not, any person who wants to make it big in the digital industry should be updated on the latest practices. Are you keeping up with the changes? Or are the changes keeping you?

Talking Points

Let’s talk about page performance.

In November 2016, Google announced that they will be looking at mobile-first indexing and then desktop. This was rolled out just recently in March 2018.

The beauty of all this is before the mobile-first indexing even came out, Google forewarned everybody that mobile websites is a ranking factor. They mentioned that way ahead of time and they gave specific deadline. So when the mobile indexing came out, majority of SEOs were really prepared for it.

Now, is there still any difference with that preparation? The answer is if you were prepared for ranking well in mobile search before, most likely you are already prepared today.

In terms of preparation, for quite some time we been talking about responsive design, adaptive websites, and separate mobile pages. Are there other things that SEOs and developers should know than just being prepared with a responsive website?

Things to Consider

1. Is responsive design the way to go?

In terms of responsive design, it’s almost like a standard. Everyone should be doing it today. Everybody should be using responsive sites. The mobile site and desktop site should have a single URL.

Other techniques such as adaptive website and a separate mobile website work as well. The difference though is you have more than one URL to optimize. When you have one URL to optimize, it is way easier. There is no more switching, no more detecting of user agent, no more detecting if it’s Googlebot or a user. You just have a single website controlled by the resolution of the page.

But companies can’t just switch over right away. Some are very challenged by their platform. It could be a resource issue, it could be a technology issue, or it could be additional costs that companies just don’t have at the very moment. They would just have to work with what they have.

2. What about a separate mobile website?

Speaking of those who prepared for mobile-first indexing, most people are using the most suggested execution which is the responsive website. When you serve a responsive website on mobile, a lot of these resources are sort of loading cogs that affects the page speed. This negatively impacts user experience.

The beauty of creating a separate mobile website compared to using responsive design is you could “dumb down” the version of your website for mobile.

It’s almost like removing other features that clutter the page. When there’s too much clutter, you are just confusing the user with so many options on a very small screen.

When you have a mobile website, you can just highlight the features that are really needed by mobile users. The website owner can do their own corresponding research about the options that mobile users really click on the most, what are their main uses, what are their audiences looking for when they access the mobile site. The results of this are what website owners can focus on alone and the rest they can hide.

In a responsive site, sometimes people design it in such a way that all of the options in the desktop site is exactly the same one in the mobile site and this clutters it too much. But it is still possible to create responsive design websites where large features of the site could be minimized using a collapsible div or a hamburger menu. This collapses features that are not used that much and displays the features that are used a lot.

3. Will a different content on desktop and mobile confuse Google and negatively impact your search rank or result to penalties?

On the back-end side, all the content Google sees is actually both. It’s going to see the desktop version and mobile version at the same time when it is responsive. But there are some elements that are hidden.

How does Google treat hidden content? Sometimes Google penalizes you for hidden content but they claim that they know if you are hiding these for the right reasons.

A simple example of this is a drop-down menu. You click on something and something drops down. Not all of the content is displayed until you click on it or hover over it. When Google sees reasons like these, then it doesn’t penalize you for those types of hidden content. Other examples are large paragraphs of the page and the like.

Usually Google can’t determine if you are really hiding content for the right reasons immediately. Sometimes they find it later or people report it using the Google spam report.

When they use the Google spam report, they end up with manual reviewers. When this happens, the manual reviewers will evaluate if you are really hiding content for the right or wrong reasons.

So the answer is it depends how you handle the difference in content and the elements you choose to hide from Google. As long as you are not doing anything shady about it, you’re good.

4. How do we make sense of the Google’s Pagespeed tool and the recommendations they have for mobile-first indexing?

When we talk about the Pagespeed tool of Google, it will give all the recommendations directed to developers. The common ones are the images, JavaScript, consolidation of CSS files, and minification.

For most developers, these are a few extra steps they have to do. Sometimes in the mindset of a developer, they think: “I’m done with this project, I completed it. Why do I have to fix it? The page loads fine, users can use it, there is nothing broken. Why should I worry about it? In fact, minifying the code makes it even harder to understand for me since all the spaces have disappeared.”

But if these developers understand why it’s done and what the value of these steps are for SEO, they would do it.

5. What other things should SEOs and developers look into and be aware of whenever they use JavaScript for their website?

Once we talk about JavaScript, this becomes a problem many times.

This is because JavaScript is a client side scripting language. It runs on your browser, not on your server. When Google looks at your page, it may not see the content right away because it needs to render in a browser.

Back in the days, rendering was rarely talked about when tackling page performance optimization. Now, there is a need to render a JavaScript-enabled website.

Angular JavaScript is a framework made in JavaScript. There are many other frameworks. When that is rendered, it means JavaScript code has to run on the browser before the content can be seen. Google isn’t typically a web browser and it crawls as Googlebot. When a crawler is identified by the server, it does not see a web browser ID but sees a crawler bot which is Googlebot.

In the past, this was a bigger problem because all search engines did not care about JavaScript. They did not even run it at all. But there was a time when Google started announcing that they have a headless browser. This was a browser without an interface. What happens is these headless browsers run JavaScript codes and renders these codes the same way users sees it before it decides to read the content. That way, Google can see the content. It sounds like the problem is solved.

However, Google does not do it consistently. There are still times when Google can’t show it at all or can’t find the words on the page. It may be a timing thing or that Google is incapable when the JavaScript is too complicated. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t.

With this in mind, it is best to be prepared for anything since you do not want to gamble with Google by hoping and praying that Google reads your content. You really have to create a site that even if you are using these different JavaScript frameworks, Google can still see your content.

There are three ways you can do this. The first is pre-rendering it yourself and show a pre-rendered copy to Google. The second is build your site in a way where both the JavaScript content and server side content is also given together but behind the JavaScript. The last way is to just go with plain HTML.

These three ways can help you build a mobile-first website.

6. Are flashy and heavy font and format worth it?

There are fonts that load too slow which affects the user’s experience. When it comes to large paragraphs of text, it is best to not stray away from the standard fonts that are readily available in local computers such as the common Times New Roman, Verdana, and Sans Serif.

If you are going to use these other fonts for headings since sometimes we want to add a little bit more style there, you can add your own font files. Some are very large, some are very small. Preferably we should use the small ones.

There are number of techniques you could test.

The most common is using CSS3, giving your font file. You can also use Google Fonts, which almost acts like a Content Delivery Network or CDN at the same time. Since Google is known for having fast infrastructure, this could possibly help your content load faster.

You can also try using simple image-text replacement where you will just use an image instead. Although this isn’t scalable with content that changes every now and then, if the content is pretty standard this should not be a problem. Have an image and put the text behind it using CSS. You can even still use a heading tag for it and put it as a background of your heading tag, this can also work.

It’s not all about the style but also about performance optimisation. You need to consider how users experience the content that you put on your page.

7. Is search engine optimization still important or can marketing campaigns do the job?

A lot of brands and businesses come up with a lot of marketing campaigns. But when users visit their website and start searching for products, there’s a huge disparity in terms of their investment.

Most components are not working or some content cannot be found or loaded.

For example, after searching for a product on Google, there was only one main site that was ranking well for both the paid side and the organic side. The site is not even the seller but rather a site that sells multiple product. The companies that were actually selling the product were not optimized pretty well.

One site did not have a solid navigation where it was using search results as a page. This is a problem because Google does not look at internal search. There was a site that had broken navigation where it had a privacy policy that kept popping up which hindered visiting other pages of the website.

If you are a large company and these happen to your site, you are losing a lot of opportunities.

Pretty much, search engine optimization is a requirement in digital and should not be an afterthought.

8. How important is mobile SEO?

The search industry compared to other marketing medium assures that the audience is interested. In TV, radio or print, most businesses hope that the audience is watching. There are instances where they aren’t even watching which leads to the waste of marketing dollars.

In the search market, people are already searching for you and your product. A large percent of the sale is already done. You just have to be there. If you aren’t then that is another loss for your business.

Remember, search behavior is part of the customer journey. So when customers are already in the physical store and they are talking to the sales supervisor, they will still look at their mobile phones to find out more things about your service of product. They want to know more about the reviews, the ratings, and the feedback of other people.

So making sure your site is optimized for mobile responds to this behavior. Not being present in the mobile world can lead to a loss of potential customers which leads to a loss of revenue. Always go for building a mobile-first design.

9. What SEO crawling tools should you keep an eye out for?

Crawling tools, both free and paid, are beneficial and should be invested in because they can comprehensively go through large sites and determine different problems.

For free ones, Xenu is a good choice but is only for Windows though. Screaming Frog is free for the first five hundred pages and after that it’s going to be paid for. Even more expensive tools are Deepcrawl and Botify.

The beauty of these crawling tools is that for very large sites, they can comprehensively go through thousands and thousands of pages. They can determine what their problems are: either that they are not loading, error 404s and 500s, improper redirecting pages, pages with duplicate title tags, no title tags, no meta descriptions, short or long title tags, and many more. They can even look at page speed issues. All of these instead of manually checking them individually at Google’s Pagespeed test.

These tools reveal patterns in the issues that arise, allowing you to look at bigger picture issues that could be fixed at a global scale.

An SEO or a developer should have these tools in order to evaluate easily the things they’ve been doing on the site since these are investments by business owners to benefit their brand. These tools are a must if we are going to take performance optimization seriously.

So here are the key takeaways for today

  1. Responsive design is the most optimal way to go for mobile-first indexing.
  2. But to make it truly effective, it’s important to declutter your page and highlight the content that your target market needs.
  3. SEOs and developers should carefully study their Pagespeed report and reports from other crawling tools.
  4. Pre-render your JavaScript to ensure that both Google and your target market can see your content.
  5. Prioritize user experience over style
  6. Mobile search is an important part of customer behavior. Be sure that they can find you there.

So hopefully you were able to understand several things about performance optimization in the context of Google’s mobile-first indexing update. Do you have questions about the topic? Want to share your insights? Let us know in the comments section below.

Thank you for tuning in the first episode of Propelrr’s Take Off Sessions. We’ll see you next time for more in-depth discussion about anything digital!