Google has announced a major change in the way its algorithm will index web pages; from later this year it will become “mobile-first”. The goal is to bring its algorithms inline with the way the majority of people use search, i.e. from their mobile devices. This means that Google will primarily use the mobile, rather than desktop, version of a company’s website to rank content. 


The move to mobile-first ranking has been put down to improving the user experience and making search results more useful for common searches. This was confirmed in Google’s own Webmasters Blog in December, where the search giant stated:


“To make our results more useful, we’ve begun experiments to make our index mobile-first. Although our search index will continue to be a single index of websites and apps, our algorithms will eventually primarily use the mobile version of a site’s content to rank pages from that site, to understand structured data, and to show snippets from those pages in our results. Of course, while our index will be built from mobile documents, we’re going to continue to build a great search experience for all users, whether they come from mobile or desktop devices.”


What this means is once the roll-out becomes widespread, Google will no longer use desktop pages to determine how a website should be ranked. Instead, it will divert its attention to the mobile page and assess how relevant, accessible and useful it is for the user.


Specific rollout dates for the algorithm update have yet to be confirmed by Google*. However, webmasters should be aware that rankings and organic traffic could take a nosedive in the not too distant future if mobile pages are neglected and do not accurately reflect their desktop counterparts. So, in preparation for the switch-over, here are three ways you can prepare your site for the looming mobile-first update.


1. Create a responsive design site

Having a responsive website will be fundamental to your chances of maintaining or improving your rankings post-rollout. This means your site must automatically adapt to different screen sizes and respond directly to the user’s device - be it mobile, tablet or desktop.


Responsive sites are designed not only to fit on a screen but to keep the site as fluid and accessible as possible. This means text and images are flexible and the site’s grid is proportionate rather than fixed.


To get started with responsive design, try implementing a front-end framework from Bootstrap or Foundation. These templates have been around for several years and will help you save time and money when adapting your web pages.


2. Site speed is hugely influential

Although a well-designed and responsive website is important, it isn’t the only goal of mobile optimisation. Speed is also crucial – even on mobile. These days, users expect pixel-perfect images coupled with split-second rendering time. A fast website encourages more sessions online, more customer conversions, lower bounce rate and higher engagement and is also a hugely influential ranking factor.


So, if you’re looking to optimise page speed on your mobile pages, try using Google’s Mobile Page Speed Insights to get an under the hood look at common issues such as image compression, browser caching and unrefined CSS or HTML.


If you want to go one step further, you can also look to introduce AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) on site to give your pages a lightning-quick advantage. Whilst AMP is only applicable to a handful of page templates (e.g. news articles and basic product pages), integrating it can give you a massive advantage over your competitors and ensure you’re well prepared for the mobile-first index.


3.  Mobile-friendly content

Having relevant and valuable content is essential to enticing users to your site, and keeping them there.


It’s therefore important to vary your content and think about how long-form copy appears on a mobile screen. Try breaking up lengthy articles with images and videos and consider using digestible formats such as bullet points and infographics.


Shorter, snappier headlines can also help users to read and scan faster. Remember, you have only about five seconds to convince your visitor to keep reading, so keep your content snappy and try to keep readers engaged with different media types.


In December 2017 Google began to transition a handful of sites on to its mobile-first index, which are currently being monitored by its search team. As of yet, Google has not announced when it will roll out the mobile-first index to the rest of us.