Google to rank sites based on their mobile versions

Change ahead with Google search index

Back in mid-October, we reported Google would be splitting its current index into two and creating a separate mobile index which would eventually become the primary search index.

It’s now been revealed by Google that they will, in fact, continue to have a single index. But the big news is that this will now be the mobile index.

Currently, when Google evaluates a web page to determine how to rank it they assess the desktop version of the page. Google has decided to turn this totally on its head and will move to primarily evaluating a page based on the mobile version of the page.

This means that how well your site ranks in Google for both desktop and mobile searches will be determined by the mobile versions of its pages.

A real game changer which could have a big impact on many websites.

If your website is responsive, then you should be fine.

If your website uses dynamic serving (which means it serves different pages to mobile & desktop users) you’ll be OK, provided the primary content and markup is equivalent across mobile and desktop. The same probably applies to separate mobile websites (e.g. m.domain.co.nz).

But if the primary content and markup differs across mobile and desktop sites, then you could have issues. Especially if the mobile versions of pages contain way less content than the desktop versions – as is often the case.

The easiest way to get around this is to ensure you have a responsive website which is Google’s recommended preference.

And on a related note. Google has previously advised that content hidden in tabs, accordions, expandable boxes, etc on web pages may be devalued or ignored when it comes to Google evaluating a page.

Certainly, this is something we’ve observed with many web pages. (An easy way to check is to look at the Google cached view and check the text only view which usually will not include content hidden in tabs etc).

Because of this, SEO recommendations have generally been to avoid hiding important content on web pages in tabs, accordions and the like.

However, last week Google advised that content hidden for user experience purposes on mobile sites is given full weight. This makes sense because the limited screen size of mobiles means that hiding content can significantly improve user-experience.

The fact that in time Google will eventually be judging desktop pages based on their mobile versions may mean that things like click-to-expand content and content hidden behind tabs in desktop pages will cease to be negative SEO factors.

Just to be clear – in describing hidden content here, we don’t mean hiding content black hat style for devious means. We’re talking about content that is not displayed by default until a user takes some action, like clicking on a tab or accordion box which expands to reveal the content.

Why should you care?

This switch by Google to judging websites based on their mobile version is currently undergoing initial testing and is unlikely to roll out for some time. However, we wouldn’t be surprised to see it fully rolled out by the middle of 2017. If not sooner.

When this does happen you may well experience ranking drops if you don’t have a mobile-friendly website or if you have mobile pages with way less content on them than their desktop versions. The answer is to follow Google’s lead and think mobile first, rather than desktop.

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About the Author Mark Sceats

Mark is a Partner and Senior Consultant at SureFire which he founded back in 2002. Prior to establishing SureFire he worked for KPMG Consulting. Today Mark heads up SEO, embracing the challenges that can come with complex website implementations. Outside of work, his interests beyond his family are running, snowsports, diving and fishing (badly).

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