Mobile-First Google Rankings: Protect and Improve Your SEO

mobile-first website on phone with hearts

Google is going mobile-first, and ditching its desktop algorithm. If you didn’t know before, then you do now – searches on Google were previously different depending on your device. Now they are not, and the mobile version of your site will have the lead bearing on how well you rank.

Does Mobile-first Google Rankings Affect Me?

Yes, it probably does, but to varying degrees. If the following apply to you, you don’t need to worry so much:

  • your site loads everything it contains across all devices
  • you’re not hiding anything on mobile only (implied in the above of course)
  • your site loads quickly
  • your site is designed to be mobile-friendly and “responsive”

Regardless, you should probably read on and grab a pen and paper for notes…

Is My Site Designed For Mobile Devices?

If your site looks like a shrunken version of the desktop site when you view it on your phone, and there’s a lot of pinching and zooming to see whats on offer, then no, definitely not. And you’re likely to suffer SEO-wise because of it.

Alternatively, you may be using “m.” URLs that look something like this ‘m.website.co.uk’ rather than ‘www.website.co.uk’. This is much better than a shrunken, non mobile-friendly site, but now is probably still a good time to have a rethink about its accessibility. Generally, developers won’t choose this option anymore as it comes with a host of complications that extend to the management side of things; meaning it’s probably eating up your time, the developers time, and potentially causing unseen issues – even before mobile-first, separating content into multiple domains/sub-domains when there are other methods available is an unnecessary SEO minefield.

Dynamic serving is an alternative but is technically taxing like “m.” URLs. It essentially detects the search device and serves up different website content accordingly. But the detection is not as smart as we’d like and it still involves creating multiple versions of pages – not ideal if there’s another option!

And there is…

How Should My Website Be Designed For Mobiles?

Responsive design is how we build everything at White Heat Design – and why is that? Well, because:

  1. you use a single URL which is good for sharing and linking.
  2. you don’t have to create new content, or worry about issues like duplicate content or “rel=canonical tags”
  3. it offers the best user experience, which we believe is the foundation to all SEO
  4. you don’t have to navigate the dangers of multiple redirects

And finally, because Lord Google tells us all we probably should.

There is also a nifty tool available to help us keep up with these changes, so be sure to run your site through it to see how mobile friendly your site is.

I have Issues, How Do I Fix Them and Make My Site More Mobile-friendly?

Sometimes the reports generated by these tools can look pretty scary, be prepared to at least see some orange coming at you. Sometimes these issues are minor or not actionable, and sometimes they can have a much bigger impact – if you need help interpreting your site’s report, feel free to contact us and we’ll help you interpret and prioritise actionable problem areas.

If you want to investigate these issues yourself, a good place to start is your robots.txt file. This is where you or your developer has defined what search engine robots can or can’t see on your site. Prior to 2018, restricting access for bots on certain files was part of the separation between mobile and desktop ranking and design – but now, the restrictions you find in place here could have a devastating impact on your SEO. Remember: mobile-first means you’re ranked by what’s on your mobile site. So if it’s hidden on mobile, it’s going to count for less in all Google searches.

Why Does Google Hate Me?

It doesn’t… unless you use pop-ups…

As users of Google, we have to remember that they are actually on our side; best demonstrated through the heated topic of pop-ups. At White Heat Design, we believe the foundation to good SEO is empathetic design – in short, if a pop-up annoys you as a user, it’s going to annoy your users if you’re using it on your website. This is arguably in line with Google’s stance on pop-ups as it will now be giving active penalties for sites using them, potentially tanking your rankings.

Let’s get beyond the white-hot emotion many of us feel towards pop-ups for a second. The basic logic is that Google wants to serve us exactly what we’ve asked for, and if your pop-up is physically blocking that, you run the risk of being penalised.

It’s worth noting that Google’s RankBrain algorithm is designed to pick up on user interaction with your site, weighing it in favour of usability over the previous code tags and other technical tricks. Bottom line: don’t try to trick Google when you can just deliver a great site to your users.

How Can I make Things Right and Improve SEO Through User Experience?

Make it easy for your users to get what they’re looking for by aiming for clarity in your site structure and copy. If people get to your page from google, they’re going to want the information they’re looking for as soon as possible or they’ll bounce (leaving your page and affecting rankings). Now if you’re really good, this should be smacking them in the face the minute they land on the homepage, but chances are you can’t get everything you’re offering in that first 6 inches of screen, so make it as clear and as possible for the user to know where to click through to next. If you don’t, your click through rate (CTR) is going to suffer and along with it, your rankings.

Want to check your CTR? Google can help with that too.

Your desktop and mobile CTRs are probably different, but if they’re really different, and you’re really suffering on mobile, then it’s good to be aware. There may be a problem, and the first place to check is your meta title (the title usually showing in blue on Google). It may be too long for mobile, causing automatic truncation. If so, people might not understand what your page is offering when it comes up in Google. You can check and change this with the plugin Yoast if you’re on WordPress. The space you get for meta title and description is different for desktop and mobile, but it’s 2018 and mobile-first is here whether you like it or not, so it may be worth losing a few characters that might be helping on a desktop search to make it more concise and effective on mobile. Here’s a space allowance breakdown for you:

Desktop Meta Title: Approximately 70 Characters
Desktop Meta Description: Approximately 300 Characters

Mobile Meta Title: Approximately 78 Characters
Mobile Meta Description: Approximately 300 Characters

How Can I Make My Mobile Content More Readable?

We’ve talked about some cardinal sins, and some other, more technical stuff, so now let’s finish with some fundamental tips on the on how to implement UX-led (user experience led) design on your mobile site:

  1. Don’t drop font size below 15px: this should ensure it is readable even if your target audience is prone to poor eyesight, or using smaller mobile devices.
  2. Don’t scare people off with long paragraphs. Keep paragraphs to no more than 3 sentences.
  3. Keep the contrast high. As people use phones on the go, it can cause visibility issues on the screen if you’re not using the right text for background colour.
  4. Make header images smaller – this relates to what we talked about with CTR – don’t make mobile users scroll down past huge images to find their answers. Portrait images are the biggest offenders here.
  5. Use a lot of ‘whitespace’ (empty space) between your elements. It aids readability.
  6. Get ‘sticky’ social sharing and contact buttons so they’re always there when a user needs them.

I’ll take that last point to a more contentious place to finish up and say that I believe the trend of putting these sticky elements at the bottom of the screen is likely to prove most effective in the future as leading apps set the trend for this pattern.

Conclusion

When you think about ranking your site, get into the habit of only thinking about it from a mobile user’s perspective. When you think about improving the SEO for your site, start by thinking about how easy it is for user to get from hitting ‘enter’ on their search term to finding the answer on your page. Good user experience should be the foundation for all SEO improvements. This post is here to help you help yourself, but we love good design, so if you want our advice, please feel free to ask it.


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