Optimizing Your Mobile Presence for Natural Search

Google’s mobile-first index is coming in 2018. Search-result rankings for your desktop site will be based on the signals from the mobile version. Will you be ready?

More people search Google on smartphones than on any other device type, including desktop computers. To meet the needs of the many, Google is rolling out its mobile-first index sometime in 2018. Google has not announced the specific date, but in this critical time it’s vital that you plan for natural search performance in the mobile-first world.

Responsive Is Best

If your mobile search presence on a smartphone or tablet is responsive, meaning that the same content at the same URL responds with the appropriate display width for the size of the screen of the device requesting it, then your Google natural search performance in the mobile-first index is secure.

Responsive sites have long been Google’s recommendation. A responsive site is not required for mobile search performance, but it makes things a lot easier. In addition, truly responsive sites are better for customer experience and reduce the amount of work involved in maintaining your digital presence.

If your mobile search presence on a smartphone or tablet is responsive … then your Google natural search performance in the mobile-first index is secure.

However, if you have a separate mobile site, such as an m.site.com subdomain, you can still safely navigate the uncharted waters of the mobile-first index by ensuring that your mobile site is optimized.

But the practice of managing separate sites with separate content scaled down for a mobile presence becomes potentially damaging with the mobile-first index, since your entire web presence is no longer being judged by your desktop site.

With mobile-first, it’s possible that content that is not found on your mobile version will also not rank for desktop searches. Google hasn’t answered that question, though it has said that it plans to execute the mobile-first index in a manner that won’t change rankings much. That’s not particularly comforting. If your ecommerce business relies on natural search for even 10 percent of its revenue, and if your separate mobile site offers a limited experience, this is something you should take seriously.

Replicate Content

First and foremost, remember that search engine optimization rests in large part two types of signals: contextual relevance and authority. The decisions you make around the pages you choose to create on mobile, the words you populate them with, and how you interlink the pages will matter even more than they do today.

On the relevance side, make certain that the same content is available on your desktop and mobile pages. It should be exactly the same words on the same pages, not just similar — such as shorter content with a marketing focus that lacks descriptive terminology.

If you need to scale back the content on your mobile site, do so very carefully to avoid gutting the sections of content that currently send strong contextual signals to search engines. Accordion menus and tabs are perfectly acceptable for mobile experiences, to make the content more digestible on smaller screens. In the desktop-first index of today, less prominence is placed on content hidden from first view by accordions and tabs, but Google has said that that will not be true of mobile-first indexing.

However, don’t cram together bits of content from multiple desktop pages to form one consolidated page on a mobile site. That could be a problem. Individual pages with individual keyword themes have the ability to more strongly target important contextual themes. Condensing that content into a single page weakens the keyword theme that each area of content is trying to send, resulting in lowered or no rankings.

How you link the pages together matters as well, to ensure that the most authority possible is passed deeply throughout the site. The best way to know that there’s no change to your ranking performance once Google transitions to the mobile-first index is to mirror your desktop site’s navigational links. They can be shown in a different order, displayed differently, stuffed into a hamburger menu (those three horizontal lines commonly used in the top corners of mobile sites to display navigation) or in an accordion menu, as long as the links are present in the same navigational links are replicated. That ensures that link authority is passed in the same way throughout the site.

It’s tempting in a mobile experience to rely solely on site search for overall navigation. But resist. Always include a browse path, for customers and for natural search performance. Bots don’t use the search box to get to the rest of your site. They have to have crawlable links, preferably with dedicated anchor text to help them understand where they’re going. No links or fewer links on fewer pages means less visibility and weaker rankings.

It’s tempting in a mobile experience to rely solely on site search for overall navigation. But resist.

Lastly, mobile sites come with specialized technical optimization requirements. Google details these nicely in its developer’s guide, but the gist is twofold. Use canonical and alternate elements within the rendered page on both your mobile and desktop sites to tell Google which pages are the mirrors of each other. In addition, detect which device type is requesting the page and redirect it to the appropriate mobile or desktop experience. Go to Google Developers to read more guidelines for separate mobile sites.

Use Google’s mobile-friendliness test to check your mobile pages. Note that you’ll need to test each kind of page using the different templates on your site, such as product pages, home page, category pages, and content pages. Google’s test won’t ensure that your site will send the same relevance and authority signals in the mobile-first index as your desktop site did — there’s no test for that — and it won’t show whether you have your alternate elements and redirects in place correctly. But it will show how you’re doing according to Google’s mobile-friendliness guidelines.

In short, replicate on mobile the areas of your site that drive natural search traffic and revenue as closely to the desktop version as you can, while modifying the display to best work within a mobile experience.

Follow Google’s technical guidelines for mobile site optimization to ensure mobile-first indexing will have little-to-no performance impact. If you have a responsive experience, you won’t need to worry about the mobile-first index at all.

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