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NEW YORK – Google is now using a mobile-first index based on how devices crawl the web. It’s a radical change from the old desktop-centric approach. And the change has major ramifications for SEOs, according to Alexis Sanders, technical SEO account manager at Merkle, who spoke about mobile-first SEO success at our SMX East conference in New York City on Wednesday.

Why Google is switching to mobile-first indexing. Mobile use has exploded in the past decade, from just over a half-billion users globally in 2010 to nearly three billion today. With this worldwide shift towards mobile devices, Google is following the trend. “Everywhere in the world, information is becoming more portable,” said Sanders.

What is mobile-first? According to Google’s webmaster guidelines, “Mobile-first indexing means that we’ll use the mobile version of the page for indexing and ranking, to better help our – primarily mobile – users find what they’re looking for.” Google continues to use a single index of websites and apps, but is adapting its algorithms to primarily use a mobile version of a site’s content to rank pages from that site. “It’s going to take multiple years for this to come to fruition,” said Sanders.

What SEOs need to know. Most traditional SEO techniques will still work and it’s important to implement them properly. Google emphasized that if you only have a desktop version of a site you will not be penalized. Nor are changes needed for XML sitemaps, backlinks to a site or canonical tags.

Sanders suggested steps to take immediately to make sure your sites will fare as well as possible in a mobile-first world:

  • Ensure parity between mobile and desktop with content (text, images, videos), tagging, structured data and internal links.
  • Ensure your servers have capacity to handle changes in crawl rate.
  • Monitor indexation status.
  • Ensure robots.txt are validated.
  • Check your server log files.
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And don’t stress to much over the change. “Users will always be served the appropriate version of the site,” said Sanders.

What to avoid. According to Sanders, Google has specifically called out a number of no-nos that could potentially have a negative effect on ranking. These include the use of mobile interstitials and Flash content.

Google will send alerts if there are mobile-first issues encountered as it gradually adopts the mobile-first index for all sites. Sanders surveyed the audience to see if anyone had received an alert and a few people raised their hands. “That’s good,” she said. “It proves that Google is doing what they said they would do to help address problems.

“Creating the best mobile experience possible is the best bet for now,” she concluded.

You can view Alexis’ full presentation below.

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