Mobile-first indexing delayed again, with Google indicating big changes are coming
First announced back in November 2016, Google’s move to mobile-first indexing has been imminent now for some time – but Gary Illyes has now deferred the date of its probable introduction to 2018
The late Sir Terry Pratchett once wrote that ‘[the] news that they have nothing to fear is guaranteed to strike terror into the hearts of innocents everywhere.’ Doubtless, therefore, there will be plenty of perturbed search marketers following Illyes announcement at SMX Advanced conference in Seattle.
It’s going to be a big change, but don’t freak out […] We have some ideas for when this will launch, but it’s probably many quarters away […] Right now, we think more 2018
Gary Illyes, Google Webmaster trends analyst (and self-proclaimed House Elf)
What is mobile-first indexing?
Mobile-first indexing is a coming change to the way in which Google ranks websites. While at present the search engine looks at the desktop version of a page, post-change it will instead prioritise the mobile version. This change will be in direct response to the general shift to mobile of most Google users.
I’ve spoken a number of times on this blog about how Google moves closer all the time to favour mobile as the default device for search (including my efforts to become ‘Mobile Sites’ certified, about digital assistants and the need for speed), but the mobile-first indexing push is really going to be the final nail in the coffin of the non-responsive, or otherwise mobile-unfriendly, website.
Essentially, Google is following its users over to their mobile devices and, just as it pushed brands toward prioritising user experience (UX) on their desktop sites through various penalties, announcements and changes in weighting, it is doing the same on its consumers’ device of choice – hence the mobile-friendly (i and ii) updates, Hummingbird, AMP and various other tweaks that have had the effect of making the mobile environment a more pleasant one. Or, as Search Engine Journal put it:
[If] the content isn’t important enough to be on your mobile site, then maybe you aren’t the most authoritative or relevant result for that content
Ryan Jones, Search Engine Journal
Why the delay?
Google has seldom announced an algorithm update or a change of methodology, yet two of those occasions have been mobile related (leading to the ‘The Great Mobilegeddon Panic of 2015’ and, no doubt, some scrambling this time around), but it’s unlikely they do so because they enjoy the pained screams of search marketers – or at least not only because.
What these announcements represent are nudges of increasing force in the right direction. Not because Google is overly worried about brands losing rankings (Panda and Penguin’s quiet introduction clearly demonstrates that), however, it is determined to provide the best results to its user base (as discussed here) and a complete reshuffle of page one overnight is not in its best interests.
While most brands (even my go to example ‘Next’ have implemented a mobile friendly site) have accepted that mobile is the future, it pays to ensure that as many sites are prepared for the change as possible.
But that’s not all
However, it’s unlikely that forewarning is the only reason for the latest delay (the first mobile-friendly update was only announced a matter of a few months prior). The chances are that Google are taking the coming revamp of SERPs to implement a number of other changes that have been in the works for a while and those that have become a concern only lately.
It would be my best guess that, along with mobile-first indexing (or at least concomitant with it) will come the introduction of improved measures to tackle ‘fake news’, updates to rich snippets and knowledge graphs and further integration with Google Home and the Google Assistant.
It makes sense (to me at least) for Google to seek to combine a number of important changes at the development stage to avoid having to go through lengthy adaptation processes as one is introduced after another.
For this reason, I think we can take Illyes at his word – both in that there will be big changes coming and that those already ensuring mobile-friendliness will have no reason to freak out. Mobile-first indexing may cause waves, but it is unlikely to be a tsunami event – it is more likely that there will be a number of changes which will roll out in reasonably quick succession and have a cumulative effect for those sites whose webmasters remain unprepared (in fact, SEO Roundtable has published a blog this morning announcing that Google will be using page speed as a ranking factor for the mobile-first index).
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