Planning for mobile-first: When SEO & UX collide

Modestos Siotos

Technical SEO Director

Google have announced that their mobile-first algorithm will launch in 2018. Here our Technical SEO Director, Modestos Siotos, explains how brands can prepare for it.

Mobile first in UX design

Mobile first is a concept that has been widely used by the design and development communities for years. According to this the primary focus when designing a website is on the mobile user experience without being influenced by the desktop experience. Mobile first design isn’t just about making a website responsive but about developing a website in such a way so it meets the needs of users who are on the go and require easily accessible content. In some instances, this could be achieved by customising an existing desktop website but in others the mobile site would need to be re-designed and rebuilt from scratch.

Mobile first and Google

Mobile first design was overlooked for several years by the SEO community because Google’s algorithm ranking signals were influenced by the desktop version of a site. But with the number of searches on mobile devices surpassing the desktop ones, Google decided to build a separate index, which would be primarily influenced by the mobile web. In November 2016 Google announced that they had been working on a separate mobile index, which will soon become Google’s primary index.

Google’s challenges for mobile-first

Websites designed primarily for mobile tend to have less content. But given how important content is for search engines, having less content on a mobile site could potentially have a negative impact on a site’s organic search visibility.

Mobile sites also tend to have less links, both internal and external ones. People rarely link to mobile sites, whilst sites designed for mobile usually offer lower number of internal links (e.g. a cut down version of the main navigation) so it’s easier for users on mobile devices to navigate and browse.

Why Google recommends going responsive

A truly responsive site serves the same content, links and mark-up across all devices under the same URL. This set-up makes Google’s life easy as it would only need to crawl and index the same content on mobile and desktop. It makes no surprise that Google claims that responsive sites should be ready for the forthcoming update without any preparation.

But for sites that serve different content, links or mark-up across devices, Google recommends starting to make changes soon, in advance of the update. That implies that failure to do so could have a negative impact on search engine visibility.

In addition to this, Google reps have commented on several occasions that it is better to have no mobile site than a poorly optimised mobile site. Google also recommend sites that have a separate mobile site migrate to a responsive site.

Google makes algorithm changes to benefit UX

Google have shared some information about how the mobile index will treat all the core components of search engine ranking: content, links and mark-up.  The good news is that Google are making changes in the way ranking signals will work in mobile-first, overcoming some major desktop limitations and offering some new features that will benefit UX without hindering SEO performance.

  1. Content presentation on mobile devices will be more flexible without damaging SEO performance. Google have confirmed that expandable content will be given full weight on the mobile index, unlike what is currently happening on the desktop index where content that is hidden when a page first loads is weighted less. This means that mobile UX designers will be able to add content into tabs or even hide it behind click-to-expand links without affecting SEO visibility. However, content that is permanently hidden from users is likely to harm SEO, even if it appears in the source code.

  2. Internal links missing from mobile, but that exist on desktop, won’t be seen by Google. This means that removing internal links from the mobile site will have a negative impact on SEO. The only exception to this is the breadcrumb navigation, which can be skipped on mobile so long as the breadcrumb mark-up exists in the source code.

  3. Site performance is very important on mobile and Google have confirmed that the new mobile algorithm will start looking into mobile site speed. This means that fast loading mobile pages will benefit from the mobile-first update, whilst the slow loading ones could be negatively impacted.

SEO or UX focus?

One of the common trends in preparation for the mobile-first update are the potential consequences certain UX decisions would have on SEO, and vice versa.  UX teams are primarily interested in offering the best mobile user experience and SEO teams strive to make sure that SEO revenue won’t be negatively impacted when the forthcoming update is rolled out.

Finding the right balance between UX and SEO will be essential to succeed in the mobile-first era. It is imperative to get UX and SEO teams to work more closely together and understand each other’s priorities and challenges. So rather than SEO and UX working in silos, the two should work together towards the same objectives.

When is mobile-first rolling out?

Google have communicated that this update will most likely take place in 2018 and that it will prioritise sites that are ready. However, they won’t notify sites that have been switched to the mobile index. More updates will be released closer to the launch date.


To ensure your site is ready for the mobile-first update contact us at results@icrossing.co.uk.

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