In mid-October 2016, Google announced that their search index would split into separate mobile and desktop search indexes within the next few months. Most importantly, the mobile index will become the primary search index.
Before we get into all this let me throw two recent statistics at you:
- Less than 25% of small businesses have a mobile-friendly or mobile-optimized website
- Over 90% of consumers search for businesses they buy from online
Keep those numbers in mind as I explain what this recent Google update means for you.
Most of our readers are small business owners trying to keep tabs on the changing marketing landscape. So, to help put this into context and what it means for your business, let me take a few steps backward and explain how things have changed so dramatically over the last few years.
Google’s Algorithm Recent History & Highlights
Advancements in technology do not always move at the speed of sound. Sometimes dramatic shifts happen but occur so slowly or quietly we don’t realize the change until it has already happened.
Many of the changes in the way we search as well as how search results display on Google and other search engines have been a silent and almost invisible evolution right under our noses.
However, what I speak of are not just cosmetic changes. I’m talking about many of the massive advancements in the intelligence of search engines and the technological sophistication built into every feature of the search page designed to produce the best possible search results that benefit the end user’s search query.
While these advancements improve the search experience for consumers and knowledge seekers, it has become a detriment and struggle for many businesses to remain competitive who are not aware of how to adjust their website or content strategy to remain in good standing with Google’s search algorithm.
Below, are a few of the more recent algorithm updates Google has implemented and the effect each update made to the overall search landscape. While there have been a large number of “micro updates and adjustments” in the last 5 or 6 years, I’m merely scraping the surface and presenting major updates as they pertain to where we are today. It’s also worth noting; Google is known historically for giving silly names to major algorithm updates.
2011-2012 – Panda & Subsequent Panda versions
Panda was one of the first Google algorithm updates that addressed the quality of content in any given web page. Sites with thin or very little content or content riddled with ads or other quality issues were penalized or given lower rankings in the search results.
Subsequent Panda versions throughout 2011 continued to refine and identify more content quality issues and concerns in an attempt to produce more relevant, high-quality search results.
One of the most significant add-ons to this major release was the concept of content “freshness.” This revision meant websites that regularly published high-quality content would climb the rankings or maintain their rankings while others would begin to falter.
2012 – Penguin & Exact Matching Domains
Again content remained a focal point of Google’s algorithm updates. While Panda focused heavily on quality, Penguin was meant to root out over optimized or “web spam” pages. For example, we’ve all seen websites that seem to cram every possible keyword imaginable into the page text in hopes of ranking for a specific location or topic. Penguin zeroed in on these pages penalizing website owners and wiping many of these pages from the search results.
In addition to Penguin, Google also eliminated Exact Matching Domains as a ranking factor for your website. So for example, if your domain name was BestRunningShoes.com your site would no longer rank #1 in the results if someone searched using the phrase “best running shoes.” Penguin further emphasized the focus on the quality of relevant content.
2013 – More Penguin Refinement and Hummingbird
Quality content and penalization of over-optimized web pages continued to get smarter and more granular, weeding out more questionable web pages that seemed less authentic and more like they were trying to “game” the system. Google also heavily targeted niches that were notorious for spam-filled results such as payday loans and porn.
Hummingbird arrived on the scene near the end of summer in 2013 and vastly improved the search infrastructure overall, producing far better results for most search queries than its predecessor. In addition, as the name Hummingbird implies, search results were more precise and delivered much faster than before. This performance upgrade paved the way for a much improved mobile search experience that we’ve come to enjoy today.
2014 – Say Hello to Pigeon & HTTPS
By far one of the most drastic updates to Google’s search algorithm, Pigeon focused on local search results. This update dramatically changed how Google interpreted location data within your web page and could now correlate distance and location factors more accurately for your business than ever before.
Hummingbird also reduced the radius of the local results significantly. So for example, if I were in Times Square (Midtown) searching for a local business, I wouldn’t see local results in Manhattan at the top of the search results. Search results would now take into account my immediate area. This proximity refinement inherently gave some businesses a leg up if more local searches occurred in their business’s backyard versus competitors.
While paling in significance to Hummingbird, Google also announced the algorithm would give preferential treatment to secure sites. Websites with SSL certificates saw and continue to see a slight boost in rankings.
2015 – “Mobilegeddon”
Unlike many past algorithm updates, Google forewarned the general public about the Mobilegeddon release due to the impact it might have on many websites. The initial expectation of Mobilegeddon was, any website that was not mobile-friendly (responsive) would disappear from the mobile search results completely.
However, many sites remained unaffected or saw minimal traffic loss after the update. Even months later, sites began to see a significant dip as the mobile search algorithm deepened and became even more robust but not to the degree everyone expected.
2016 – Mobile Algorithm, Paid Search & Local Results
Throughout most of 2016 thus far, Google has drastically changed the layout of the search results page which positively affects a search users experience while making it more difficult for local businesses or advertisers to be seen.
For example, if you thought to yourself that there seem to be fewer ads in the search results now than in years past you’d be right. Google did away with the side-column ads and designated the very top of the results page (above the local and organic results) as well as the bottom (below the organic results) as ad space. This reduction of ads displayed per page has made ad competition fierce and more costly. However, fewer ads allow more opportunity for the ads which do appear to provide more useful information, improving overall conversions. Ads today include more in-depth information about the website, product, or service advertised.
Local search also took a big hit. Rather than showing seven local search results, we now have only three local search results in most cases. I’ve heard this may drop to two results soon as well. Consider the impact this change has made for businesses that were in the top 7 and now are buried on page two or worse. Optimizing for local search is more important now than ever before if your business relies on local search users finding you online.
Note: Many marketers use the term “mobile-friendly” and “responsive web design” interchangeably.
However, that is not entirely accurate. A responsive site simply means the site layout adapts to whichever screen size is viewing it. So whether you are on a mobile device, tablet, or desktop/laptop, you can experience the same website optimized for that device. In contrast, “mobile-friendly” includes an entirely different set of standards Google set forth and even a responsive website can fail the mobile-friendly test if certain criteria are not met such as:
- Page text being too small
- No mobile “viewport” (website doesn’t resize or adjust layout for mobile device)
- Links too close together
- Content wider than screen
- And more
Google has a free Mobile-Friendly Test Tool you can use to see if your site passes or fails. Make sure if you plan to build a mobile-friendly or responsive website that you seek professional help to ensure you pass this test.
Splitting the Index between Mobile and Desktop
As mobile proliferation continues, it’s no surprise that Google intends to put the primary focus of their search index on mobile devices. Over 50% of all internet usage, today is mobile where desktops and laptops make up around 40% at best. This divide will continue as our mobile devices continue to advance and technology pushes more of the information and tools we need into the cloud. If someone told me 5 or 10 years ago I could effectively manage my entire business through my mobile device I would have scoffed at the idea. Today, it is a reality and something I often do, being on the go with two young boys and a busy household.
Why Divide the Index?
Simply put, the way we search, what we search for, and how those results display varies greatly on a mobile device compared to a traditional desktop search. By splitting the index, Google can optimize the index more effectively for mobile devices and keep the index fresher than before. This division ensures a better search experience and more relevant search results for the end user.
In addition to splitting the index, the primary index will be the mobile index rather than desktop. This shift means the desktop index will be less up to date. Therefore, if you publish fresh content on your website or blog, the mobile index will crawl and show this content in its search results much faster than the desktop index will.
This does raise some important questions, such as:
- How out of date will the desktop index be or how long will it take for recently published content to be visible?
- Will the mobile index only show mobile-friendly results or a mix?
The one clear advantage I can see in this decision is, by splitting the index Google can run a unique algorithm on mobile searches instead of using the current system which has to determine if each and every page is mobile-friendly first before showing the content. This new index would eliminate that step making search results much faster and more accurate.
Why should I care about the search index divide?
I’ve been saying for the last few years: If your site is not mobile-friendly, you’re dead and now that’s true more than ever.
I’ll admit when Google launched Mobilegeddon in 2015 and forewarned website owners to get their site mobile-ready I took a bit of an alarmist approach. The last thing I wanted was to see my clients lose traffic and opportunities to grow their business because of a technical deficiency in their website.
Some of my clients took my advice, and others chose to ride out the storm and let the chips fall where they may. For many websites that are still not mobile-friendly, traffic dips have not been instantaneous but have experienced a slow painful loss in organic traffic month after month. Many of these businesses who chose to ride it out are starting to feel the sting a year and a half later.
This time around, there should not be a “wait and see approach.” Splitting the search index is absolutely going to change the game permanently.
If you’re still not “drinking the kool-aid” and haven’t overhauled your site you’re going to feel the impact very soon. The mobile index’s influence and effect on your website’s online visibility will only get worse before it gets better but only if you take action.
When Google focuses its attention on the mobile index, it becomes the place where all of your website visibility and optimization efforts will be won and lost.
However, don’t get me wrong, the desktop index still matters, and a great number of searches are still desktop-based. After the divide, this index will not update with the same frequency as the mobile index which makes ranking and optimizing your site based solely on the desktop algorithm a moot point.
It’s time to “make hay and go mobile while the sun still shines” my friends.
If you’ve been waiting for the right moment to update your website to today’s mobile-friendly standards the window of opportunity is shrinking and shrinking fast.
How can I prepare for the Search Index Divide?
For most businesses ensuring the right audience can find and utilize their website is what makes or breaks their bottom line. Not all websites require a complete overhaul to convert them into a mobile-friendly website. For example, if you have a website built in WordPress, we can custom code any WordPress theme to today’s mobile-friendly standards. You can even purchase a theme or find a free theme that is mobile-ready and redesign your site yourself.
Here are a few tips and suggestions for how to prepare for the Google Index Divide.
- Take the mobile-friend test to see how your site stacks up. Even if your site looks good on mobile, it can still fail the test!
- Consider adding AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) to enhance a mobile user’s experience with your website. AMP pages are simplified versions of existing pages on your website. Many online bloggers and news sites will use these pages to serve up mobile pages with less clutter and fewer ads which cut the load time of their page to a fraction of what it was before.
- Build a dedicated mobile version of your website. Using tools like Duda Mobile you can create a dedicated mobile version of your desktop website. A separate mobile version ensures mobile visitors get the best possible experience. However, I caution you against this option as you will be managing two websites rather than one. And, any content edits or updates you make will have to be made to both to ensure consistency in both search indexes.
- Retrofit your existing site with mobile-friendly code. Depending on the size, complexity, or current layout of your website, retrofitting your existing site may be the most affordable option. In some cases retrofitting a website can cost the same or more than building from scratch so weigh your options carefully.
- Redesign or rebuild your website into a responsive mobile-friendly site from the ground up. This option ensures the site is mobile-friendly top to bottom and using the latest standards for the new build. Also, if your site is old enough to not include mobile-friendly coding, it’s more than likely you’re due for a redesign anyway!
In typical Google fashion, they have yet to provide full disclosure on what the index split will mean for both mobile and desktop search results. In previous Search Index updates, Google waited weeks or months after the release was made to provide more details. With some smaller releases, Google failed to provide any definitive explanation or even admit they made changes at all!
To some degree, I get the logic. The search algorithm must remain honest and unbiased. If Google pulls back the curtain too far, it may encourage some less ethical marketers to try and take advantage unfairly.
As a small business owner, I realize some of what I’ve shared here may be over your head, but it’s important to paint a picture of where we are and how we got here since so many of us rely on our website’s performance to drive sales and growth.
I cannot stress the importance of bringing your site up to today’s mobile-friendly standards strongly enough. I encourage you to please ask questions below and reach out to me to discuss your website needs in detail.
I’m happy to provide a free website evaluation to help you navigate through these changes so that you can maintain your businesses online visibility and search rankings.