Insights, observations, and stories from the front lines of ecommerce and online marketing

How to Optimize Your Ecommerce Store for the Mobile-First Index

In 2018, 52.2 percent of all website traffic worldwide was generated through mobile phones, 1.9% more than in 2017 and up from a lowly 0.7 percent in 2009. This shift has been gradual but marked, and it goes without saying that it’s in Google’s interest to make changes that reflect and react to this change in user behavior.

To improve the search experience, Google has had to adapt to how people access, and more importantly how people search for, content in 2018. For the last few years, Google has been talking about changing the way it ranks listings to prioritize content that works better for mobile and this year these changes will really hit home with the transition to the Mobile-First Index.

Previously, Google ranked listings based on the desktop version of a website, crawling that content to judge how relevant and helpful a given result will be to the user. A shift to a Mobile-First Index means that Google will now rank listings according to the mobile version of a site, even for searches from a desktop, putting the emphasis fully on the mobile experience.

With this change, Google is clearly marking the future direction of search, which will have repercussions on how websites are designed, built and optimized. The extent of the impact on a particular listing will vary depending on how it is currently viewed on mobile devices.

Mobile-friendliness

If your site is not currently mobile-friendly, then the Mobile-First Index will default to crawling the desktop site. Bear in mind that given the new focus on mobile, your rankings are likely to be negatively affected if it doesn’t meet standards. You can check with this helpful tool by Google.

If you have a dedicated mobile site (m.domain.com), it’s usually because this contains different content to your main site. This may be in the interest of improved UX, paring down content to improve navigation and conversion. With the Mobile-First Index, the thinner mobile version will be indexed. Unless your SEO value content is also uploaded to the mobile site, your hard work will be undone and you may lose impact.

If your site is already optimised for mobile devices, you will be the least affected by these changes. But this doesn’t mean that there aren’t elements to improve! The bottom line for all eCommerce sites is that visibility is key. UX and content targeting becomes irrelevant if you cannot be found. Luckily, here are some steps for optimising for the new Mobile-First Index.

5 tips to optimize your site

  1. Speed things up

Google has made it clear that they’re on a mission to speed things up for mobile browsing, so improving site and page speed for mobile is one way to improve your rankings in the new mobile-first world. In the UK, conversion rates for mobile are around half those for desktop, so there is big room for improvement for online retailers. Reducing load times is a straightforward way to make a big impact on UX for your customers.

If you’re unhappy with site speed, there are a few options you could explore, although they all involve a significant overhaul:

  • The Accelerated Mobile Pages Proj
  • ect (AMP) is an open source library that provides a way to create simple web pages that will load faster than regular HTML.
  • Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) are web apps that load like regular websites but offer additional functionality, such as the ability to work offline and the look and feel of an app.
  • A hybrid form of a PWA with an Accelerated Mobile Page is known as PWAMP. Sites built using PWAMP are super fast and offer all of the benefits of PWA but because they use the stripped back code of AMP, the pages are lighter improving load time significantly.
  1. Simplify your path to conversion

For eCommerce sites, Google will be looking to rank higher if conversion rates for mobile are high. From a UX perspective, look at your path to conversion, check to ensure it’s as simple (and short) as possible, that your in-site search works well and that you haven’t blocked the way with unnecessary pop-ups, which are now also penalized. This is also an area where less is more, so think about how much information you really need to gather on your customers on check out and cut this down to the bare minimum to simplify and speed up the process.

  1. Accept that not everyone will convert on mobile…

Even if you’ve done all that you can to optimise your site for mobile devices, there are still those who will delay purchase until they’re on a desktop. Maybe they’re short-sighted and want a closer look before they buy, maybe their bank card is in their wallet next to their desk or maybe they just get distracted mid-purchase. Either way, you need to factor this behaviour in. Giving customers the option to save items for later, to complete transactions across devices, and to use your fully-optimised site to its potential makes sense when looking at encouraging a conversion.

  1. Think mobile-first for design

Under the previous system, design elements that make life easier for mobile browsers. For example, using dropdown menus to create content-light home pages, could negatively impact ranking because Google didn’t look at the content stored within these menus. Google has confirmed that they will crawl all content contained within accordion or drop down menus, which will help to keep a clean, minimalist aesthetic for home pages when viewed on mobile.

Other simple design elements that figure highly for Mobile-First thinking include making sure text is large enough to be readable (16px as a base level) and that the padding is wide enough for all clickable elements to avoid frustration (especially for those with big thumbs). And finally, of course, avoid Flash. Apple doesn’t like it, lots of phones can’t cope with it... so why bother?

  1. Think Mobile-First in general!

This update is the nail in the coffin for mobile sites made up of a slimlined version of the carefully crafted content from your full site. These are new days, mobile is no longer an afterthought and the energy that has previously gone into the SEO of your desktop website needs to be redirected.

Look at user behavior, at how potential customers browse your site, and tailor it to their needs. Although you want a site that doesn’t need people to pinch and zoom to navigate, these habits are second nature to many people and disabling the option to pinch and zoom on an image can knock a sure-fire conversion off course.

Similarly, think about the fact that the people accessing your site may well be using mobile data, so slimming down larger files and compressing them where necessary will pack less of a punch to people’s data limits.

In conclusion

The bottom line here is that mobile browsing is here to stay, and to see the best results, a mobile-first mindset is needed for tackling SEO. Google have been vague with the details on when this transition will be complete, but the smart money is on 2018, so if you haven’t started thinking about how it will affect you… it’s probably time to mobilize.

About the Author: Charlie Carpenter is the co-founder and CEO of Kite. He is a mobile advocate with over ten years of industry experience.

After working for large and small agencies for many years, he co-founded Kite; a software solution for print-on-demand, zero inventory merchandise, and personalised photo print goods. As well as an entrepreneur, Charlie is a seasoned product strategist with experience of various types of digital projects which include: Responsive and Adaptive Websites, Mobile & Tablet Apps, Hybrid Apps, Cross Platform App development. You can connect with Charlie on LinkedIn, and follow him on Twitter.

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