I heard from amazing thought leaders at this year’s SMX West conference. You learn all sorts of new information at SMX from people who are cutting-edge and who share unique and interesting angles on trends and changes ahead in the digital marketing world.

Usually, you take away only one or two things from these events that you feel are truly big. You recognize a new idea or trend is going to have a real impact on the online world. At this year’s event, the importance of mobile in search repeatedly showed up and was culminated by Gary Illyes’ announcement of Google’s upcoming mobile-first index.

Last Year’s Big Deals:  Structured Data and Mobile Responsive Design

AMP and structured data were big deals at last year’s SMX West. The Accelerated Mobile Project (AMP) has continued to grow since then. We are now seeing AMP search results in SERPS and the project is promoting the technology beyond publishing at this point.

At last year’s SMX, structured data and schema.org was all the rage. Structured data enables the web to operate more efficiently by moving beyond meta descriptions and titles. You can be more specific using structured data, which allows search engines to get a more accurate understanding of what your site is about.

Structured data is continuing to evolve and as it does, many businesses are moving farther ahead of their competition by having gotten on the technology early. A year away from last year’s focus at SMX and structured data is bigger than ever.

This Year’s Big Deal:  Google Rolls Out Mobile-First Indexing

At this year’s SMX, I sat in on an informative conversation with Gary Illyes of Google. He’s easy and fun to listen to. He clearly enjoys working for Google and experiencing celebrity status. As one of the public faces of Google, he doesn’t have an easy job as nearly everything he says is tweeted and blogged about.

In the coming months, we’re going to see the release of a mobile-first index. Google will start ranking sites based on the mobile version of the site rather than the desktop version. Of course, this is going to be an issue for many businesses.

It’s no longer enough for your site to simply look good on mobile devices. We’ve been working on page speed, responsiveness, and other things that go with mobile for a couple years now, but when this release happens, it’s going through a lot of people for a loop.

From what Gary Illyes was saying, it sounds like changes are coming in the next six months. Gary assured us, “Don’t panic!” It’s hard to say the exact timing and extent of the changes, but they are definitely coming.

I think Google will roll this out slowly. They can’t be too aggressive in how they do it because they could potentially knock out massive amounts of search data that people rely on. Gary alluded to this in his talk and it stands to reason. As I listened to Gary speak, I felt a sense of the tremendous amount of complexity going into Google’s considerations.

Legacy Websites and Mobile-First Indexing

Think about legacy sites. These are massive sites that have been operating primarily only as desktop versions. Perhaps they’ve added some modifications for mobile, but they are highly optimized for desktop viewing.

Where do these sites end up after the mobile-first index roll out? You’re talking about tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of pages. Where do sites like that fit into a proclamation like mobile-first indexing?

Gary addressed this issue by saying, basically, that Google will recognize any version of your site it finds. If you’ve got a mobile version of your site, Google will index it first. If not, Google will continue to index your desktop site.

My years of watching Google implement changes, and knowing Google’s desire to move the internet in a certain direction, have shown me that change happens incrementally. Google introduces changes first with a few friendly, soft pats on the bottom. Eventually, though, the hammer drops.

Google does a great job at giving us plenty of warning and opportunities to adapt, and that’s what’s been happening over the last couple years. We’ve had Mobilegeddon, AMP and a general emphasis on mobile for a couple years now. Mobile-first indexing is a natural next step.

What Does Mobile-First Indexing Mean?

First and foremost, mobile is the priority, but that doesn’t mean that the desktop versions suffer. The practice of envisioning a site first as a desktop version has been fading for a while now. Many companies need to renew or switch their focus to mobile first.

You have to think first about your customers, the majority of whom are searching for your site on mobile devices. Often, it’s easier to think about your brand, products and services. Those things are important. But in focusing on them, you risk losing sight of your customers.

According to eMarketer, the percentage of U.S. users who access the internet only through mobile devices is up 11.2% over 2016, while desktop only users are down almost 12%. Nearly 80% of U.S. users access the internet using both.

Clearly, we can’t forget how the user – your customer – is going to best be served by your website. Is adding more information to your site going to necessarily be better? The answer is often NO.

Mobile users expect to find information quickly. They don’t necessarily have time to read all the content you might put into something like a white paper. Mobile users need to navigate from place to place and get to where they want to go in a hurry. If they need to complete a transaction, place a phone call, send an email or get driving directions, those things need to be readily accessible on your website.

SEO is Now About Focusing on the User Experience

SMX West is a conference about search engine marketing, but in the last two years, an emphasis on the consumer experience has emerged. It’s the user who is considered first, and Google’s algorithm accounts for this.

Old SEO techniques such as keyword stuffing have long been out. Publishing articles that are spammy with lots of keywords and meta descriptions can now hurt your rankings. On page SEO has evolved. It’s different and focus’s more on other factors that create a friendly user experience.

Usability is a big deal going forward. Links and backlinks are still a big deal. Votes, likes, reviews and social signals in general are going to become a bigger part of the landscape. Google has said that some social signals are not used, but they’re not dumb. Social provides a lot of proof that a site, brand or business are legitimate. It’s safe to assume that this part of their algorithm will continue to become more sophisticated.

SEO today is about your entire footprint and how it relates to search results. That’s where our focus is now when we optimize websites. We create an exceptional user experience and provide useful, worthwhile content that targets what audiences need. The results? Decreased bounce rates, longer sessions and better conversions. All of which contribute to what Google thinks about your site.

Web Design With A Mobile-First Mentality

We now design websites with a mobile-first mentality. We consider how the site appears on the smaller iPhone and Android smartphones, which are your smallest breakpoints in website design. From there, we can build out tablet and desktop responsiveness.

Building from mobile up causes us to think differently. It’s about the mobile-first user experience. If we all think like this and build good useful content around it, we’ll be in good shape when it comes to maximizing our inbound SEO efforts.