Your Guide to Link Building in a World of Mobile-First Indexing

So, how will Google’s upcoming mobile-first indexing affect our approach to building links?

It’s something I’ve been thinking about lately.

My thoughts led me to this scenario:

When was the last time you were frustrated by a mobile link?

Don’t deny it– it happens to everyone who browses the web on a smartphone or tablet. You tap on a link, maybe from a Facebook or Twitter post, and arrive on a site that’s impossible to navigate.

It’s littered with poorly-timed popups, “continue reading” buttons, and autoplay videos.

Browsing those sites is an exercise in annoyance.

But there’s something even worse.

Have you ever been reading something on a site you trust, one that offers a carefree browsing experience, and tapped a link that ruins the whole venture?

One moment, you’re on a site you love, and the next moment you’re on a site that isn’t even responsive?

If you’ve had that experience, you’re far less likely to follow a link from that site again, at least on your mobile device. On a desktop machine, you can hover over the link to see where it leads URL and all. On a mobile site, you’re not so lucky– so if you get burned once, you’re less likely to follow links from that site again.

On a mobile site, you’re not so lucky– so if you get burned once, you’re less likely to follow links from that site again.

And I trust you’ve seen the comments, too.

Popular ones include:

  • “That site is like hemorrhoids on my cellphone”
  • “I’m on my phone, and that link is unreadable”
  • “Why link to something I can’t even read on my phone? It’s 2017!”

No one wants those comments on their website, or on their social media profiles. And no one wants to follow those kinds of links.

Now, think about who’s behind the worst possible examples of link placement on the internet– the people who have no regard for anything but their link.

Link builders. Yeah, you guessed it.

Now, of course I’m not talking about you or me. If you’re reading this article, you’re likely a link builder who puts in the effort to create good links that will create a positive user experience. But not everyone understands the intersect between UX and link building.

Many people want to take the easiest, cheapest route possible– future consequences be damned.

We don’t yet have enough info about mobile-first indexing to know exactly how it’s going to change the game for link builders. And, even once it’s rolled out in earnest, we won’t know everything. Google’s very good at keeping secrets, after all.

But, in anticipating of this new indexing method, I think it will help every link builder to be a little more mindful of mobile sites, mobile users, and the mobile-friendliness of their own sites.

The sky isn’t falling, but we might as well keep an eye on the weather.

Mobile-First Indexing

Before we get into how this new approach to indexing might affect link builders, I suppose it’s a good idea to first have a look at what we know about Google’s mobile-first indexing update.

Google announced their plan all the way back in November of 2016.

From Google:

“Today, most people are searching on Google using a mobile device. However, our ranking systems still typically look at the desktop version of a page’s content to evaluate its relevance to the user. This can cause issues when the mobile page has less content than the desktop page because our algorithms are not evaluating the actual page that is seen by a mobile searcher.

To make our results more useful, we’ve begun experiments to make our index mobile-first. Although our search index will continue to be a single index of websites and apps, our algorithms will eventually primarily use the mobile version of a site’s content to rank pages from that site, to understand structured data, and to show snippets from those pages in our results. Of course, while our index will be built from mobile documents, we’re going to continue to build a great search experience for all users, whether they come from mobile or desktop devices.”

So, if you have both a mobile website (ex: m.pandapranks.org) and a desktop site (ex: www.pandapranks.org), Google will look at your mobile site, and then rank both your mobile site and your desktop site based off of the mobile site.

As of now, there’s no official release date for this change, but Google is likely testing it now. Experts in the search world predict we’ll see it roll out in full by late 2017.

This shift to mobile-first indexing was an inevitability, as more Google searches are performed on mobile than on desktop. Mobile overtook desktop back in 2015, so you may be surprised mobile-first indexing has even taken this long.

So, along with selling more ads, Google wants to serve up a better experience for mobile users.

Here’s an article at SearchEngineWatch by Sam Underwood, who explains what the big problem is:

“As mobile is now the predominant way for people to search on Google, it makes sense for them to ensure the experience on this device is as good as it can be.

In lots of situations, sites provide a worse or thinned down user experience on the mobile device, that is not as good as the desktop site. This happens more on mobile sites where separate URLs are used or where dynamic serving is being used.”

Remember that poor user experience we talked about in the beginning of the post? This is Google doing its darndest to make sure you’re far less frustrated the next time you tap on a mobile link.

Mobile-First Indexing and Your Website

It’s no secret that it’s far harder to build links to a junky website than it is to a good website. And, since more searches are now performed on mobile devices, that means your site has to offer a good desktop experience and a good mobile experience.

Junky sites, with the exceptions of some legacy sites, just won’t perform well these days. Even if you’re building quality links.

According to Google, and a few search experts, there are a few areas you should check into when it comes to your own site and mobile-first indexing.

Content:

  • If you’re hiding certain pieces of content on your mobile site, you may want to reconsider. Ideally, both mobile users and desktop users should be able to find the same information when they visit your site.
  • If your site offers a decidedly worse experience on either desktop or mobile, you should consider improving the one that’s lagging behind.
  • For your mobile site, always consider user experience first. This sometimes requires making hard decisions relating to calls to action, navigation, and images– but prioritize the user over your conversion rate.

Site Speed:

  • Site speed is a big ranking factor, and mobile site speed will be even more important once mobile-first indexing rolls out.
  • Simply put, make sure your site loads quickly on mobile devices. Test it on your own phone when you’re not connected to wifi, and make tweaks as necessary.
  • You can always run your site through Google’s mobile-friendly test and mobile page speed insights.

Site Structure:

  • Don’t ignore site structure on your mobile site, and especially don’t ignore it within posts and pages.
  • Use reasonable, user-friendly titles, H1s, H2s, internal links, and anything else that will help Google make sense of your site, and make the site more intuitive for your readers.

Navigation and ease of use are also important. Here’s Sam Underwood again:

“A well-known issue with sites that use either dynamic serving or separate URLs for their mobile site is that the internal linking is vastly different to the desktop site. This can cause some user experience issues for readers as they struggle to find content that can be easily discovered on the desktop version of the site.

Similar difficulties are caused when Google crawls the mobile site. If your internal linking/information architecture on the mobile site does not closely replicate the desktop, this can cause internal link equity to be poorly distributed throughout the site, which will cause a drop in rankings.”

In addition to this advice I highly recommend you check out Sam’s article, as it shows concrete examples of sites who may not do as well once mobile-first indexing comes into play.

He shows some real sites who hide various content on their mobile pages, as well as sites who remove a majority of their internal linking.

If you’re at all concerned about the mobile friendliness of your own site, as it relates to mobile-first indexing, it’s a must-read.  

Link Building and Mobile-First Indexing

A short disclaimer before we tackle this– I don’t claim to know exactly what will happen to link building, as an industry, or the value of links once this whole thing rolls out.

No one knows, except for some cloaked figures in a shadowy room at Google Headquarters.

I can, however, make some common sense recommendations that will be good for you now, and good for you then. I can also help you establish some good habits that will make link building in a mobile-first world a little bit easier to swallow.

So, what do other experts think will happen to links as a ranking factor once mobile-first indexing hits the streets?

Here’s what Barry Schwartz has to say:

“There is a concern that mobile content tends to have fewer links than desktop content. This is a concern that is similar to the concern listed above around mobile content having less content than desktop content. Google’s search results are very dependent on links and content. So if both links and content are impacted, will the rankings be impacted?

Google said they are still testing, so it isn’t 100 percent clear. Gary Illyes said, “I don’t want to say anything definite about links yet. It’s too early for that cos things are very much in motion.”

So, Gary Illyes is staying silent on the matter, which is very much par for the course.

First things first though– make sure all of the links on your own site are the same between mobile and desktop, if you can. Once Google starts crawling your mobile site first, you’ll want to make sure any links you’re giving out to other people are present and accounted for.

Next, it’s time to talk about link prospecting and vetting sites:

  • If you like a site enough that you’re going to send outreach, pull it up on your phone or tablet first.
  • Make sure the site is easy to scroll through, and easy to navigate.
  • Tap a link or two in a post or article to make sure nothing strange happens when you leave the site.
  • Make sure the site isn’t overblown with popups and auto-play advertising, as Google is cracking down on intrusive interstitial ads for mobile sites.
  • Make sure the site loads quickly, with little muss or fuss.

Then, it’s time for outreach. If the target site is the same on desktop and mobile, there’s no need to alter your outreach. If there’s a mobile version of the site:

  • Scroll through one blog post on both mobile and desktop. Are all the same links present?
  • If not, ask the webmaster if they can please include your link on both the mobile and the desktop version of their site.
  • Likely, they’ll do this automatically, anyway– so there’s no need to be pushy. Just mention that you want potential readers to get the full experience if they’re browsing on a mobile device.

Once you’ve landed the link, be sure to test it out on both a desktop machine and a mobile device.

That should cover most of your bases, but there’s one more thing I want to address.

Many people in the SEO and link building industry are hailing mobile-first indexing as “the death of desktop SEO.”

I don’t buy it.

For one, the average website or blogger you reach out to probably won’t have a dedicated mobile site with different URLs. Their websites will feature responsive design, sure, but they likely won’t have the budget or knowhow to build a separate mobile site.

That means Google will continue to index their desktop site, but look at it from the perspective of a mobile user.

Next, I don’t see desktop, laptop, and notebook computers biting the dust in the next several years. Desktop searches are still a thing, and they will be for the foreseeable future. Many people, myself included, like to read longer pieces of content on the computer, instead of on the phone or iPad.

So, desktop SEO isn’t dying, but we do need to keep mobile search at the forefront of everything we do if we want to stay ahead of the curve.

Closing Thoughts

Gary Illyes has said there probably won’t be many big ranking shakeups when mobile-first indexing rolls out.

We’ll probably see some amount of panic, and some amount of lost rankings because well-designed mobile sites are ranking higher than they used to. But I don’t think we’ll see outright penalties for desktop sites, or for mobile sites who hide a bit of content and have different navigation than their desktop counterparts.

I do, however, think the industry as a whole will perceive mobile-first indexing as a giant departure from what’s come before.

I wrote this article to help you plan ahead and avoid the panic.

In the near future, you’ll have to vet target sites more thoroughly from a mobile device, and you’ll have to consider mobile user experience on your own site. After all, you don’t want angry users tapping on your link and finding an unreadable website.

Just as we do now, we link builders need to think about users in everything we do.

Google is all about user experience and, if we want to keep up, we need to be right there with them.

Nothing’s going to slow the dominance of mobile search, and we can’t do ourselves a disservice by resisting the change. In a mobile-first world, we can’t put mobile users second.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *