While the whole (SEO) world is excited for “mobile first” to roll out, Google actually separated the mobile and desktop indices. And nobody noticed.

 

Until now.

 

The mobile and desktop rankings of the top 20 largest sites in the world started to diverge in mid-April 2017. Brands like Instagram and Wikia have a difference of almost 40% between their desktop and mobile rankings. 

I’m showing you examples of how and why the largest brands on this planet lost mobile rankings with data from Searchmetrics, AHREFs, and SEMrush.

 

The separation is the first step towards the “mobile first” switch.

 

The impact could be bigger than anything we’ve seen before.

 

The top 20 largest sites – winners and losers

  Site Lost / gained (10/20/17) Difference between mobile and desktop SEO Visibility
1 Wikipedia.org lost -80.50%
2 Youtube.com gained +126.5%
3 Facebook.com lost -80.00%
4 Twitter.com gained +130.9%
5 Google.com Lost (long ago) -35.30%
6 Imdb.com lost -66.90%
7 Amazon.com lost -82.10%
8 Apple.com Lost (long ago) -23.70%
9 Dictionary.com neutral -91.60%
10 Merriam-webster.com neutral -89.40%
11 Instagram.com lost -62.00%
12 Wikia.com lost -69.70%
13 Nytimes.com lost -83.70%
14 Pinterest.com lost -54.70%
15 Wiktionary.org lost -79.90%
16 Webmd.com lost -91.90%
17 Urbandictionary.com lost -84.50%
18 Tripadvisor.com lost -89.00%
19 Yahoo.com neutral -93.90%
20 Linkedin.com lost -85.10%

(Top 20 largest sites on the internet according to Searchmetrics. The lower the percentage, the bigger the difference between desktop and mobile results.)

 

Since roughly 2 years, Searchmetrics provides an SEO visibility* index for mobile rankings. I’ve been checking it on and off for a couple of domains. When I recently checked it, though, I noticed huge drops in Mobile SEO Visibility starting in mid-April.

 

*“SEO Visibility” is an SEO performance metric from Searchmetrics. It’s not always 100% representative for organic traffic but valuable to understand greater trends.

 

Here’s what I mean.

 

Mobile and desktop rankings are almost identical for dictionary.com. There’s no significant divergence.

mobile vs desktop seo visibility dictionary.com

Mobile and desktop SEO Visibility of dictionary.com

 

For imdb.com, on the other hand, we see a big drop in mobile rankings starting in mid-April.

 

mobile vs desktop seo visibility imdb

Mobile and desktop SEO Visibility of imdb.com

 

Not only have they dropped, but they develop independently from desktop results. You might notice the little bump at the end of the Mobile SEO Visibility graph, which (desktop) SEO Visibility does not have.

 

That’s because Google has separated the mobile from the desktop index. Now mobile URLs are being evaluated on their own.

 

That wasn’t always the case, as Google admits in the “mobile-first indexing” blog article from November 2016:

Our ranking systems still typically look at the desktop version of a page’s content to evaluate its relevance to the user.

 

Google also mentions why it wants to get away from desktop-first indexing:

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.

 

Now, that more people use mobile than desktop devices, it makes sense to reflect what they see in organic rankings.

 

We’ll come back to IMDB in a second. Let’s look at a particular problem that caused most of the sites to lose a ton of organic mobile traffic.

 

The risk of mobile subdomains – Why Facebook, Wikipedia, and IMDB lost mobile rankings

Sites that use mobile subdomains (m.domain.com) got slapped hard. Having one URL for mobile and one for desktop means having two different link profiles and user engagement signals. User behavior on optimized mobile pages should send good, strong signals to Google, but nobody really links to mobile pages.

 

That’s a huge problem. Even though backlinks lost some value over the last years, they’re still the strongest ranking signal.

 

Let’s look at an example.

 

Facebook uses www.facebook.com for desktop and m.facebook.com for mobile.

 

The CNN (desktop) page has ~114,000 backlinks on www.facebook.com/cnn/ …

facebook cnn backlinks desktop

AHREFs backlink data on www.facebook.com/cnn/

 

… but only 184 backlinks on m.facebook.com/cnn/ (mobile)!

facebook cnn backlinks mobile

AHREFs backlink data on m.facebook.com/cnn/

 

On a small scale, the difference means ranking on page 1 versus page 2.

(Facebook’s mobile and desktop rankings for “cnn”)

 

“cnn” is a keyword with ~23,000,000 monthly searches. And that’s just one keyword.

 

And on a large scale, it means leaving a ton of traffic on the table.

mobile vs desktop seo visibility facebook

Desktop vs. mobile SEO visibility of facebook.com

 

 

Facebook’s SEO Visibility graph looks actually pretty similar to the one of IMDB.

 

Remember?

mobile vs desktop seo visibility imdb

Mobile and desktop SEO Visibility of imdb.com

 

I found the same trend from Searchmetrics in SEMrush. Unfortunately, SEMrush doesn’t have one graph on which you can compare mobile with desktop rankings. Therefore, I provided both in separate screenshots.

semrush imdb mobile

imdb.com’s organic mobile rankings from SEMrush

 

Notice how the mobile rankings drop off in October 2017 (end of graph) compared to the stable desktop rankings (below).

semrush imdb desktop

imdb.com’s organic desktop rankings from SEMrush

 

To understand why IMDB’s mobile rankings are dropping, we need to go deeper.

 

deeper meme

 

IMDB ranks much lower for “Margot Robbie” on mobile than on desktop. By “much lower” I mean ranking #1 on desktop but #11 on mobile (the additional 1 is no typo).

imdb ranking differences margot robbie

imdb.com’s rankings for “margot robbie” on mobile and desktop

 

When comparing the mobile and desktop version, it becomes clear that the mobile version is much thinner in terms of content. The top content section is much shorter, for example.

 

Mobile

imdb margot robbie mobile

 

Desktop

imdb margot robbie desktop

Also, the filmography section is much, much shorter on mobile.

Mobile

imdb margot robbie filmography mobile

Filmography on the mobile version of IMDB’s “Margot Robbie” page

Desktop

imdb filmography margot robbie desktop

Filmography on the desktop version of IMDB’s “Margot Robbie” page

 

Sure, you shouldn’t copy + paste your desktop site to the mobile version. But you also can’t strip the mobile experience completely naked. Content has a big impact on ranking.

 

That’s also what John Mueller from Google says.

And then there is this backlinks thing…

Mobile

imdb backlinks mobile

The backlink profile of IMDB’s mobile page for “Margot Robbie”

 

Desktop

imdb backlinks desktop

The backlink profile of IMDB’s desktop page for “Margot Robbie”

 

 

In September 2017, Google gave a subtle hint in a blog post about moving from m-dot URLs to a responsive approach. They say:

 

Aside from no longer needing to manage separate URLs for all pages, it will also make it much easier to adopt practices and technologies such as hreflang for internationalization, AMP for speed, structured data for advanced search features and more.”

 

Google didn’t say that “and more” means losing rankings due to having two different backlink profiles.

 

Wikipedia falls into the same trap, losing a lot of mobile rankings since mid-April.

mobile vs desktop seo visibility wikipedia

Wikipedia’s mobile vs. desktop SEO Visibility

 

When looking at their Prince page, we see the same mobile-subdomain-backlinks-issue. The mobile page has 6 backlinks, the desktop page 7,720.

wikipedia prince rankings

Wikipedia’s mobile and desktop ranking for the Prince page

 

The drop is verified by Wikipedia’s Traffic data, which most people are not aware of.

wikipedia prince traffic

Wikipedia’s traffic (Pageviews) to the Prince page

The fascinating fact to point out is how much of a difference backlinks still make! With content being identical, in many instances, it still takes a lot of links to rank on page 1.

 

Mobile subdomains are not the only troublemakers

eBay experienced a decent drop as well, but not as bad as other sites.

mobile vs desktop seo visibility ebay

eBays’ mobile vs. desktop SEO Visibility

They have different mobile approaches on different parts of their site and not all of them are “bad”. Just some.

 

For example, their /rpp/ pages have a very good mobile experience and therefore rank almost equally to their desktop counterparts.

ebay rankings motorcycles

eBay’s rankings for “motorcycles for sale” on mobile and desktop

 

Look at the mobile page ranking for “motorcycles for sale”.

ebay rpp motorcycles mobile

eBay’s page for “motorcycles for sale”

 

Other parts of the site, like brand stores, were not optimized for mobile and just show the desktop site to mobile users.

ebay vera bradley mobile

Vera Bradley’s store on eBay, stores.ebay.com/Vera-Bradley

 

Users have to zoom in to see and read content, which is not a great experience. The rankings reflect that.

ebay rankings vera bradley

eBay’s rankings for Vera Bradley’s onsite store on mobile and desktop

It’s still a better solution than mobile subdomains but not a good one over the long-term.

 

For some pages, eBay has separate URLs for mobile and desktop, which cause the problem I’ve outlined previously.

 

As you can see for eBay’s iPhone 7 page, even a subtle difference in URL, like /amp/, can have a (negative) impact on ranking.

ebay rankings iphone7

eBay’s rankings for “iPhone 7” on mobile and desktop

 

By the way, a mobile subdomain doesn’t have to be m.domain.com. It can also be mobile.domain.com, as the New York Times shows.

nyt cnn ranking

nytimes.com’s rankings for “cnn” on mobile and desktop

 

Unfortunately, it has the same detrimental effect.

 

Amazon’s and TripAdvisor’s dangerous game with double content standards

Super stripped-down pages are a thin line on mobile. Yes, it makes sense to not put everything you have on desktop on a mobile page. But you have to be very careful about what and how much you take away.

amazon music ranking difference

Amazon’s rankings for “music” on mobile and desktop

 

For example, Amazon ranks #5 on desktop and #29 on mobile for “music”. The reason for ranking worse on mobile here is that the mobile result is just a link to the app store.

 

Mobile

amazon music mobile

Amazon’s mobile page ranking for “music”

 

Desktop

amazon music desktop

Amazon’s desktop page ranking for “music”

 

But we’re not done here, yet.

 

done when i say we are done

 

Amazon also ranks #7 on desktop and #16 on mobile for the game “Poptropica” using the same URL https://www.amazon.com/Poptropica-Adventures-Nintendo-DS/dp/B0090PX7RE.

 

So, backlinks can’t make a difference here. Instead, it’s the internal links that are different!

 

The desktop variant has 604 outgoing links…

amazon poptropica internal links desktop

Amazon’s number of internal links on the desktop page for “Poptropica”

 

… while the mobile equivalent has only 102 😱!

amazon poptropica internal links mobile

Amazon’s number of internal links on the mobile page for “Poptropica”

 

That’s because many link modules are omitted on mobile. The mobile pages can’t pass on as much link juice to other URLs. As a result, the mobile doesn’t rank as well as the desktop version.

 

That’s huge!

 

Amazon has a lot of internal links in the footer. But as you can see, the mobile footer doesn’t contain as many links as on the desktop version.

 

Mobile

amazon footer on mobile

Amazon’s footer on the mobile version

 

Desktop

amazon footer on desktop

Amazon’s footer on the desktop version

 

The product description and information are also missing on mobile. Structured data, like technical specs, are “Google Crack”. They love it. Stripping it off the mobile page is not a good idea.

 

amazon poptropica desktop

Amazon’s technical specs on the desktop page for “Poptropica”

 

TripAdvisor has a similar issue with delivering an extremely stripped version of its mobile pages.

 

They use the same URL for mobile and desktop users.

tripadvisor ranking differences paris

TripAdvisor’s ranking for “Paris” on mobile and desktop

 

While the desktop version is rich in content and helpful links, the mobile pendant is thin as a fashion model.

tripadvisor paris mobile

TripAdvisor’s mobile page that ranks for “Paris”

 

The Paris page on TripAdvisor has 21 internal links on the mobile version and 148 on desktop.

 

And that has an impact on overall mobile rankings.

 

mobile vs desktop seo visibility tripadvisor

Mobile vs. desktop SEO visibility for tripadvisor.com

 

Again, we’re dealing with two problems on this setup: 1) not providing the same amount of content and 2) not having the same amount of internal links.

 

YouTube takes it all

When one site loses, another has to gain. In this case, it’s Google’s own video platform, YouTube!

 

How come?

 

Even though YouTube uses a mobile subdomain, it benefits from something completely different: The “Videos from the web” integration!

youtube kylie jenner SERP mobile

YouTube’s SERP integration

 

Users see it on mobile search results but not on desktop. And since YouTube dominates video results anyway, it doesn’t matter much how good the mobile experience is. They don’t need it to rank. They have the SERP integration.

mobile vs desktop seo visibility youtube

Youtube’s mobile vs. desktop SEO Visibility

 

Fix your mobile issues before it’s too late

I checked all top 20 sites but couldn’t find one exclusive, reoccurring pattern that caused the drop in mobile rankings. There are multiple factors at play and all have to be considered.

 

The only outliers of the top 20 list are Apple and Google. Their sites have lost mobile rankings long ago and I assume it was due to the iTunes and Play Store showing up in the SERPs and linking directly to the apps.

 

Apple

mobile vs desktop seo visibility apple

Apple’s mobile vs. desktop SEO Visibility

 

Google

mobile vs desktop seo visibility google

Google’s mobile vs. desktop SEO Visibility

 

So, what should you do?

  1. Avoid different mobile URLs (subdomains or subdirectories) at all cost.
  2. Find creative ways to display as many internal links on the mobile version as possible.
  3. Try to show as much content on mobile as on desktop.
  4. Make sure mobile users have a good experience (compare user behavior signals on mobile with desktop pages).
  5. Fix your issues now.

 

Thinking of Google prioritizing mobile results is actually really, really scary. It would mean that sites are evaluated by their mobile pages and as we just saw, (most of) the top 20 wouldn’t get away well.

 

They would get much fewer organic traffic and at the same time, other sites would gain much more.

 

When one site loses, others have to gain.

 

tl;dr

Google split the mobile and desktop index in mid-April 2017. Many huge sites lost tons of mobile rankings because their mobile URLs now have to stand on their own feet. If Google really prioritizes rankings from mobile versions, many sites will lose a ton of traffic. To save yourself, avoid different URLs for desktop and mobile (e.g. from mobile subdomains or directories) or stripping the mobile version too naked.

Update:

Gary Illes from Google confirmed my suspicion at SMX: