While the whole (SEO) world is excited for “mobile first” to roll out, Google actually separated the mobile and desktop indices. And nobody noticed.
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
- The risk of mobile subdomains – Why Facebook, Wikipedia, and IMDB lost mobile rankings
- Mobile subdomains are not the only troublemakers
- Amazon’s and TripAdvisor’s dangerous game with double content standards
- YouTube takes it all
- Fix your mobile issues before it’s too late
The top 20 largest sites – winners and losers
|Site||Lost / gained (10/20/17)||Difference between mobile and desktop SEO Visibility|
|5||Google.com||Lost (long ago)||-35.30%|
|8||Apple.com||Lost (long ago)||-23.70%|
(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.
For imdb.com, on the other hand, we see a big drop in mobile rankings starting in mid-April.
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/ …
… but only 184 backlinks on m.facebook.com/cnn/ (mobile)!
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.
Facebook’s SEO Visibility graph looks actually pretty similar to the one of IMDB.
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.
Notice how the mobile rankings drop off in October 2017 (end of graph) compared to the stable desktop rankings (below).
To understand why IMDB’s mobile rankings are dropping, we need to go deeper.
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).
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.
Also, the filmography section is much, much shorter on mobile.
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.
Also, don’t blindly take the other extreme. We sometimes see mobile pages with ~no textual content; makes ranking really, really hard.
— John ☆.o(≧▽≦)o.☆ (@JohnMu) October 25, 2017
And then there is this backlinks thing…
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.
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.
The drop is verified by Wikipedia’s Traffic data, which most people are not aware of.
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.
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.
Look at the mobile page ranking 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.
Users have to zoom in to see and read content, which is not a great experience. The rankings reflect that.
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.
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.
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.
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.
But we’re not done here, yet.
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…
… while the mobile equivalent has only 102 ?!
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.
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.
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.
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.
While the desktop version is rich in content and helpful links, the mobile pendant is thin as a fashion model.
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.
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!
Even though YouTube uses a mobile subdomain, it benefits from something completely different: The “Videos from the web” 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.
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.
So, what should you do?
- Avoid different mobile URLs (subdomains or subdirectories) at all cost.
- Find creative ways to display as many internal links on the mobile version as possible.
- Try to show as much content on mobile as on desktop.
- Make sure mobile users have a good experience (compare user behavior signals on mobile with desktop pages).
- 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.
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.
Gary Illes from Google confirmed my suspicion at SMX:
— SEMrush (@semrush) October 25, 2017
— SEMrush (@semrush) October 25, 2017