Snap Decisions in the Age of Google Mobile Indexing

7 Minute Read | Search Engine Optimisation

Google’s shift to creating a mobile index that will become their primary index will fire up the tech savvy side of any SEO, but it’s the growing emphasis on mobile – in general – that this suggests that’s most interesting.

This announcement should prompt us to think more about how people are interacting with our content when they’re on mobile devices and how Google will be interpreting the signals generated by those interactions when they’re deciding how to rank pages.

Google's Mobile Index

Pay close attention to just the first two sentences of Google’s announcement:

“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.”

As a content strategist, this sends a strong message to me that we should be paying more attention to the effects our content is having on mobile users, and ensuring that we’re optimising for those audiences. Google, after all, is able to interpret users’ responses to our content when they’re deciding how to rank pages for any search query.

There some fundamental differences between the mobile and desktop search experiences that have important implications for the critical first few seconds that users experience your website.

Strangely enough, as we go into a bit more detail about these, we’re going to defend the “holy trinity” of old-school SEO: title tags, meta descriptions and H1 headings. There’s an element of common sense about this though, as these are usually the first aspects of your website that a user will potentially see.

These things are important to desktop search as well, but in the mobile environment they become critical.

Desktop Search vs. Mobile Search Experiences

My search process on a desktop computer typically looks like this:

  • Enter a query
  • Click on every blue link that seems even remotely relevant.

This process makes sense, and is super easy when you’re sitting at a desk with a browser that lets you open as many tabs as you like and switch back and forth between them instantly.

You can hedge your bets and sift through your search results until you’re left on the best page for your needs.

It’s not quite as easy on mobile devices.

Even on some of the friendliest mobile browsers, opening and switching between multiple tabs can be a pain, and that’s if you don’t completely lose track of what you’ve got hidden away on other tabs.

What this means is that users are way more likely to pick just the one search result that looks like the best match for their need. They’re also more likely to choose from just the top few results, so ranking well continues to be important.

The quick but critical decision a user makes to visit a page or not hinges on just two things: your title tag and meta description.

I hope everything is going well

When it comes down to whether or not someone clicks through to your page, these matter. Big time.

Getting them just right for mobile users should be a priority for any website owner.

Optimising Your Title Tag & Meta Description

Here’s the secret to optimising them. Your title tag and meta description need to be written so that people reading them can very quickly decide whether your content:

  • Is relevant to the need behind their search (the relevance signals that search engines rely on will really be a by-product of getting this right.)
  • Is useful to them – that they’re going to get something that will actually help them address the need, even if it’s information they can apply later on.
  • Resonates with them: the decision to click (or not to) is made quickly, and isn’t always entirely rational – there’s usually an emotional dimension to the decision.

Hitting the mark and getting all this across in such a short amount of text is the result of a simple three-step process:

  1. Know your audience – really well. This means going a lot deeper into what drives their needs, online behaviour and decision-making process than keyword research alone will tell you, but it’s still an important part of understanding their needs and the language your audience uses.
  2. Plenty of practice. Writing anything persuasive is a skill that can be improved through continuous practice and evaluation. Keep drafting and experimenting with ideas and they’ll improve over time.
  3. Keep reviewing and improving. For crucial pages that your business relies on, title tags and meta descriptions should not be a “set and forget” thing. If they’re not working, change them. For all critical pages, make sure you review regularly once or twice a year at least.

Your title tags and meta descriptions are doing their jobs when they’re convincing people to come to your pages. But here’s the thing: you haven’t actually won those people over yet.

As soon as a visitor hits your page they’re primed for another snap decision: do they stay or do they go?

As well as bringing people to your page, the title tag and meta description displayed in search results creates some expectations of what users will get from your page.

It’s now the job of whatever content your page shows as soon as a visitor arrives to convince them to stay, in as short a time as possible.

Within mobile’s highly limited real estate, there are only a few on-page elements that will have a strong influence on whether visitors decide to stay or go. The most influential elements are likely to be the main headline (H1), a small amount of text like a subheading or lede line and an image.

The Atlantic – either due to or in spite of being a 159 year old magazine – uses these elements really well. You generally know exactly what to expect from their articles:

The Atlantic - headline and lede


Obviously, we want users to stay – when users leave quickly (we call this a “short bounce” when they do) Google can use this information to decide that a page isn’t that relevant to a search query after all. When it does, the page’s ranking for that query will drop.

Mobile users are especially inclined to make the decision to stay or go very quickly. Because they have to return to search results – which they’ve left behind – for more options, any time spent on the wrong page is wasted time.

Generally, your approach to getting this message right will be largely the same as for the title tag and meta description: understanding your audience’s needs, and crafting your content to demonstrate relevance, usefulness and resonance.

The big difference is that on your own page, you have much more control over how this is presented.

UsabilityHub’s now legendary original five second test – in which users are asked how well they understand a page after seeing it for just (you guessed it) five seconds – are the perfect way to evaluate how effective this is.

UsabilityHub five second test


You can sign up to UsabilityHub to crowdsource testing of your pages, or you can hijack the basic methodology to test your pages yourself.

Spend five seconds looking at each of the following landing pages (we’re on the honour system here at Kwasi Studios!) as they appear to mobile users and see if you can work out what they’re about, who they’re for, and what the company for each page does.

Lyft mobile landing page

Harvard mobile landing page

Breather mobile landing page

The White House mobile landing page

Parse mobile landing page

Take another look at the pages. What made some pages clearer than others? What was missing from some pages that would have helped get their key messages across?

Understanding the answers to questions like these will help you hone your design and messaging skills to put together pages that convince visitors to stick around.

While the digital landscape is changing (and will continue to change) in ways that push and challenge us, some of the things that are at the very core of the search experience will remain. And that getting them right is more important than ever.

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