Google's Great Search Index Divide: Seven Questions You Need to be Asking

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Dr. Dave Chaffey offers up his immediate response to the news that Google is considering two indexes - one for mobile and one for desktop - and looks at seven questions he feels Google has left unanswered on its upcoming search index divide.

Google is doing what?! That was my first reaction to the recent news that Google will divide its index so it can serve separate results for mobile and desktop 'within months'. The new development was announced in a keynote address at Pubcon, by Google’s Gary Illyes, on 13 October 2016. As James Allen explains in this ClickThrough Marketing post, this isn’t the first time we have heard of Google’s plans to separate indexes – over a year ago at SMX East, Google said it was in the process of experimenting with ideas of a mobile index.

The mobile index for smartphones has been described as the primary index, which is refreshed most often, and the desktop index has been described as 'supplemental' and will be refreshed and updated less frequently.

Why is Google Making this Change and What are the Implications?

Many general news sites have simply reported the outline of the change Gary Illyes gave at the conference as if it's a logical thing for Google to do and won't have many implications. But for me, it's still shocking since it initially looks to be solving a problem that doesn't exist and Google hasn't explained why. We can see that smartphone use has increased, particularly smartphone use in developing countries where download speeds are typically slower. But is the current experience provided by Google and the sites it recommends too slow for users?

Since businesses have become so reliant on Google, if it is as big a change as it sounds, then it warrants more details. Recently, Google has been flagging up changes, such as the mobile-friendly update, in advance via its blogs, so its surprising this new update hasn't been featured on a blog yet.

I also find it shocking since it will have a huge impact within Google, where the technical and cost overheads of maintaining two separate indexes and potentially different ranking factors would seem to be considerable. There are precedents for this. It took me back to the previous time Google had two separate indexes - a main index and a 'supplemental', lesser index where less popular content was stored. The new change has several similarities, so it's a case of 'back-to-the future'. Then, there was Google's separate blog search and Google News.

Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised since Google has followed it's own 'Mobile-first' mantra since Chairman Eric Schmidt announced it in 2008. It now offers many mobile-specific features within Google AdWords to monetise the smartphone audience, which now accounts for more than 50% of searches in many sectors.

It's also clear, given the scale of the change, that Google will have researched changing consumer search behaviour carefully and it will be based on research showing the different types of desktop and smartphone content its audience is looking for when searching. It will also have completed the business case for the project, so perhaps the costs are lower than we think.

So, definitely one to watch. It's certainly going to be fascinating and not a little worrying to business owner to see how Google announces, introduces and rolls out the change.

Seven Questions Google Has Left Unanswered

Here are some big questions that are for now unanswered, but we hope to have more clarity on soon:

( 1) How different will the user interfaces be on mobile and desktop? Will Google vary the experience and layout on each platform. That would seem to go against their design philosophy, but it does follow the 'adaptive' rather than 'responsive' web design approach that more companies are now following where they are serving different design and content to smartphone users.

(2) Will certain content types be shown more on smartphone? And what about the SERPS features reported by Mozcast?

This is already happening since simplified, fast-loading Accelerated Mobile Pages are already only featured on smartphones. To date, it has mainly been publishers who have implemented AMP. Will other non-publishers need to follow suit on their blogs?

I noticed that in a separate Keynote at SMX Advanced Garry Illyes said in a response to a question by Danny Sullivan - What’s your final advice you want everyone to know?

Two things: Pay attention to AMP. It’s going to be really big. Figure out with your developers how to implement it. Second, look at developments around assistants and chat bots. They are going to be huge, and you want to be among the first people who get on those features.

I'm not sure what he means around chat bots, but it's a clear indication that AMPs are going to be become more important.

( 3) How will images be treated for the different form factors? Will Google produce a new, more visual content in the SERPs on desktop or smartphone? It is certainly surfacing more visual content in its site search today than it was two years ago, particularly in Rich Answers boxes.

(4) Will mobile-specific pages become more important? Before responsive web design became popular some of the biggest companies created separate mobile sites on different sub-domains, so each equivalent page had a separate URL. Will this change encourage more businesses to create mobile-specific sites and pages? This goes against Google's advice in Webmaster Tools that businesses should use mobile responsive page designs.

(5) Will we have to think about mobile-specific link-building as Google rates content based on the number of links pages in the mobile index have? Pages in the desktop index may be more complex and have more internal or external links. There has been speculation around this, see this interesting Webmaster World thread about Google Index Divide. Yet no one knows whether separate rankings will be maintained based on number of backlinks in each index.

(6) Will social media signals be increased? Social media is, after all, a good indication of the relevance of timely content. I think this is unlikely since Illyes re-iterated again recently that social media signals aren't a direct signal (I hear all the time that they are, but this is an indirect effect). Danny Sullivan askedCan you give me an update on social signals. Is it still the case that you don’t look at Facebook likes or Twitter retweets?

Illyes answered: "It is. We have a problem with social signals because we don’t want to rely on something that someone could pull the plug on."

So that is definitive! Social media can help you earn links, but is not a direct ranking factor.

(7) Will new keyword analysis and reporting tools for search intent on smartphone and desktop against ranking positions be available? Google Search Console already provides some ranking information which you can surface in Google Analytics, but it will need improving to report separately on two indexes. Improvements to Keyword Planner would also be required. Third-party services for backlink analysis will also face big changes if they have to report on backlinks in two separate indexes.

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