Retailers using a separate mobile site may have some work to do as a result of Google’s latest search index change.

Google is updating its mobile search index to crawl mobile websites to determine their content relevancy in search results, the search giant announced on its official Webmaster blog last week.

Currently, Google still looks at the desktop versions of the page to evaluate its relevancy to the user on smartphone search results, the search engine says. This is a problem if the mobile site has less content on it than a desktop site, Google’s product manager Doantam Phan writes in the official blog.

For example, if a consumer searches for “brown wedge sandals” on a smartphone, Google’s results will likely show her websites that will render properly on a smartphone and have brown wedge sandals somewhere on the desktop site, even if the retailer doesn’t have that product listed on its mobile website. With the change, Google is less likely to show the mobile version of that retailer’s site in smartphone search results, says Brian Klais, founder and president of mobile marketing and mobile search engine optimization firm Pure Oxygen Labs.

“Google basically treated your mobile page as an alternate version of the same content,” Klais says. “The problem is, when shoppers search for a certain product feature or keywords and click on your mobile page from Google but can’t find that phrase on the page, they get frustrated at Google for showing irrelevant listings.”

Another example would be if an outdoor retailer has a video on how to set up a tent on its desktop site. Since this is a heavy element that may take a long time to load on a smartphone, the retailer may choose not to display it on its smartphone site. However, the way Google’s smartphone search results currently work, if a consumer were to search for “how to set up a tent” on a smartphone, the outdoor retailer’s site may still be listed, even if the video is not on the smartphone site. With Google’s mobile index change, the retailer’s smartphone website is less likely to show up in smartphone search results if it doesn’t have the tent video.


This change will impact e-retailers that have a separate mobile site, often referred to as an “m.” site, which is 142 retailers of the 500 merchants ranked in the Internet Retailer 2017 Mobile 500 according to Retailers that use responsive design or dynamic serving (another form of responsive design also referred to as hybrid or adaptive design) shouldn’t have to make any changes, Google says. 357 e-retailers use a form of a responsive design in the Mobile 500.

Retailers that do have a separate mobile site should use the Google-recommended mobile search engine optimization mark up in its code, Klais says. This will help the Google-bot understand that the mobile site has different content than the desktop site, he says.

Musical instruments and equipment retailer Sweetwater Sound, No. 89 in the Internet Retailer 2016 Top 500 Guide, currently has a separate mobile site. The retailer already had plans to transition to a responsive design site, however, this announcement will accelerate the project, says Mike Clem, Sweetwater’s senior vice president of e-commerce. Sweetwater’s mobile and desktop website are almost identical in content, except for a handful of sections, he says.

“In a small number of cases, we’ve made choices to show slightly different content on mobile devices due to size considerations,” Clem says. “Those cases will need to updated to prevent any impact from Google’s transition to mobile-first indexing.”


Sweetwater had already planned to switch to a responsive design site, as more mobile device screen sizes have flooded the market.

“We view our change to a responsive site as an ongoing transition, not a full-site relaunch,” Clem says. “We will be prioritizing the handful of sections that might see an impact from Google’s change.”

Google will experiment with the change on a small scale in the coming months and gradually increase how many searchers will see the updated results, Google says. If retailer only has a desktop site, Google will still index it on smartphone search results, Google says.

This announcement corresponds to the one it made in April 2015, commonly referred to as “Mobilegeddon,” when mobile friendliness first became a factor in its smartphone ranking system. In May 2015, U.S. consumers conducted more Google searches on mobile devices than on desktops, the search giant said.