Mobile First – Why?

By and large, I generally like most of the changes Google makes—both as a user of their search engine and also as somebody who takes an ethical, user-centric approach to SEO. That isn’t to say Google’s changes have been perfect. There are plenty to complain about and question. Historically, my favorite one to question was keyword “not provided” but recently I’ve been stumped on Google’s plan of going mobile first.

My objections and questions can be boiled down to one simple question: why?

Let me elaborate on that question a bit more.

Mobile Organic Traffic Review

Here is the share of traffic by device for visitors arriving from Google organic for a handful of clients and sites where we have access to analytics (and where we can confirm analytics is tracking properly) from October and November 2017. These sites are all over the place in terms of industry, audience, and traffic volume. I didn’t cherry pick these – I randomly selected 25 sites from our Google Analytics account. Granted, 25 isn’t a large sample size given the number of websites out there but I think this still points to some interesting trends that challenge this “mobile first” push…

Type, Primary Goal Organic Desktop Organic Mobile Organic Tablet “First” Device
B2C, Lead generation 58.19% 33.11% 8.70% Desktop
B2C, Lead generation 75% 13.75% 11.25% Desktop
B2B, Lead generation 83.70% 12.42% 3.88% Desktop
B2C, Lead generation 31.65% 56.58% 11.77% Mobile
B2B, Lead generation 75.57% 17.82% 6.61% Desktop
Non-profit, Informational 66.52% 30.11% 3.37% Desktop
Non-profit, Informational 53.73% 42.93% 3.34% Desktop
B2C, Ecommerce 52.17% 38.26% 9.57% Desktop
B2C, Informational 26.69% 68.34% 4.97% Mobile
B2B, Lead generation 91.67% 7.29% 1.04% Desktop
B2B, Informational 62.97% 32.43% 4.61% Desktop
B2C, Ecommerce 49.80% 27.75% 22.45% Desktop
B2C, Ecommerce 54.40% 30.30% 15.30% Desktop
B2C, Ecommerce 55.36% 27.48% 17.15% Desktop
B2C, Ecommerce 62.58% 25.64% 11.78% Desktop
Non-profit, Informational 78.49% 16.96% 4.55% Desktop
Non-profit, Informational 78.88% 18.59% 2.54% Desktop
B2C, Ecommerce 34.63% 61.44% 3.93% Mobile
B2C, Ecommerce 46.90% 42.03% 11.07% Desktop (slightly)
B2B, Informational 73.58% 22.27% 4.16% Desktop
Non-profit, informational 76.02% 20.96% 3.02% Desktop
B2B, Lead generation 86.91% 10.52% 2.58% Desktop
B2C, Lead generation 69.91% 22.73% 7.35% Desktop
Non-profit, informational 59.10% 35.02% 5.89% Desktop
B2C, Ecommerce 36.71% 54.42% 8.86% Mobile

Observations

  • 21 of the 25 sites listed are desktop first. One of them is only slightly in desktop’s favor and is nearly evenly split between the two devices. With that, that would mean 20 are clearly desktop first, 4 are mobile first, and 1 is 50/50.
  • Of those 4 mobile-first sites, all are B2C. However, 13 of the 25 sites are B2C so it isn’t like B2C is definitely mobile-centric, but it does seem more mobile-centric than B2B. On average, the B2B sites have 17.13% of organic visitors using a mobile device while B2C has an average of 38.60% (medians 15.12% and 33.12% respectively). That is a 125% difference between the two. But, still, neither B2B or B2C are mobile first.
  • Although not shared in the table, because it reveals a bit too much about whose data is whose, the four mobile-centric sites are in completely different industries and target completely different industries—no pattern exists here so you can’t so “oh, people in this industry really prefer mobile”. In fact, some of the sites listed in the same industry skew desktop-first and others in the same industry skew mobile-first. If anybody wants to challenge this, I’m happy to share industry data with you privately if you contact me directly.
  • Who uses tablets? Not many people at all (as I discussed before). Except, some people still apparently do. In watching some of our clients, I’ve been shocked some sites have so much tablet traffic because it definitely goes against the norm. Personally, I have to admit that I still prefer browsing the web on a tablet vs. a mobile phone (blame poor eyesight and a desire for large font sizes).

Mobile Growth

Sure, mobile may not be primary yet, but is growing! To start, here is data from StatCounter over the last couple of years. Between November 2015 and November 2016, mobile grew 33.11% but between November 2016 and November 2017, mobile grew only 11.36% (despite a bump in the summer of 2017).

StatCounter - Device Trends

StatCounter – Device Trends

But that is mobile across the board—what about the share of traffic from organic visitors using a mobile device? Here are the numbers over 15, 16, and 17 (for the same sites as above where the tracking code was reliable that far back and where the site existed that far back). In general, the same trend holds true when you compare the growth. A larger share of the growth was present between 2015 and 2016 where there was a median growth of 20.42% (and an average growth of 58.44%). Between 2016 and 2017, the median difference was 10.84% (average 14.93%).

Type, Primary Goal Mobile Organic 17 Mobile Organic 16 Mobile Organic 15 % Change 16 to 17 % Change 15 to 16
B2C, Lead generation 33.11% 28.53% 27.64% 16.05% 3.22%
B2C, Lead generation 56.58% 51.29% 40.85% 10.31% 25.56%
B2B, Lead generation 17.82% 13.54% 12.85% 31.61% 5.37%
Non-profit, Informational 30.11% 25.35% 19.77% 18.78% 28.22%
B2C, Informational 68.34% 61.36% 59.95% 11.38% 2.35%
B2B, Informational 32.43% 30.26% 22.59% 7.17% 33.95%
B2C, Ecommerce 27.75% 28.46% 13.47% -2.49% 111.28%
B2C, Ecommerce 30.30% 27.99% 8.26% 8.25% 238.86%
B2C, Ecommerce 27.48% 25.15% 6.86% 9.26% 266.62%
B2C, Ecommerce 25.64% 21.25% 19.57% 20.66% 8.58%
Non-profit, Informational 18.59% 12.80% 11.31% 45.23% 13.17%
B2C, Ecommerce 42.03% 35.89% 33.57% 17.11% 6.91%
B2B, Informational 22.27% 20.51% 12.92% 8.58% 58.75%
Non-profit, informational 35.02% 32.68% 28.35% 7.16% 15.27%

More Like Mobile Also

This is in no way to argue against paying attention to your mobile website experience. Mobile visitors can matter a great deal—and for some of the websites listed above, mobile matters as much as if not more than desktop ever will. But how much mobile matters will vary based upon your users. And that variance gets to why Google’s switch to mobile first is so perplexing. Some parts of the web are mobile first and should be treated as such. But many places are desktop first and in those cases mobile visitors might be a close or distant second. Forcing websites that don’t have a mobile-first visitor base to act as if they are mobile-first might put them in an odd spot where they have to invest in a mobile-site to do “what is best for Google” instead of investing in what might actually be best for their visitors.