Google’s Mobile-First Indexing: What It Means, and How to Prepare

Google has announced that they are working on mobile-first indexing, and plan to roll it out fairly soon. Get all the info you need about mobile-first indexing, what it means for your site, and how to be prepared for the shift.
December 9, 2016

In October, Google’s Gary Illyes announced that the search engine was in the process of transitioning to a mobile-first index, and the change would occur “within months.” In November, the company announced that it was beginning to test use of the mobile-first index on a small scale and would continue experimenting over the coming months to ensure the changes provide a good user-experience.

But what is mobile-first indexing? How does it work? Most importantly: how will it affect your site and your current organic rankings?

mobile first indexing audit

Google, as usual, wants SEOs and marketers to fall in line and cooperate with big updates, so they’re taking it slowly. That gives marketing teams plenty of time to prepare, if they take advantage of it.

What is Mobile-First Indexing?

Google’s mobile-first indexing is a ranking strategy that will prioritize how a website performs on mobile devices over how it performs on desktop displays.  

Google currently crawls and indexes desktop site content, and serves links and snippets to mobile searchers using the content discovered on desktop versions of sites. The problem with this method is that most searches are performed on mobile devices, but most sites are designed primarily for desktop access. This often results in a poor mobile user experience:

  • Lightbox ads and interstitials may be simple for desktop users to close, but for mobile users, attempting to click a small close icon is often more difficult.
  • Ads that display in-between paragraphs may be simple to scroll past on desktop, but on mobile, attempting to scroll past large ads could be interpreted as clicking the ad.
  • Often, mobile users are performing searches in order to find quick answers, so websites that load slowly are much more problematic on mobile.

Google’s current indexing model assumes that a positive desktop experience equates to a positive mobile experience, but that’s not always accurate. As a result, Google is shifting to cater to its mobile audience. While the index will continue to collect content found on both desktop and mobile versions of sites, the mobile version of the site will be primarily used to determine rankings.

What Mobile-First Indexing Means for Your Site

For some sites, Google’s mobile-first index may have little impact. For others, the changes have major implications that could result in a significant reduction in traffic and rankings. The severity of the impact boils down to what approach you’ve employed for serving content to mobile visitors.

Responsive Sites

One popular approach that developers have employed for serving content to users on any device is responsive design. Responsive sites serve identical content to both desktop and mobile visitors, but mobile visitors are served different design elements that cater to how users navigate and access content on a small device.

If you have a responsive site where content on both desktop and mobile are identical, you shouldn’t be impacted by the indexing shift from a content perspective. However, there are still some technical aspects you should consider in preparation for the shift. Load speed is critical on mobile, so sites should be optimized to reduce load times. Interstitials should also be removed unless used for legal purposes like age verification or cookie usage notifications.

Dynamic Sites

Dynamic sites serve different content to users depending on a number of factors, including the device used to access the site or user behavior during previous site visits. Serving content dynamically could present an issue for mobile-first indexing if different content is served to mobile users than desktop users—Google may index a dynamic version of your site that doesn’t contain preferred content.

If you manage a dynamic site, take steps to ensure that the content served when accessed on mobile is a comprehensive reproduction of your desktop version, and that content is not truncated when viewed on a mobile device. Testing your site with Google’s mobile-friendly testing tool will allow you to see how Google’s crawlers view your site and could help you discover potential mobile indexing issues.

Separate Mobile and Desktop Sites

Rather than making major overhauls to site code, many digital property owners opt to create a separate mobile site to cater to visitors using smaller devices. If you manage separate mobile and desktop sites, but the content on both sites is identical, you may not be impacted.

On the other hand, if you redirect mobile visitors to a separate site that has less content than what’s found on your desktop site—or if content on mobile pages is abbreviated—you may no longer rank for content that performs well but only lives on your desktop site. Remember: the mobile version of your content is going to weigh heavier than the desktop version, so you could lose rankings if your mobile content is too thin.

Desktop-Only Sites

If you’ve ignored the guidance about making your site more mobile-friendly and have continued to maintain a site optimized only for desktop, Google says these changes won’t impact your rankings. They will simply crawl the desktop version of sites when a mobile site doesn’t exist.

It’s hard to see, however, how a site with no mobile consideration could be unaffected by online experiences and search algorithms increasingly focused on mobile users. It may be true that your rankings won’t be affected, but if so, it’s probably because your rankings are already in trouble.

A mobile-first index, by definition, prefers sites that perform well on mobile devices. To stay relevant in the mobile-first world, desktop-only site owners should take steps to get caught up before it’s too late.

How to Prepare for Google’s Mobile-First Indexing

For now, Google is simply testing mobile-first indexing, making the next few months the perfect time to prepare your website for a large-scale rollout. To help marketers prepare, we’ve developed a comprehensive Mobile-First Indexing Audit Checklist that covers everything you need to consider, including:

  • Test the mobile-friendliness of your site using Google’s testing tool. This will allow you to determine how Google sees your site when viewing it with a mobile agent.
  • Ensure Google can access your mobile site by running it through the company’s robots.txt testing tool. This will allow you to ensure that the mobile version of your site is accessible to Google’s crawlers.

Keep in mind that any decision you make could have a significant impact on your rankings. If technical SEO is not your forte, or you would like the added peace-of-mind that comes from an experienced SEO analyst’s review, get in touch with us today about our hands-on mobile-first preparedness audit. The audit will provide a list of actionable changes you can make to ensure you’re prepared for Google’s shift to mobile indexing.

Nate Dame
CEO and Founder
Nate is the founder and CEO of Profound Strategy, a results-oriented SEO consultancy trusted by forward-thinking companies, including a few of the world's largest B2B and technology brands. Profound Strategy builds holistic SEO strategies, supports internal teams, and offers full-service execution to create an organic search presence that generates significant revenue.

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