Mobile-First Indexing: What You Need to Know

Historically, Google Search primarily crawled, indexed, and ranked the desktop version of a web page’s content when evaluating the relevance of a page to a user’s query....

Owen Libot
Owen Libot October 14, 2018

Historically, Google Search primarily crawled, indexed, and ranked the desktop version of a web page’s content when evaluating the relevance of a page to a user’s query. However, since the majority of users now access Google on mobile devices, Google announced in late 2016 that they would start rolling out “mobile-first indexing”. Once fully implemented, the index will primarily use the mobile version of a web page’s content for crawling, indexing, and ranking.

Google has repeatedly stressed that the mobile-first index isn’t a separate index exclusively dedicated to mobile users. Google will still maintain one search index of websites and apps. However, once the mobile-first index is fully operational, it will crawl a site’s mobile version first, and if no mobile version exists, then the desktop version will be crawled by Googlebot.

It should be noted that the lack of a mobile-friendly version of a site could negatively impact its rankings on Google’s search results. Conversely, sites that offer a better mobile experience will receive a rankings boost, even for searchers on desktop.

Are We on the Verge of Another Mobilegeddon?

While Google announced its foray into mobile-first indexing in late 2016, it was only in March 2018 when Google officially announced that it would start rolling out mobile-first indexing following a year and a half of “careful experimentation”. The tech giant has also begun migrating sites it says have followed its best practices for mobile-first indexing.

Sites that are being migrated to mobile-first indexing will be notified via Search Console, and overall, site owners will see an increased crawl rate from the Smartphone Googlebot.

Site owners who don’t have a responsive website or maintain different versions of their website for mobile and desktop don’t have anything to worry about—at least for now. In June 2017, Gary Illyes, the webmaster trends analyst at Google, told attendees at an SMX Advanced conference in Seattle that Google is “probably many quarters away” from fully launching its mobile-first index.

Illyes added that Google wants to roll out the mobile-first index in a manner that does not hurt non-mobile friendly sites, which could further delay the full launch of the index. What’s more, a gradual switch to the mobile-first index doesn’t mean that desktop content will cease to rank.

How to Prepare for Google’s Mobile-First Indexing

1. If you’re using WordPress, you’re probably out of the woods.

The gradual rollout of the mobile-first index doesn’t signal that anything major is about to happen to the existing index. In fact, there’s a strong chance you won’t see a major shift in your rankings. If Google decides to index the mobile version of your site, you’ll get a notification in Search Console. Google will determine based on the content available on your mobile site how your site will rank on both desktop and mobile search results.

If your site is built on WordPress, this would have minimal consequences as most WordPress sites have responsive designs.

2. Test your site using Google’s mobile-friendliness test.

While you don’t need to have a mobile site to rank in the mobile-first index, it’s going to be extremely difficult to rank if your site isn’t mobile friendly. To determine if your site is mobile friendly, enter its URL on Google’s mobile-friendly test. If your site doesn’t pass this test, some drastic changes need to be made.

3. Optimize your site’s mobile UX.

A mobile site needs different design and content to be both appealing and functional to a mobile audience. The screen real estate is much smaller, and users are often in a hurry or require bite-size information to help them make informed decisions.

To improve your site’s user experience, observe the following:

4. Avoid Flash like the plague.

While Flash was a major staple on websites in the early 2000s, it has since fallen out of favor since most mobile devices don’t support it. Consider viable alternatives to Flash, including CSS3 or a combination of HTML5 and JavaScript. Many of Flash’s coolest features can be emulated by the latest markup and coding technologies.

5. Make sure your titles and meta descriptions match.

Metadata is crucial as it helps web pages communicate with both search engines and human users. That being said, your titles and meta descriptions need to match on both desktop and mobile. Images should also be optimized with the appropriate alt attributes.

6. Get your site to load faster.

Use reputable tools to check your site’s speed. You may discover that images need to be reduced to help them load more quickly on mobile browsers. You may also need to combine and minify the CSS and JavaScript being loaded. By requiring fewer connections to the server, your site will load faster.

7. Use accelerated mobile pages.

An accelerated mobile page (AMP) is a way to make your site more accessible to mobile users. Google approaches your AMP pages in different ways. If you have both AMP and non-AMP versions of your site, Google prefers to index the non-AMP, mobile version, as well as use the non-AMP URL in its search engine results pages.

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