Mobile First Indexing: Everything You Need to Know

SEO is gearing up to have its own ‘Year of the Mobile’ thanks to Google’s mobile-first indexing. This is the next step in Google’s dynamic efforts to improve search.

Google’s shift to mobile-first indexing is in response to their understanding that the majority of search queries are taking place on mobile devices. Some researchers suggest that the mobile search volume is as high as 58-60% in the US.

This new frontier for Google search changes the digital marketing game greatly and it is important that marketers, business owners and anyone else utilizing SEO take notice and do so NOW.

The overview below will cover the basics of mobile-first indexing and how it is going to change SEO, web development and digital marketing tactics.

What Is Mobile-First Indexing?

Mobile-first indexing means that the mobile-friendly version of websites and their pages will be indexed before the traditional, desktop version. When Google finalizes their shift to mobile-first indexing, they’ll begin by looking for mobile versions of pages.

There’s an important distinction between mobile-first and mobile-only or mobile-centric. Mobile-first doesn’t make your desktop site obsolete. And, if a mobile version of a website doesn’t exist, Google will still index the desktop version.

However, sites that lack a mobile version will start to lag in search results. And, mobile-friendly sites will begin to rank higher, even for searchers using a desktop computer.

What Impact Will This Change Cause?

The short answer is a lot. This is a somewhat radical change in the foundation of how Google and its crawl bots look at and evaluate your web pages. Once they make this shift, your desktop site will no longer be the primary version and will now be treated as an auxiliary.

This is going to cause some interesting changes in how SEO, marketing teams and web developers approach their websites and search.

When desktop securely held its throne as the primary website model, SEO and web developers treated it as the full, comprehensive website. They included all of the content, backlinks, meta tags and so on.

The mobile version of many websites was an afterthought. Some developers even purposely made the mobile versions lighter, in an attempt to make that mobile experience feel less cluttered.

Thus, these alternate sites rarely showcased the same level of detail, particularly in terms of backlinks and markup.

How Do I Prepare For Mobile-First Indexing?

The good news, for the majority of SEO-involved people, is your ‘mobile-first indexing preparation to-do list’ probably isn’t that many items long and you’ve still have time to complete it.

This process is only at its infant level and there’s still plenty of testing and experimenting left to be done, on Google’s part, before they completely roll out mobile-first indexing.

According to Google’s latest on the topic of mobile-first indexing, they plan to, “carefully experiment over the coming months on a small scale and we’ll ramp up this change when we’re confident that we have a great user experience.”

Google also includes a list of recommended steps that webmasters can take to prepare for the future and mobile-first index. The first thing that they point out is easily the most important and will ultimately determine how long that to-do list is.

Dynamic and responsive sites that utilize the same content and markup across both their desktop and mobile website versions will likely not have to change anything.

On the other hand, if your site is set up so that the content and markup is different across your mobile and desktop versions, than your to-do list is going to be a little longer.

Luckily, Google makes some of your job easier with their Structured Data Testing Tool, which is a quick method towards ensuring that both your desktop and mobile versions share the same markup.

You also want to utilize the robots.txt tool to ensure that your mobile website is visible and accessible by Google’s bots.

My Website Has No Mobile Version… Now Can I Panic?

Even if your website is completely void of a mobile version, you’re still not at red alert status.

First, there’s still time to develop a mobile version for your website to be ready for the full roll out of mobile-first indexing. Second, even if you don’t finish your mobile site in time, Google will still index your desktop site.

It’s not good to wait much longer or avoid creating a mobile version of your website. When this change happens, the traffic of your desktop site could be negatively affected without a mobile version to index.

Again, even searches made on a desktop will being turning out sites that have been optimized for mobile.

Some members of the Google search team have said that this new approach won’t change the current, overall search rankings by much, if at all. Their goal is to have there be minimal changes. But, it is still early in the roll out process, so there’s time for this claim to change.

Plus, it doesn’t guarantee that these rankings won’t change as time goes on beyond the switch to mobile-first.

While the ranks might not change at first, over time those mobile friendly sites will see more traffic and start to climb over their desktop-only competition.

Failing to adapt will cause you to lag behind your competitors that have already begun shifting their focus to a mobile site.

How Good Does My Mobile Site Have To Be?

As the soon-to-be primary version of your site, you cannot cut corners with the development of your mobile-friendly site. That’s why Google recommends that you pick a responsive approach, so that the content, backlinks, etc. are the same across both versions, thereby guaranteeing that your sites are both comprehensive and include all relevant information.

That said, you still have to bare in mind the user experience of your mobile site. This is arguably the biggest challenge for some webmasters that need to overhaul (or completely build) their mobile site.

Again, the mobile version has often been the under-loved model. But, a large part of that was strategic. Mobile websites can’t be overcrowded because it makes it hard for the user to navigate on the smaller screen. Thus, developers purposely built mobile sites that streamlined only the most important content and pages.

The challenge in question is how to deliver a fully comprehensive mobile site that isn’t hard to navigate or damaging to the user experience. The good news is that Google understands that mobile and desktop sites are used differently, so the rules are changing.

For example, desktop SEO practices warned against the use of hidden tabs or accordion-style “read more” functions because that hidden content wasn’t indexed.

With mobile-first indexing, Google claims this won’t be an issue and that this hidden content will be treated as if it were all visible, as long as it is being hidden to enhance user experience.

Also, if your mobile site is currently still being developed (or will be developed in the near future to prepare for mobile-first indexing), then it’s important that you make sure the site is completely finished before you turn it live.

Conclusions

Mobile-first indexing is going to have a definite impact on digital marketing and SEO. The extent of that impact still isn’t 100% clear.

There’s a lot we know and a lot still left to be seen. Even Google isn’t completely certain what the mobile-first future of search will bring. That’s why it is so critical to keep your ears to the ground and be attentive to new information about mobile-first indexing.

The more time you’re willing to commit to learning and preparing for this transition, the more comfortable and successful you’ll be in the mobile-first future of search.

About Ashley Ward

Ashley Ward is a Corporate Speaker for SEMrush, an EPIC all-in-one tool designed to make life simpler for digital marketers. Ashley is passionate about helping businesses and individuals gain longterm ROI through teaching content marketing and social media tactics. With over 6 years in the digital marketing industry, Ashley brings first hand experience and case studies to inspire marketers around the world to better their strategies using the SEMrush platform and unique marketing tactics. She regularly speaks at workshops and conferences like Pubcon, RetailGlobal, SMS, and more. Ashley is also a contributing writer to industry blogs such as Search Engine Journal and AuthorityLabs.

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