What Google’s Mobile-First Index Means for Your Website

04 / March 2018,

What Google’s Mobile-First Index Means for Your Website

Most web designers now understand that mobile devices now command a majority of online activity. For the twelve months ending in January 2018, mobile held a 51.92% market share.

This trend has been developing for a long time, and figures only to accelerate moving forward. People have information at their fingertips, and with connection speeds increasing to 4G and beyond, taking advantage of this will continue to get more convenient, with fewer headaches and frustrations along the way.

In response to the market surge, the best SEO design has for years included technologies like responsive design and mobile-friendly versions of websites. But mobile site design took on new urgency when Google announced its mobile-first  index for search rankings.

It has begun to roll out the index slowly, and only applying it to sites it deems ready for the move. As it expands, though, understanding and preparing for a broad deployment will be critical to your ability to compete for site rankings in your market.

What Is Mobile-First Indexing?

Google Webmaster Central Blog

Google has for years been including mobile in its overall rankings index. That said, the process to this point has been to begin with your desktop site.

It crawls that site for signals to rank both your desktop and mobile sites, and then adds a mobile-specific crawl to give rankings on mobile sites.

Failures in mobile design or content thus diminish rankings already, but only from the point at which desktop rankings began.

The mobile-first index, as Google rolls it out more extensively, is reversing that process.

The crawl begins with the mobile site and ranks based on signals it identifies there.

If you have pared down your content from the desktop version, your ranking will suffer accordingly.

The key will thus be to provide the most relevant and important content on the mobile site, and therefore push the highest quality information to the front of Google’s algorithm.

Google Algorithm

Timing of the Rollout

Google has already begun rolling out the mobile-first index. However, it has stated that the first stages of this involve assessing sites to determine whether their mobile versions are ready.

If you do not have a mobile site or you do not have the tools in place to enable a proper mobile experience, your site will be indexed based on the desktop version available.

This should give you time to prepare.

Mobile Friendly

That said, you should not sit on your hands to wait for Google to force action. The mobile-first index may not be complete for a few years, but the need for an effective mobile design has long since arrived.

The idea that you can rely on desktop design, without some response to the market movement toward mobile search, creates serious risk to your marketing effectiveness. If your mobile site isn’t ready, it won’t matter when Google overtly penalizes you for it.

You are already missing out on more than half of your potential customers.

The Interim Approach

Google’s transition into mobile-first means that, for the time being, it has two separate indexes at work.

The mobile-first holds a relatively small piece of the pie at present but will continue to expand.

Meanwhile, the desktop-first still matters. If you have focused on a desktop site, that will continue for now to drive your online rankings.

If, however, you have both a desktop and mobile version operating now, there is no way to really know which version of your site is driving the Google search rankings.

Google search rankings

Google has avoided committing to a particular time frame for transitioning to a single mobile-first index. For now, it will continue adding sites to the mobile-first approach while maintaining desktop-first over time.

It will test the process and results to ensure the rollout is effective and delivering the necessary results for users.

Eventually, though, all search results will come from the mobile-first index.

Is Your Site Ready?

Is Your Site Ready

Google has stated that, if you have a responsive web design that adjusts your content for display optimized for whatever platform you are using, you should have little to worry about.

Those who have their content fully accessible and usable on mobile devices should thus be in great shape moving forward.

If you do not have a mobile version of your site ready, the worst thing you can do is throw one up without making it the most effective it can be. Not having a mobile site is problematic but having an inadequate one as a placeholder can be far worse.

Remember that the order you should follow is ready, aim, fire—not ready, fire, aim. If you publish a mobile site with incomplete content, inadequate user experience, or other elements of poor design, you risk Google indexing based on those failings.

Take the time to develop and test your mobile site before you open yourself to the potential for indexing.

Responsive design

When you develop your site, responsive design will help you ensure the right content goes to both sites, with the display features that work for both. But testing that site function will remain critical.

You want to push the most important takeaways for any content to the front of what you publish to ensure maximum reach and effectiveness.

Some people will scroll or page through content, but not everyone will. And those willing to make the effort will be more likely to exercise it if you have given important, actionable information at the outset.

Ensuring mobile sites are ready requires more than just the best written content. Images, video, alt text, and metadata need to be included in both sites for the mobile site to rank as highly as it can.

For those who rely on a light version of the desktop site, this means you need to adjust course. Because the index begins with the mobile version, any reduction in content there, whether visible or hidden, creates potential weakness in your site rankings.

Important Tweaks and Unknowns

In the desktop-first index, expandable content does not rank as highly as content fully displayed on the site. Due to space constraints that mobile sites face, the mobile-first index changes this formula.

Google will crawl any content that you include in an expandable display just as it would in a full display. You thus retain some flexibility to create a sensible UX within the new indexing world.

Google has been unclear to date on whether a mobile site with fewer links will create problems. Linking serves a critical role in the desktop-first indexing algorithm, but most mobile sites contain fewer links than their desktop versions.

Google Crawlers

This uncertainty means two things. First, site owners and web designers should look at building out links on the mobile sites. You will always seek a balance between having enough links to improve index ranking while not having so many that users cannot scroll without inadvertently jumping away from their current content.

Building out and testing UX changes will be critical to finding where the line may lie.

Second, ongoing testing of site performance and tracking of rankings, already an important aspect of what you should do, becomes absolutely critical.

You should already be tracking your performance metrics; a build and watch site will never meet your goals as well as one that you or a strategic partner actively manage. But with the rollout of mobile-first and the growing pains that always form a part of new ways of doing things, you cannot afford to just throw new planning at your site and hope it works.

Just Keep Swimming

Just Keep Swimming

The need for testing of course speaks to a broader reality: mobile-first, even as Google is rolling it out, represents only a step in the never-ending process of search engines pushing into the future and site owners responding to change.

Your company succeeds not by sitting idle, but by constantly moving forward, adjusting to the changes in your market and your customers.

The moment you stop paying attention, a new or revamped competitor will start stealing your business.

Your online marketing should operate as part of this process. Too many businesses have outdates websites, whether due to old, stale content or to designs that fail to adapt to changes in the technology people use to find them. The admonition of Finding Nemo’s Dory, “Just keep swimming,” applies to your website as much as it does to anything else you do with or for your company.

You need to stay abreast of changes: in your business, in your community, in your customer demographics, and in your competitors.

All of these depend in part on your willingness to keep up your marketing efforts. Google’s mobile-first index serves as an inevitable step to keep up with the ubiquitous nature of mobile searches, but it will not be the last move Google makes.

If you accept the reality of constant technological change and adapt accordingly, you give yourself an opportunity—not merely to keep up, but to thrive.

Prepare your mobile site for the changes currently afoot and prepare yourself for the ones that will come next.