Google has finally announced, after a long period of experimentation and testing, that they have started migrating sites from desktop first to mobile first indexing. Google’s mobile first indexing will create and rank its search listings based on the mobile version of content; even for listings that are shown to desktop users. This caused a huge shift in the market which historically treated desktop version as primary and mobile version as an alternative – and, often, as an afterthought. Google, on the other hand, caters to its users. Due to trends shifting in favor of mobile over desktop usage as a primary device to access websites, they decided to follow through and offer their mobile users a better experience.
What exactly this means for webmasters and how to best prepare for this transition we explored in this article. We also compiled yet another infographic to help you get a better overview of the new circumstances.
On March 23, Google announced, after a long period of careful experimentation and testing, that they have started migrating sites to mobile-first indexing. This means Google will create and rank its search listings based on the mobile version of content; even for listings that are shown to desktop users.
Google’s business is revolving around one simple goal: to give the user as accurate information as possible, delivering it fast as possible. Mobile first indexing is a part of Google’s efforts to keep up with the current trends in consumer behavior by improving user experience and making search results more useful for mobile users.
According to Google Analytics Data, mobile Internet traffic has surpassed desktop traffic in 2016 and since then the trend keeps growing. In 2018, 52.2 percent of all website traffic worldwide was generated through mobile phones. Mobile currently accounts for half of all global web pages served. It is predicted that by the end of 2018 73% of global internet traffic will be from smartphones and tablets.
Google recognized these shifts in user behavior very early. On February 26, 2015 Google posted a message informing webmasters and web developers that they would be extending the use of mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal. On April 21, 2015 (known also as Mobilegeddon – because marketers have a flair for dramatic) Google followed up with a mobile-friendly update. They provided with a three bullet list of what this update would impact:
- Affects only search rankings on mobile devices.
- Affects search results in all languages globally.
- Applies to individual pages, not entire websites.
There was also a very simple illustration of what is and isn’t considered mobile-friendly.
The change was straightforward and massive. Existing pages were either mobile-friendly or they weren’t. Frenzy ensued. However, in the aftermath of Mobilegeddon it was clear that the update worked just as it was intended to: pages which were not mobile friendly were negatively impacted in mobile search and began to fall in the search rankings. It was soon discovered, though, that page speed and load times of the pages had more impact on site usage than the new mobile-friendly update. And in the end, Mobageddon wasn’t so apocalyptic as its name implies: there wasn’t that much of a traffic and ranking impact at all. However, it was very significant as a very beginning of a market shift: a transition from desktop- first to mobile-first market.
The trend continued and in November 2016 Google detailed their plan to change the way their search index operates. They explained that Google’s algorithms would eventually be shifted to use the mobile version of a website’s content to index its pages, as well as to understand its structured data and to show snippets from the site in the Google search results. In December 2017, Google said it had begun to transition a small handful of sites to mobile-first indexing, but refused to go into details.
Which brings us where we are now – this transition is happening and webmasters are left with handful of chalenges to overcome.
WHAT IS MOBILE FIRST INDEXING
With this most recent announcement of rolling out mobile-first indexing, Google has, in fact, begun first phase of transition from desktop-first to mobile-first market. They have already started migrating sites that follow the best practices for mobile-first indexing (i.e. sites they deem ready).
Previously, Google’s crawling, indexing, and ranking systems have typically used the desktop version of a page’s content, which caused issues for mobile searchers in cases that version was vastly different from the mobile version. With mobile-first indexing, Google will use the mobile version of the page for indexing and ranking, in order to better serve their users – who are now primarily mobile.
It is important to say that Google continues to have one single index for serving search results (the one Google uses now). Change to mobile-first indexing does not generate a new mobile-first index, nor is it creating a separate mobile index with a desktop index remaining active. Instead, it simply changes how content is added to the existing index. The difference is that from now on, a mobile version of the site is considered primary. The end goal of this rollout is for Google to have only one index – one which is based on mobile content, to serve listings for both mobile and desktop users. This is very reason why this change represents a fundamental reversal in the way Google is thinking about website content and way it prioritizes crawling and indexation.
MOBILE FIRST INDEXING WILL BE IMPLEMENTED GRADUALLY
Google is notifying sites that are migrating to mobile-first indexing via Search Console. Site owners who monitor crawlbot traffic to their sites will see significantly increased crawl rate from the Smartphone Googlebot. Additionally, Google will show the mobile version of pages in Search results and Google cached pages. This will be a long and graduate process to ensure a good experience for site owners and users. In Google’s own words:
„Sites that are not in this initial wave don’t need to panic. Mobile-first indexing is about how we gather content, not about how content is ranked.
Content gathered by mobile-first indexing has no ranking advantage over mobile content that’s not yet gathered this way or desktop content. Moreover, if you only have desktop content, you will continue to be represented in our index.“
Google evaluates each site individually on its readiness for mobile-first indexing based on the best practices and transitions the site when the site is ready. Google has been experimenting with this approach to indexing on a small number of sites, which were selected based on perceived “readiness”. A wider rollout is likely going to take a long time and it will probably take a few years before we reach an index that is only mobile-first. This is what Google says about the timeframe:
“We continue to be cautious with rolling out mobile-first indexing. We believe taking this slowly will help webmasters get their sites ready for mobile users, and because of that, we currently don’t have a timeline for when it’s going to be completed.”
HOW TO OPTIMIZE SITES FOR MOBILE FIRST INDEXING
In any case, Google continues to encourage webmasters to make content mobile-friendly; emphasizing that they evaluate all the content in their index (both, mobile and desktop) to determine how mobile-friendly site is. Having mobile-friendly content is still helpful for those looking at ways to perform better in mobile search results.
So how does all of the above-said impact webmasters and business owners and their SEO efforts? As a webmaster you might find yourself in one of the possible scenarios:
- You have a responsive website
- You have a mobile-friendly version of your desktop site
- You have a desktop site and a separate mobile site (either with m.domain.com or dynamically served)
- You have a desktop site but no mobile site
RESPONSIVE WEBSITES AND MOBILE-FRIENDLY DESIGN
Two of the most common solutions people use for mobile websites are mobile-responsive and mobile-friendly sites. While they are similar, there are major differences that can negatively impact your SEO in the mobile-first index.
Mobile-responsive sites (or dynamic servings sites) have their primary content, including text, images, video, and any page elements, syncing dynamically between the desktop and mobile site. Google prefers responsive web design, as it allows the server to always send the same HTML code to all devices. Responsive sites also provide better user experience – eliminating the most common mobile UX issues such as pinching, zooming, vertical scrolling and all other annoying functions that you likely encountered when using mobile.
In case your website is responsive, or otherwise identical in its desktop and mobile versions, according to Google’s own latest guidance, you may not have to do much (assuming you are satisfied with your current rankings). You should already have everything present on your mobile version that is currently part of the desktop version, and your main challenge will be to ensure that the mobile experience is well optimized from a user perspective.
By now, with desktop sites, Google said that content hidden in tabs, accordions, expandable boxes and other methods was not weighted as high importance. With mobile first indexing, though, content like this will be given full weight if done for user experience purposes. The idea is that expandable content makes sense on mobile and not so much on the desktop.
However, even with a totally responsive site, you would want to ensure that mobile page speed and load time are prioritized and that all dynamic elements are optimized correctly for the mobile experience. Google has announced that, starting in July 2018, they will take in consideration speed of loading of the site. They are warning webmasters that slow-loading content may not perform well; for both, desktop and mobile searchers.
On the other hand, mobile-friendly sites are where you commonly come across these issues related to the user experience. Mobile-friendly sites allow your content to dynamically change when seen on a mobile browser. However, content is not responsive. Rather, it means you won’t see a desktop version of the site on mobile but instead, you’ll see a functional mobile site, but page elements will still likely be impacted. The problem is that it doesn’t work in today’s world of competing smartphones and tablets. Devices come in different sizes with different aspect ratios.
According to Google, if you’re still using a mobile-friendly design, you will need to update content accordingly to score high with mobile-first indexing (see next section).
SEPARATE MOBILE AND DESKTOP SITES
Another somewhat common method of displaying mobile content is separating desktop and mobile sites into two separate entities. Up until this point, primary site was desktop site and mobile site was considered as an alternative to serve on mobile devices. Google encouraged webmasters with a separate mobile site (m.domain.com) to implement switchboard tags (indicating mobile URL version with a rel=“alternate“ tag). For those sites there is a possibility that Google might not even make the effort to crawl and cache the desktop versions of all of these pages, as they could simply display that mobile URL to mobile searchers.
Separate mobile sites complicate things for webmasters quite a bit. They won’t be easy to manage when mobile-first rolls around for the simple reason that you’ll have to monitor multiple websites as separate, individual sites. Updating content on such website would entail not only updating content on both, its desktop and mobile version, but also updating structured data and metadata without breaking duplicate content rules. That means more work for less gain.
If you currently have a separate mobile site and don’t consider switching to a responsive site, ensure that you’ve added the mobile version of your site to Google Search Console.
Below, we compiled a checklist of features of your mobile site to which you should pay attention when optimizing for mobile-first index. Full guide for best practices you can find on Google’s blog.
ONLY DESKTOP AND NO MOBILE SITE
If you don’t have a mobile version of your site and your desktop version is not mobile-friendly, your content can still be indexed; as Google will use the desktop site to determine rankings when there is no mobile version. You may not rank as well in comparison to mobile-friendly websites, though. This may even negatively impact your overall rankings on desktop search as well as mobile search results because it will be perceived as having a poorer user experience than other sites (since the crawler will be a “mobile” crawler).
It’s also important to note that if you have any mobile version of your site there is no guarantee that they will crawl or index the desktop version once they’ve seen the mobile version. Therefore, the official recommendation is that once the mobile-first indexing rollout happens, if you’re in the process of building your mobile site or have a “placeholder” mobile version currently live it would actually be better to have no mobile site than a broken or incomplete one. In this case, you should wait to launch your mobile site until it is fully ready.
To check if your site is mobile friendly, try out Google’s Mobile-friendly test!
In conclusion, mobile traffic became the primary way we access websites and there’s no sign of that changing. Google’s graduate rollout of mobile-first indexing shifted focus from desktop sites to mobile sites in order to keep up with their users‘ needs. As a webmaster, it is crucial to be aware of the fact that if your mobile site isn’t responsive, fast, and ready to roll, your rankings will suffer greatly. Therefore, it is necessary to get your mobile site attention it requires. Whichever of the above scenarios you find yourself in, the good news is, it’s still early on and there is time to prepare before mobile-first index rolls out on all websites. Take Google’s advice and follow through with implementing required changes. While the effects of this change may not be visible for some time still, it’s always better to be a pacesetter than struggle to catch up.
- Best practices for mobile-first indexing
- Google Webmaster Central Blog: Rolling out mobile-first indexing
- Google Webmaster Central Blog: Rolling out the mobile-friendly update
- Google Webmaster Central Blog: Mobile-first Indexing
- Percentage of all global web pages served to mobile phones from 2009 to 2018
- The Global Mobile Report
- Mobilegeddon: A Complete Guide to Google’s Mobile-Friendly Update
- Google’s mobile-first indexing has set sail. Are you on board? 5 SEO essentials
- FAQ: All about the Google mobile-first index
- How Does Mobile-First Indexing Work, and How Does It Impact SEO?
- How to Find Out If Your Site Is Ready for Google’s Mobile-First Index
- Google begins to roll out mobile-first indexing
- 7 Days After Mobilegeddon: How Far Did the Sky Fall?
- How Mobile Search Connects Consumers to Stores