Google has started rolling out mobile-first indexing for its search engine, making content from the mobile version of your website the primary source for what Google includes in their search results.
In case you haven’t heard, Google has started rolling out mobile-first indexing for content in its index and for search results. The company is migrating sites for mobile-first indexing based on their readiness to use the mobile version of the page instead of the desktop version.
Why? Well, today most people search on Google using a mobile device. However, until now Google’s search engine ranking systems typically looked at the desktop version of a page’s content as the primary source of information. Google has found that this can cause issues for mobile users when content on the mobile page differs from what is on the desktop version.
So what exactly is mobile-first indexing?
Mobile-first indexing is exactly what it says. It means that the mobile version of your website becomes the primary source for what Google includes in their search index. It also means that Google will use the mobile version of a site’s content to rank pages from that site in search results.
Google first started experimenting with making their index mobile-first in November 2016. And as more and more searches happen on mobile, Google wants its index and results to be relevant to the majority of their users who will be searching on mobile devices.
So does that mean a separate index for desktop content?
No. Google’s search index will continue to be a single index of websites and apps. But as the name suggests, Google is simply shifting from indexing the desktop versions to the mobile versions of websites. According to Google, “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”.
What should I do about mobile-first indexing?
The first thing to do is not to panic. The change is still at an early stage and is being rolled out very gradually to websites that Google perceives as “ready enough” for this change. If you think of “mobile-first” as a reference to the fact that the mobile version will be considered the primary version of your website, then what you do next depends on your site.
If you have a responsive design site where the primary content (and markup) is equivalent across both mobile and desktop views, then (in theory) this change should not have any significant impact on your site’s performance in search results and you shouldn’t have to change anything.
If you only have a desktop site / don’t have a mobile site, Google will continue to index your desktop site just fine - it’s called “mobile-first” not “mobile-only” for a reason. However, keep in mind that Google wants to “encourage website owners to make their content mobile-friendly.” So Google will still evaluate your website to determine whether it is mobile-friendly, and the lack of a mobile-friendly experience could negatively affect the rankings of that site. Google already ranks “mobile-friendly” sites higher, and sites that are deemed not mobile-friendly will not rank as well.
If you have a mobile site that is different from your desktop site, then potentially you’ll need to make sure that the content and links on the mobile site are similar enough to those on the desktop site so that Google ranks your site as well as it did when crawling just your desktop site. You can check out Google’s documentation for more information.
A fundamental shift
It’s important to stress that mobile-first indexing represents a fundamental shift in the way Google thinks about your website content. Up until now, the desktop site was considered the primary and most comprehensive version of a website with full content, structured data markup, etc., and the mobile site was treated as an “alternate” version for smaller screens. This sometimes meant that the desktop site was prioritized for SEOs.
Mobile-first indexing means that the mobile version of your site will now be considered as the primary version of your website. So even with a responsive design site, you may want to prioritise optimising page speed, load times, images and graphical elements, navigation, structure, etc. for the mobile user experience.
What about expandable content on mobile?
Often with mobile site designs, content collapsed or hidden in tabs, accordions, expandable boxes and other methods due to space limitations. Since this type of screen real estate management is actually mobile-design best practice (and unavoidable), Google said that content like this will be given full weight on mobile sites, but not be weighted highly on desktop sites where screen size is less of an issue.
How can I tell if Google sees my mobile pages?
The best way is to use the Fetch and Render tool in the Google Search Console. Specify the mobile:smartphone user-agent and look at the preview after the fetch and render is complete. What Google shows you in the rendered results is likely what Google indexes from your mobile site. If any content is missing, then you should look into how to fix that and run the tool again.
What if I’m in the process of building a mobile website
The official recommendation from Google is that if you’re in the process of building your mobile site or if you have a “placeholder” type mobile version currently live, it would actually be better to have no mobile site than a broken or incomplete one i.e. you should wait to launch your mobile site until it is fully ready. In other words, if you don’t have a mobile site, then Google will index the desktop version. If you have an incomplete or placeholder mobile site, ranking signals will come from the mobile, not the desktop version.
Where Google goes...
With Google rolling out mobile-first indexing and Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP), we expect a significant shift of ranking signals from your desktop site to the mobile version. This is why we recommend, if you haven’t done so already, you get a website with a responsive design – i.e. one where the content is the same on a page-by-page basis from your desktop site to your mobile site.
As we've already mentioned in this post, Google has historically ranked your mobile site based on many signals from your desktop site. That is going to change. Going forward, Google will rank your mobile and desktop sites based on signals they get from crawling your site from a mobile view. So things like the page speed, titles, headings, structured data and other tags and content generated from your mobile site will determine the rankings of both your mobile site and desktop site in Google.