The Google mobile-first index is here
In 2016 the smartphone overcame the desktop computer as the dominant Internet device. Since then, Google has increasingly stressed the importance of mobile usability. Today, if your website isn’t mobile “friendly” you’re most likely already missing out on a lot of organic traffic.
And this trend will grow further with Google’s latest update — the mobile-first index. As the name implies, this update will prioritize mobile-optimized web pages in the search index even more. And, if you’re not prepared, your search rankings could suffer. To help you get ready, let’s take a closer look at Google’s mobile-first initiative.
What is mobile-first indexing?
Google first announced their proposal for mobile-first indexing in 2016. The original plan was to roll it out slowly after a period of thorough testing. That period ended in March 2018, and Google is now officially executing their new mobile-first index strategy.
This shouldn’t come as big surprise to anyone in the web industry. When mobile devices overtook desktop machines as the primary browsing tool, the search results increasingly favored websites that performed well on phones and tablets.
Back then, having a “responsive” design was one way to boost the ranking of your desktop website. Eventually, Google started penalizing websites in their search results that didn’t provide a proper mobile experience.
The mobile-first index takes this idea a little further in 2018. Essentially, it means that Google will start prioritizing the mobile version of web pages over others with similar content. As Google explains it:
To recap, our crawling, indexing, and ranking systems have typically used the desktop version of a page’s content, which may cause issues for mobile searchers when that version is vastly different from the mobile version. Mobile-first indexing means that we’ll use the mobile version of the page for indexing and ranking, to better help our – primarily mobile – users find what they’re looking for.
To clarify, this does not mean that Google will maintain two separate indexes (desktop and mobile) or a “mobile only” index. They will simply do what they have always done — Try to deliver the best search results possible, regardless of device. Since users currently prefer mobile gadgets, so does Google.
In a nutshell:
- 2016: The desktop version of web pages was the standard by which Google judged your site.
- 2018: Google will evaluate your website by the mobile experience first — For the entire site, not just the mobile version.
How will the mobile-first index affect your website?
If you’ve been adapting to Google’s changes the past few years, you shouldn’t have much to worry about. However, if your site isn’t optimized properly for mobile, your page rankings may suffer after the update takes full effect. For instance:
- If you only have a desktop version of your website (not mobile responsive), it will still be indexed. But Google will evaluate it using mobile standards and probably penalize it. For that reason, you should prepare to see a decline in your search rankings.
- If you maintain separate sites for desktop and mobile, the latter will take precedence. Your main task will be making sure your mobile version is at least as good as its desktop counterpart. Otherwise, you may also see negative results.
- In you already offer a fully responsive website, you should be relatively safe. Just keep in mind that there’s always room for improvement.
Rolling out mobile-first indexing
Google won’t be migrating websites to mobile-first indexing all at once. Instead, they’ll notify site owners in batches, by way of a Google Search Console (previously Google Webmaster Tools) message. I actually received my first notification email for one of my websites this morning (see below).
If you’d like to receive these notifications, be sure that you’ve signed up for Search Console functionality, and that all of your websites are connected.
Get ready for mobile-first indexing
If you’re still terrified of losing your position in the search results, just follow the guidelines below. They’ll help you prepare for the Google mobile-first index. If you need help implementing any of the suggestions, find a qualified web developer.
1. Get mobile friendly
- Be sure that your site has a responsive design
- Make your site as fast as possible (consider HTTPS with HTTP/2)
- Make sure that any third-party plugins or extensions are mobile device compatible
- Optimize images to load quickly and display properly on mobile devices (including Apple Retina Displays)
- Avoid popup boxes and other marketing schemes that obscure site content
- Test your site on a variety of mobile devices to make sure that everything works as expected
2. Mobile friendly vs mobile optimized
Just because your site has pretty images, loads fast, and has a responsive design, doesn’t mean it’s providing the best mobile experience. Content is consumed much differently on mobile devices than it is on desktop computers. To provide the best possible experience to smartphone and tablet users, consider the following:
- Improve mobile usability: On mobile devices user input is provided by touch with fingers (and thumbs), not a mouse. So, make sure your site has a thumb-friendly design.
- Prioritize content: Screen real estate is precious on mobile devices. You need to emphasize the most important content. Consider ditching large images, sliders, rotators, videos and other superfluous stuff that isn’t essential to the information-finding experience.
- Simplify navigation: Mobile users often don’t have the time or patience to click three or four layers deep looking for stuff. Review your navigation structure and consider making it “flatter” to improve usability. Your desktop users will thank you too.
- Use media queries: When moving from desktop to mobile, your pages shouldn’t just “shrink” down to fit the mobile screen. Your page content should re-flow and adapt to smaller sizes by using CSS media queries that detect the viewport size.
What is “responsive” web design?
Responsive web design (RWD) is a methodology for creating websites that will provide a useful human user experience, regardless of the viewing device or screen size. Responsive design has been around since before 2010, and is pretty much a standard feature of any new website. If you find yourself working with a designer who disagrees, find another designer. Learn more
3. Structured data matters on mobile too
Structured data is a standardized format for providing information about a page, and classifying the page content. For example, on a recipe page: What are the ingredients, the cooking time and temperature, the calories, and so on.
You can help Google by providing explicit clues about the meaning of your content by including structured data on the page. Many advanced WordPress themes automatically create structured data by inserting the proper tags in the correct places. You can learn more about the technology at Schema.org.
4. Faster is always better
As mentioned above, page-load speed is exceptionally important. It’s even more important on mobile gadgets where connection speeds can be notoriously slow and inconsistent.
Website speed influences everything from bounce rate (see image below) to return rate (the odds of a visitor coming back to your site). Most importantly, page speed is also one of Google’s search ranking factors — The faster the better.
Built-in browser widgets such as Chrome’s Developer Tools can help evaluate website behavior. In addition, the following online tools can be useful in understanding your site’s performance:
The Google mobile-first index is already here. From now on, your presentation on mobile devices may be even more important than it is on desktop machines.
A couple years ago it was common to design your desktop website first, then adjust it to fit progressively smaller screens. Now, developers typically take the reverse approach: Designing for smartphones first, then enhancing the layout as screens get bigger and device capabilities improve.
In the future, mobile users could be the norm — with desktop users becoming the rarity. It’s critical that you prepare for that evolution now, or risk getting lost in the search results.