Putting Mobile-First: A Guide to Google’s Mobile-First Indexing in 2019

Today, consumers are putting mobile first. Increasingly (and habitually), more of us are turning to our smartphones during moments of need – to ask a question, find a solution, reach a local business, and even to book travel or search for a new home. According to Google, 96 percent of smartphone owners today use their mobile device to get things done, with the average American spending 3-plus hours a day on their smartphone. As we move further into 2019, these numbers are only expected to climb.

Fact of the matter is, people prefer mobile. It’s fast, efficient, and always at our fingertips. Google sees this, and is taking major steps to serve users a better mobile experience. The search engine giant, which now receives the majority of its search traffic from mobile devices, is putting mobile-first.

You may have heard of Google’s mobile-first index, which began rolling out in March 2018. Since then, about 50 percent of websites have been switched over to Google’s new mobile-first index, leaving half of websites to go. Which half are you in? If you have questions regarding mobile-first indexing – what it is, how it might affect your online presence, whether your site has been switched – you are in the right place. Below we answer common questions regarding mobile-first indexing.

What is Mobile-First Indexing?

Mobile-first indexing means that Google will predominantly use the mobile version of a website for indexing and ranking. The search engine spiders will first crawl a company’s mobile content – to determine how relevant a webpage is and how it should rank in the search results – before analyzing the desktop version. A website’s organic rankings, both desktop and mobile, will be informed by this mobile crawl. Simply put, it means that the mobile version of your website is now the most important one.

Historically, Google evaluated and ranked web content based on its desktop version. Their index solely contained the desktop iteration of websites, serving any alternate, mobile versions for smartphone and tablet users. Now that most users conduct searches on mobile, the dynamic has changed. Google will primarily base a website’s rankings on its mobile content. If you do not have a mobile (or mobile responsive) website, however, Google will continue to index your desktop content.

It is for this reason that the new index is called “mobile-first.” Google isn’t switching over to mobile indexing completely. It’s simply prioritizing mobile websites first, to serve mobile users the most relevant, valuable, and optimized experiences possible. As Google explained at the beginning of the mobile-first roll-out, “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.”

Have You Been Switched to Mobile-First?

If you are unsure whether your website has migrated to mobile-first indexing, check your Google Search Console property. Google is notifying webmasters via a Search Console message. You may also notice a significantly increased crawl rate from Smartphone Googlebot in there, as well, which is an indicator of mobile-first. If you do not have a Search Console account, well, set one up! You can also manually check out Google’s Search Results and cached pages to see if your mobile site ranks.

Most websites included in the first wave do not need to stress over this change, however, as they have been deemed ready for mobile-first indexing. Many of Synapse’s clients who have been migrated, for example, have a mobile-responsive website in which the desktop and mobile content are exactly the same, with the same HTML code. With a responsive site, there are typically no separate versions – instead, the site responds to screen size. More on this in a minute.

If your website was not included in the initial roll-out of mobile-first, do not panic. Google explains sites that have been migrated do not have a “ranking advantage” over mobile content that’s not yet gathered in the mobile-first index. This also doesn’t mean that your website is not mobile-friendly. Google assures that the mobile-first index is independent from their mobile-friendly tests, and many mobile-friendly sites have yet to migrate to mobile-first. Still, site owners should continue to optimize with mobile in mind in preparation for the next wave.

How Will Mobile-First Indexing Impact Your SEO?

As Google notes above, the mobile-first index will not give certain websites a ranking advantage – mobile-first is just a change in the way they crawl and gather data, after all. That said, however, mobile-first indexing may reward websites that have made mobile optimization their priority. So if your website is not mobile optimized yet, you might see a negative effect as the mobile-first index rolls out.

There are a few considerations to keep in mind as Google moves to mobile-first. Perhaps most importantly, consider how your website is set up today. Do you have a mobile website? Does your website use a responsive design for different devices, or do you have separate URLs for each?

If you have a responsive website design, in which your mobile content is the same as your desktop content, you will likely not experience any impact when migrating to the mobile-first index. Google explains that websites using responsive design or dynamic serving are “generally set for mobile-first indexing.” However, if your website has separate mobile and desktop content, there are certain steps you should take to prepare.

Separate Mobile Websites: What to Do About Mobile-First

Does every desktop URL on your website have an equivalent, alternate URL serving mobile-optimized content – for example, www.website.com and m.website.com? With the mobile-first index, Google will no longer index www.website.com as your primary site. Instead, it will prefer the m-dot version of your webpages for ranking and indexing.

If your website serves different content based on a user’s device in any means, whether via an m-dot site or dynamic serving (on the same URL), you must take action to prepare for mobile-first. Google recommends:

  • Ensuring that your mobile site contains the same content as your desktop site. If your mobile site has less content than your desktop site, update it so that it is equivalent – in text, word count, images (with alt attributes), and videos in the usual crawlable and indexable formats.
  • Putting structured data on both versions of your site. Make sure your mobile pages also have structured data (such as Schema markup) and that the URLs in the structured data are the mobile versions on mobile. If you use Data Highlighter for your structured data, regularly check the dashboard for extraction errors.
  • Optimizing metadata on both versions of your site. Ensure that your title tags and meta descriptions are equivalent (and SEO-optimized) across both versions of your website.
  • If you have separate m-dot URLs, also verify that both versions of your website can be easily crawled, accessed, and indexed. This involves using the correct rel=canonical and hreflang tags, using robots.txt directives appropriately, verifying both versions in Google Search Console, and ensuring that your mobile site server can handle an increased crawl rate.

Considering Mobile Friendly vs. Mobile Responsive Websites

With mobile-first indexing being rolled out, Google recommends using responsive web design. This means that a website serves all devices with the same code, and that code adjusts for screen size. Not only are responsive websites easy to manage and maintain, they also have benefits from an indexing perspective. Responsive design helps Google’s algorithms accurately assign indexing properties to a page, rather than needing to signal crawlers to a corresponding desktop or mobile version. This setup also saves resources when Googlebot crawls your website, using one user agent versus multiple agents to retrieve the different versions. With more efficient crawling in place, more of your site’s content can be indexed and kept fresh in the index, explains Google.

Now, let’s not confuse mobile responsive with mobile-friendly. While these concepts are generally similar, in the mobile-first index, they have major differences that can hurt your SEO. You see, responsive websites typically eliminate common mobile UX issues, such as zooming, squinting, and too small clickable links. Mobile-friendly websites, on the other hand, can still have some of those issues, even though the website will function fine on mobile. So if you’re using a mobile-friendly (but not responsive) design, you will still need to update your content in accordance with mobile best practices.

How Can You Optimize for Mobile-First?

As I’ve mentioned in a previous article, Google uses hundreds of ranking factors to determine a web page’s relevance and position in the SERP. If you have super- pertinent and high-quality content that is not perfectly optimized for mobile, your website still has a chance of ranking in the mobile-first index. However, if your competitors are creating great content, and it’s mobile-optimized too, then you better catch up. Here are some tips to stay competitive as we move towards mobile-first:

  • Optimize your mobile load times. In July 2018, Google officially made mobile load times a part of their ranking algorithm, noting that slow-loading content may now perform less well for both desktop and mobile searchers. To assess your current mobile load times, you can use Google’s free Test My Site tool.
  • Go Responsive. It’s clear that responsive design is preferred, and has an advantage, in this mobile-first era. On top of indexing benefits and ease of maintenance, responsive websites often offer better user experiences, faster load and redirection times, and less of those common mobile mistakes.
  • Don’t ditch your desktop site. If your website is not mobile, Google will not stop crawling or indexing your desktop versions. However, you may see rankings drop as the mobile-first index rolls out (and in that case, you may just consider the move to mobile).

Mobile optimization is becoming a standard in the search landscape. We see that with voice search. We see that with purchase behavior. We see that with the constant updates being made to Google’s SERPs – featured snippets, local pack listings, “interesting finds,” and more. And now, we see that with Google’s roll out of mobile-first indexing – one more step Google is taking to develop the search platform’s ease of use and overall UX. This is their goal, after all, to deliver the best possible experience for users. And if your focus is on SEO, this should be one of your main priorities, too. It’s time to put mobile first.

To learn how Synapse SEM can help improve your mobile SEO strategy, you may complete our contact form or call us at 781-591-0752.