Mobile First Indexing: What It Is, How It Works and Why You Should Care

Mobile First Indexing: What It Is and How It Works

Mobile-first indexing is the latest bit of news out of Google. The search engine giant recently announced the move, sending shockwaves through the SEO community and causing massive scrambles to adapt to these new changes.

But what, exactly, does it mean for the world’s leading search engine results provider to adopt this change? How is mobile-first indexing going to change how your own sites, or the sites of your clients, rank when consumers are looking for goods and services provided?

There’s a lot of uncertainty and misinformation surrounding Google’s new decision, but there doesn’t have to be. Here’s what you need to know about what mobile-first indexing means, how it works, and how — if at all — your rankings will change as a result.

The Big Question: What Does “Mobile-First” Actually Mean?

For the most part, mobile-first indexing does exactly what it says on the tin. In essence, Google begins with mobile websites when it comes to building their massive index of websites. It also means that the new baseline for site ranking begins with the mobile versions of the pages it crawls.

But don’t get it twisted — mobile-first doesn’t mean mobile-only. While it’s true that mobile versions of your webpage will usually be the cached version from now on, Google’s web crawlers won’t ignore desktop versions of a mobile site, nor will they ignore sites that don’t have a mobile version. At the same time, though, if you don’t have a mobile-friendly version of your site up and ready for Google to crawl, this may have a negative impact on your existing site ranking.

In many cases, this is unlikely to occur. Even if your desktop site has some mobile optimisation, this is often enough to provide an increase in your rankings. Additionally, if you already have a mobile-optimised or mobile-friendly version of your site, it’s not very likely that your ranking will decline. In other words, the sky is not falling nearly as quickly as you might think it is.

But Why the Change to Search Indexing?

So why has Google pushed through this fundamental change to its search indexing? It’s more indicative of philosophical changes the company’s adopted to its own core approach to search rankings. With mobile-first indexing, Google is unequivocally stating that mobile web technologies have grown ubiquitous enough to warrant an official seat at the head of the table.

This represents a major departure from Google’s former approach, if not a complete reversal. Before this change, the “primary” version of your website was considered to be the desktop site, with the mobile site being a secondary or even alternate when compared to the desktop version. It led web designers to ensure that mobile URLs were tagged accordingly or that mobile sites were accessible via mobile-specific subdomains. It was also why so much SEO time and energy was spent optimising desktop versions, with the balance spent on mobile tagging and backlinking.

Today, however, this is no longer necessarily the case. Mobile-first means that the care and attention you were formerly lavishing on the desktop version of your site needs to now be split evenly between both mobile and desktop. This isn’t an instance where you’re going back to the drawing board and throwing out all that hard work you’ve done optimising and marketing your desktop site — remember that it’s mobile-first, not mobile-only — but it does mean that you can no longer assign the lion’s share of your attention to desktop optimisation efforts.

So What Do I Need to Do?

First things first: put down the torches and pitchforks. Google is taking it slow when it comes to rolling out mobile-first indexing. The search engine giant doesn’t do anything half-assed (well, except for maybe Google Glass), and is only using mobile-first indexing on websites that the Google feels will not be affected by this new change. As long as you have either an identical mobile and desktop version or your site is mobile-responsive, you’re unlikely to see any difference at all.

Of course, there are some things that you will need to check — even with sites that have been positioned for mobile browsing. Load time and page speed will need to be placed first on that list, as they are a priority. Additionally, dynamic elements such as images will need to be configured for mobile audiences as well. Remember that any content that’s hidden behind tabs or collapsed to save space will now be treated the same as visible content, so this means ensuring all the content on your page is up to snuff.

Meanwhile, the requirements will be a bit more in-depth for anyone who has both a desktop site and a completely separate mobile version of that site. Here’s what you’ll need to check:

  • Congruent Content: ensure that the high-quality content on your desktop site is also in existence on your mobile site. This goes for images, video, and text as well. Keep the format of these elements indexable and crawlable.
  • Congruent Data Structure: structured data markup needs to be included on both the mobile and desktop versions of your site. Switch URLs displayed within structured data to point to the mobile version of these URLs. Omit any structured data that doesn’t refer to a page’s specific content.
  • Congruent Metadata: check all meta descriptions and titles are identical on both your mobile page and your desktop page. In this case, “identical” is a bit of a misnomer — taking the opportunity to re-optimize for mobile by shortening character counts without sacrificing keyword placement is recommended.
  • Congruent sitemaps: if you have links to sitemaps on your page, ensure that they can be accessed from your site’s mobile version. Update your robots.txt and other meta-robots tags as well.
  • Congruent App Indexation: if your desktop site has app indexation, it may be a good idea to get the mobile site verified in the case of app association files and related matters.
  • Congruent Search Console Verification: add your mobile version to Google Search Console and verify it alongside your desktop site.
  • Sufficient Server Capacity: if you’re hosting a mobile version of your site on a subdomain on a host that’s separate from your desktop, make sure your host servers are up to the challenge of handling increased crawl rates.

The good news is that there are some things you won’t have to change. An example of this is that switchboard tags won’t need to be changed if you’ve chosen to implement them. You can leave them as they are without worries.

New Beginnings, New Horizons

There’s no use denying it: the advent of mobile-first optimisation is squarely upon us. The search engine industry has officially transitioned to this new paradigm, paving the way for marketers and SEO experts to embrace these new standards and perform their magic in this brave new world.

Don’t get cold feet — jump in. Embrace mobile-first optimisation to ensure your own projects and pages are not only prepared for what the future holds but are positioned to excel in this new, exciting and optimised search engine environment.

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