Mobile First Indexing: 5 Things You Need to Know
In late 2016, Google announced tests on what they referred to as mobile-first indexing. In the announcement, Google explained that this shift in indexing was a response to the rise in mobile-first search. In the quest to make search increasingly relevant and reflective of search trends, Google was in the process of creating mobile-first ranking within the Google search index. From the announcement, here’s a paraphrase of what mobile-first indexing is:
“Mobile-first indexing is a change in the Google indexing algorithm that will see mobile versions of websites (where available) indexed first and served as primary search results for mobile searches.”
With that definition in mind, what does this mean for SEOs and website owners? Will rankings change? Will there be another massive shift in SERPs? Should website owners start building mobile sites right away?
In this post, we answer these questions by looking at five things you must know about mobile-first indexing. These pointers will give you a solid start to mobile-first indexing and help you prepare for the next generation of search.
Mobile browsing is rapidly growing, both in the US and globally. According to Statista, slightly over 52% of global online traffic in 2018 was generated through a mobile device, up from 50% in 2017.
Similarly, a BrightEdge study found that 51% of respondents use a mobile device to discover brands and products while Google found that 80% of smartphone users favor brands with mobile sites. These stats create context for why Google is moving towards mobile-first indexing. What does this mean for your website?
First, it means that, increasingly, more of your traffic will come from mobile devices and Google wants to ensure your visitors have a great experience. If you check your Google Analytics traffic stats, you will probably confirm that some, if not most, of your traffic comes from mobile devices.
Second, due to this massive trend in consumer behavior, Google’s move towards mobile-first indexing is an attempt to match the search experience to consumer expectations. As a website owner, mobile-first indexing, therefore, creates a great opportunity to offer a better experience to your site visitors as well as an opportunity to rank better for mobile searches.
A major question most website owners have is whether Google is creating a separate mobile-only search index. That is, a search index that does not include desktop websites. It is understandable why this can be a worrisome thought, especially for website owners who may not have mobile or mobile-optimized websites.
From the Google Search developer website, “We aren’t creating a separate mobile-first index. We continue to use only one index.” What this means is that although the mobile-first indexing algorithm will push up mobile results, it will do so on the same index that serves desktop websites.
This statement, however, does not adequately represent what Google is working towards. As search moves to mobile, Google’s ultimate goal is to transform the current search index into a mobile index.
That is, most, if not all, ranking results will be from mobile-optimized websites. This is crucial for website owners as it paints a picture of a future where mobile optimization will no longer be optional, but a prerequisite for ranking.
With no clear standards as to how to approach mobile readiness, website owners have undertaken different methods to optimize their sites. Some opt to build separate mobile websites hosted on a different URL (m.company.com or company.com/m) while others adopt responsiveness (websites that adjust to screen size.)
According to Google, both suffice, but there may be some extra steps depending on which path you take.
If your site is responsive, Google says you do not need to change anything. With the Google smartphone crawler now at the top of the crawler hierarchy, the mobile-optimized version is what will be indexed first.
If you have a separate mobile website, each will be crawled separately. As a result, you will need to duplicate optimization and ranking efforts across both sites, which leads us to the next point, content.
For webmasters with separate desktop and mobile sites, Google has a clear message for you: your mobile website should have the same content as your desktop website. A question that arises from this is, “Won’t that hurt my desktop website ranking as Google will view the content as duplicate?”
That’s a fair question and one that does not quite have a clear answer. However, going by Google’s statement, it is clear they may not penalize websites on the same root domain for having the same content.
What if you had started building a mobile website but still conduct all your activities on the desktop version? If your mobile website is incomplete or does not provide the same content as the desktop website it is better to take it offline.
With mobile-first indexing, Google will apply search ranking factors to your incomplete mobile website, and this could hurt your overall results. The upside is that Google says search will still surface desktop results on mobile search if combined ranking factors qualify the result as the best one.
At a fundamental level, mobile search and desktop search remain similar. People are still making the same search queries for the same things they did on desktop. As such, Google expects webmasters to continue using metadata and structured data on their websites.
What is changing, however, is that on mobile, Google is increasingly favoring rich snippets. For instance, through structured data, Google search results appear with phone numbers and directions, something people have come to expect from mobile search.
As a webmaster, this should not come as a surprise. If you have been optimizing your desktop site, nothing changes. If not, you may need to refocus your efforts to add these crucial elements as they remain an important ranking factor.
Mobile-first indexing is at the core of Google’s and other search engines’ mandate, to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” The nature of this change makes it one that will impact search results for a long time to come. As a website owner, getting your website mobile-ready now is an investment in the future of search.