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Google's mobile-first indexing

Mobile-first indexing for the whole web: How to prepare your site for it

During the last years, we have been hearing a lot about the mobile-first approach. When building a new website from scratch, or trying to make our SEO rankings better, we make sure to have a mobile responsive design and quick loading time for smartphones. It is because the majority of internet users search from mobile.   

If you want to have a website that drives traffic and generates leads, you need to have a mobile-first approach. It is no longer an option, but something you must be working on right now as from September 2020 Google will activate mobile-first indexing for the whole web.  

Google is constantly observing and learning the behavioural trends and patterns of its users. They change as technology changes, and in turn, technology also needs to adapt and reflect the new behavioural trends.  

With the evolvement of smartphones, our behaviour has changed too. We spend a lot of time on our phones and use it as a default device for browsing the internet. To make our search experience better, Google is implementing the mobile-first indexing for the whole web. 

Google announced testing mobile-first indexing in 2016 and was working on it for a few years. If you have not heard about it till now, you will have to put a lot of effort into your website to make it ready. In this article, we will discuss what mobile-first indexing is, how can it affect your website and how to prepare for it.  

 

What does mobile-first indexing mean?   

 

The name itself is self-explanatory.  Google’s crawling, indexing and ranking systems are using the desktop version of a page’s content. From September 2020, Google will be using the mobile version of your website’s pages for indexing and ranking. However, what business owners and webmasters should understand is that mobile-first indexing does not mean mobile-only indexing. Google will be using the mobile version of a page’s content as a default for indexing and will crawl it first. If your website does not have a mobile version, Google will fall back to the desktop version and crawl it.  

Also, if your website has a mobile version which is not very mobile-friendly, it can be still included in the index. However, if your website cannot deliver the mobile-friendly experience, it can negatively affect your website ranking. On the other hand, websites with a better mobile-friendly experience could have a ranking boost not only when people are searching from mobile, but on a desktop too.  
 

Why is Google Switching to mobile-first indexing?   

 

To explain what mobile-first indexing means better, we need to understand why Google started working on it at all. Google first announced that it would start working on mobile-first indexing in 2016. It was when the mobile internet use passed desktop for the first time in history. In 2016 the combined traffic from mobile and tablet reached 51.2%, while the traffic from desktop access was 48.7%. This was the time when companies and website owners realized that the traffic coming from mobile would not reduce but grow further. Hence, they started working on creating better mobile versions to deliver a good experience to the users.  

Google did the same. Mobile search grew, but Google was still indexing and ranking pages according to their desktop versions. Hence, many mobile users were getting results in which featured websites were not mobile-friendly. It was problematic since many mobile pages have less content than the desktop pages. However, as Google was not indexing the mobile pages, it could not evaluate the actual page which was seen by the users searching on mobile. Therefore, Google needed to make sure that mobile searchers had the same experience with their platform, as users searching on the desktop. Mobile-first indexing is the best solution for it.  

According to Google, there will not be separate indexes for mobile and desktop. The index will be the same, however, as mentioned above, it will index the mobile versions first.  

 

Timeline of switching to the mobile-first indexing   

 

Google first announced that they were starting to work on the mobile-first indexing in 2016. However, they did not set any deadlines or timelines for themselves. It was the very first mass message Google made about mobile-first indexing. The company mentioned that they would start experimenting and implementing changes in indexing once they felt confident about the outcome. At this time, Google also gave recommendations on how to prepare for the changes, giving time and possibility to businesses and webmasters to plan for the future.   

In 2018, after 12 months of the initial announcement, Google reminded webmasters about upcoming changes. They mentioned that the mobile-first indexing was under the development, and they were testing the readiness of selected sites. At this point, those webmasters who did not follow Google recommendations started taking it more seriously.  

Later in the same year, Google announced that they were implementing mobile-first indexing more widely. They started switching over the websites that were already following their best practice guides. 

The last update was in 2019 and it was a big one. Google announced that mobile-first indexing would be enabled as a default for the new websites. Meaning that the websites that Google has never crawled before as of July 1, 2019, would have mobile-first indexing as a default. 

Now, the new update came out, that announced mobile-first indexing for the whole web. But what does it mean for your business and website?   

 

Will the mobile-indexing affect my website?   

 

In short, yes. Switching to mobile-first indexing will affect your website. However, it might not be as radical, as you might think now.   

As Google is working on switching to mobile-first indexing for a few years, you can say that they are doing it very carefully. Before September 2020 comes, Google will continue moving sites to the new indexing when its systems recognize that these sites are ready. Meaning, that you still have time to work on your website and make it ready for the big change.   

As Google pointed out in their announcement, most of the sites that are shown in search results are already good for mobile-first indexing. Moreover, 70% of sites shown in search results have already shifted to mobile-first indexing. Hence depending where your website stands, you might have to do more or less to be ahead of the game.  

 

Your website might have been shifted to mobile-first indexing already  

 

If your site’s mobile version is as good as desktop one, your website might have already shifted to mobile-first indexing. It means that the content structure and content is the same on your mobile and desktop version of your site. If you want to check if your website is already switched to the mobile-first indexing, you can check it on Google Console now. It also shows the date when the change happened. This way, you will be able to observe how the change affected your website
 

In case you have a new domain, have built a new website from scratch or migrated recently, your website has mobile-first indexing as a default. Other websites what are not switched yet, will have the new mobile-first indexing implemented gradually until September 2020.   

If your website is not switched to mobile-first indexing yet, search console will let you know when it will happen. When Google switches a domain to mobile-first indexing, website owners will see an increase in Googlebot’s crawling. This means that Google updates index to your site’s mobile version. While Google will continue crawling with the traditional desktop Googlebot occasionally, most of it will be done with the mobile smartphone user agent.   

 

How to prepare your website for mobile-first indexing   

 

September is not as far as it might seem. If your website does not have mobile-first indexing yet, it is a good time to think about the reasons. It might mean that your mobile site is not as good, as you would like It to be.   

There is a good chance, that it will affect how your website is ranking. After all, if your website will not be shown when people are searching for a business like yours on their mobile, you are losing your potential customers.  

However, you do not have to worry. There are several recommendations from Google that will help you prepare your website for mobile-first indexing.   

  1. Responsive design  

    If your site’s mobile and a desktop version are identical, or if you already have a responsive design you might not have to do anything at all. If not, you will have to work on the responsiveness of your website. Google strongly suggests making your design responsive for several reasons.  
     

    • Responsive web design makes it easier for users to use a single URL for sharing and linking to your content.   
    • By having responsive web design, you will be able to avoid common mistakes that usually affect mobile sites. These can be blocked CSS, JavaScript, and image files, unplayable content, faulty redirections, slow mobile pages, mobile-only 404s and more.   
    • It also helps Google’s algorithms assign indexing properties to your page more accurately.   
    • Responsive design will improve crawling on your website which will indirectly help Google index more content and keep it appropriately fresh.   

    Even if your website has a perfect responsive design you still need to make sure that the other aspects of it are in order as well. Mobile page load time and speed must be your priorities. Make sure that they are optimal not only for the homepage but for the other pages as well. You should also optimize dynamic elements for your site’s mobile version.  

  2. Content 

    Usually, the main issue with the mobile and desktop versions of the site is the content. Many mobile sites do not have as much structure as desktop versions. Also, desktop sites have different, more complicated content structure. You need to make sure, that the content is the same on both mobile and desktop sites. It means that all the valuable content you have on your website should be available on your mobile site too. This includes text, videos and images too. Also, you need to make sure that the formats you use on mobile site are crawlable and indexable.  

    Otherwise, if you have less content on your mobile site, you might lose some traffic when your site switches to mobile-first indexing. This is because Google will not be able to crawl those pages and it will get less information from your site than before.  

  3. Structured data 

    The structured data must be the same on your mobile and desktop versions of your site. URLs that are shown within structured data on mobile pages should be updated to the mobile URLs. If structured data Is not relevant to the specific content of a page avoid adding it. Last but not least, train Data Highlighter on your mobile site if you are using it. 

  4. Metadata  

    Descriptive title and meta description should be equivalent across your mobile and desktop versions of your site. The word to pay attention here is “equivalent.” You do not have to make the metadata the same. For example, you might want to keep your mobile titles shorter. You can still do it, but you should make sure that it includes the same information and relevant keywords.  

  5. Images and videos   

    Another important part of optimizing your mobile site for mobile-first indexing is visual content, such as images and videos. Google recommends you check your images and videos and make sure they follow the best practices.   

    • Never use images that have a low resolution or are too small. Always provide high-quality images on your mobile site.  
    • Only use image and video formats that Google supports.  
    • Never use URLs that are changing every time the page loads for images and videos.  
    • Keep alt texts the same for the images on mobile site and desktop site.  
    • Have the same video structure data on both versions of your site.   

    Since mobile-first indexing is here, you should not differentiate your mobile and desktop versions of the site. Mobile version should be as good as the desktop one. Use the same filenames, text, captions and descriptive titles. Make sure that the content on your mobile version is as good as the desktop page.  

Final thoughts   

 

Some time ago, people were searching on mobile almost only when they did not have immediate access to computers. This time Is long gone.  Mobile usage will never stop growing. Hence, mobile-first indexing is not future any more, it is already a present for many businesses and webmasters. The change might seem drastic, but it will not damage your business or your website. However, you should start working on optimizing your mobile site if you have not done it yet. 

Businesses and website owners should not optimize their mobile sites for Google only. They must do It to be easily reachable for the growing audience of internet users who search for their services and products on mobile.   

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