Mobile-First Indexing: What You Need to Know

On March 26, 2018, the Google Webmaster Central Blog came out with an article that said, “Today we’re announcing that after a year and a half of careful experimentation and testing, we’ve started migrating sites that follow the best practices for mobile-first indexing.”

Oof.

Mobile-first indexing has become this Frankenstein buzzword that SEOs across the world have started to throw around. It’s been the talk of the interwebs, with many websites creating actual “mobile SERP survival” checklists. This blog post will give you a better idea of what mobile-first indexing is, what its implications are, and what you need to be doing about it right now. Because there are many situations where a mobile responsive website helps users, it should be a priority for everyone with a website.

So, what exactly does “mobile-first indexing” mean?

Mobile-first indexing is simple. It means that, when Google takes a look at your website, they will first review the mobile version. That will determine what is included in their index and, ultimately, how well your website will rank. To get a little more granular (for the geeky SEO nerds like me), you may see an increase in traffic from Smartphone Googlebot, and the cached versions of pages will typically be the mobile version of the page. Basically, mobile takes precedence.

I think we can all agree that smartphones have become commonplace. Google thinks so as well. That’s because, according to Statista, 50.3% of all global web pages were served to mobile phones in 2017. And in 2018, it’s been 52.2% so far.

Scary, right?

Actually, it shouldn’t be. That is, if you’ve taken the right preemptive steps.

So, what do I need to do to prepare for mobile-first indexing?

1. Switch to a mobile-responsive website design ASAP

If you haven’t already done this, I highly suggest taking action now. It may be a little (or most likely, large) investment, but it is definitely worth it. A mobile-responsive website is extremely important, especially now that Google places indexing priority on the mobile version of your site.

You have two options here.

Option one is creating a mobile version of your website that completely differs from the desktop version. This can take a lot more work and can lead to differing content, but definitely has its perks.

Option two is creating a responsive website that scales content up or down depending on screen size. While this can be more difficult to build out, it can be much easier on you in the long run because the content stays the same, no matter what device.

2. Remember, user experience (UX) is a top priority

Because over half of all global traffic is now on mobile, it’s important to optimize for those devices. But UX isn’t just about making a website look pretty or functional, and the results aren’t just faster loading speed, better aesthetics, and so on.

UX can be directly applied to rankings. And it all has to do with RankBrain.

By now, RankBrain is almost common knowledge. If you’re not familiar with RankBrain, it’s Google’s learning algorithm that has the primary goal of understanding the intent behind a user’s search on Google. If you search “what is rankbrain” on Google, this is what Wikipedia tells you: “RankBrain attempts to guess what people mean and records the results, which adapts the results to provide better user satisfaction.”

A few key components of RankBrain include click-through rate, dwell time and bounce rate. Larry Kim at WordStream put it well with the following example:

“Let’s say you work for a tech company. Your visitors, on average, are bouncing away at 80% for the typical session, but users on a competing website are viewing more pages per session and have a bounce rate of just 50%. RankBrain views them as better than you – and they appear above you in the SERPs. In this case, the task completion rate is engagement.”

By now, the link between rankings, UX and mobile-first indexing should be pretty clear. By creating a mobile-responsive website, users have a much better experience on your site. So, when they get to your site, they (in theory) will stay longer and bounce at a much lower rate. Google will notice this and award you with higher rankings (again, in theory, because a lot goes into website rankings other than UX).

3. Don’t rush into anything

It’s true, you want to start taking steps fast to ensure your site is optimized for mobile (especially if you don’t have a mobile version of your site at all). One thing you don’t want to do, however, is jump the gun, create a temporary fix and suffer from negative consequences.

Instead of a temporary fix, keep whatever version of your site you have while you either create a high quality mobile version of your site or optimize your mobile responsive website as quickly as possible.

Can my site still be indexed even if there’s no mobile version?

Long answer short: yes.

Obviously, your website is still capable of being indexed, even if there’s no mobile version. The danger, however, is that neglecting mobile will lead to a drop in rankings. Keeping a desktop-only version will prove to be detrimental for you in the future.

So yes, your website can still be indexed and you can keep a desktop-only version of your site if you want. In the long run, your competitors will thank you.

Final thoughts…

What a time to be alive!

But honestly, it’s amazing to see the daily improvements in technology. Specifically, I’m constantly impressed with the updates and changes from Google. It’s better for SEO to always be changing and adapting than for us to still see spammy websites that implement bad tactics like keyword stuffing. So, while mobile-first indexing is big news, you should be fine as long as you’re prepared.