Last month Google announced that they are officially in the process of switching to mobile-first indexing. But what exactly is mobile-first indexing? And what does it mean for your website?
If you're reading this article, it's likely because you fall into one of 3 camps as it relates to answering the question posed in the title of this article: Is Your Website Ready for Google Mobile-First Indexing?
- Yes I am
- No I'm not
- I'm not sure
Regardless of which camp you fall into, we're going to cover some key points that you need to be aware of, cut through the hype and excitement that's being spread about mobile-first indexing, and give you some guidelines for your next steps. While there are some considerations you must make, this is not MOBILEgeddon and you should not panic about mobile-first indexing.
What is mobile-first indexing?
Traditionally, Google's crawling, indexing, and ranking systems have been based upon a website's desktop version. Mobile-first indexing simply means that Google is beginning to crawl, index, and rank websites based on their mobile version first. Google is calling it “mobile-first” because it is not a mobile-only index. Google has reiterated that they will continue to maintain only one single index. If Googlebots crawl a website and determine that there is no mobile version, it will still index the desktop version. However, if you are a site owner who does not have a mobile-friendly version, don't be lulled into a false sense of security either, at least not long-term.
Why is it important to understand mobile-first indexing?
If you own, manage, or are responsible for a website and you count on being found in Google searches to bring traffic to your site, then it is imperative that you understand how Google's change may affect your site. If your website is not optimized for mobile, or if you are using a subdomain (m-dot), separate domain altogether, or an app to cater to mobile users then you need to be prepared to make some changes to your site's structure.
It is true, as I mentioned earlier, that Google will continue to index your site regardless of whether you have a mobile version or not, however, the lack of a mobile-friendly experience could have a negative impact on the rankings for that site. Additionally, a site with a better mobile experience could potentially earn a rankings boost even for users on desktop.
Why did Google spring this on us?
Well the truth is, they didn't. Google began foreshadowing this decision at least as far back as November 2016 when they first made mention of research efforts towards mobile-first indexing. The percentage of mobile users on the internet has been on the rise for several years. In 2018, 52.2% of all website traffic worldwide was generated on mobile devices. It comes as no surprise that as the number of mobile users has risen, Google has become more and more concerned about mobile-user experience. After all, Google's corporate mission is “to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
What sites WILL NOT be affected by mobile-first indexing?
If your site is optimized for mobile and the mobile and desktop versions of your website have equivalent content, then this change should not have any significant impact on your site's performance in the search rankings. Google doesn't just want to see that you have a mobile version, but they want to see that the content being delivered on the desktop version is also available on mobile. So in short, if your desktop site has been optimized for mobile you're good and you should continue to focus on a holistic SEO strategy instead of worrying about mobile-first indexing. In fact, if you are ahead of your direct competition in being prepared for mobile-first indexing, you may stand to gain an increase in the search rankings while they play catch-up.
What sites WILL be affected by mobile-first indexing?
If your website is desktop only and is not optimized for mobile, you eventually will be negatively affected by this update and likely suffer a drop in the rankings. The same is true to varying degrees if you are using a separate domain or subdomain for your mobile version, or are relying solely on an app for mobile users. Similarly, if Google recognizes any significant differences in content across the two platforms (less content on mobile), then you will likely be penalized. Of course, none of this is absolute because there are many things that Google takes into account for search rankings. If your site has no mobile version but has other ranking signals for Google that make them recognize your site as s significant authority in a particular niche, you may still rank well.
How is Google making the switch to mobile-first indexing? (i.e. Should I start freaking out?)
Do not panic. Google actually used those exact words in their press release to Google Webmasters last month. Google intends to make the changes to their index gradually rather than simply flipping a switch. Their goal is to give site owners and webmasters an adequate amount of time to understand the new guidelines and become mobile-friendly. Google has stated the following in relation to their strategy and timeline:
“We will be evaluating sites independently on their readiness for mobile-first indexing based on the above criteria and transitioning them when ready. This process has already started for a handful of sites and is closely being monitored by the search team. We continue to be cautious with rolling out mobile-first indexing. We believe taking this slowly will help webmasters get their sites ready for mobile users, and because of that, we currently don't have a timeline for when it's going to be completed.”
Google is making every attempt to ensure that a site is ready for mobile-first indexing before making the switch for that site. Google is reaching out to site owners and webmasters via Google Search Console as they identify sites that appear to be ready for the switch. The switch is then conducted as a collaborative process between the webmaster and Google.
What Should My Strategy Be?
- Get ahead of the game: Don't kick the can and wait until the last minute to get your site ready for mobile-first indexing. This update is anticipated to be as big, and possibly bigger, than Google's previous Panda, Penguin, and Hummingbird updates which had major ramifications for website rankings; good and bad. One things that we saw out of those updates that we can only presume to be true with mobile-first is that those who adapted to the changes the quickest benefitted in their search rankings the greatest.
- Ensure that your site is connected to Google Search Console: If your site is not registered on Google Search Console, you're missing out on valuable information about your site's performance. Not to mention that this is your line of communication to Google as it relates to mobile-first indexing. Search Console will give site owners and webmasters the best heads up as to how close Google is to switching them to mobile-first indexing. As Google begins to come around to evaluate your site, you will see an increase in traffic from the Smartphone Googlebot.
- Formulate a gameplan:
- If you built your website yourself, begin analyzing your site to determine its readiness for mobile-first indexing. You may be able to make some simple changes such as ensuring consistency of your content and use of meta tags, alt tags, structured markup, and canonical tags across your desktop and mobile versions, or you may need to consider preparing for an all new website build.
- If your website was built by a designer/developer, reach out them and ask them for an analysis of your site's readiness for a switch to mobile-first indexing. Again, your goals may be accomplished by some simple optimizations, or you may require a completely new website design.
- If you need a new website: Ensure that you select a web designer that at the very least understands the principles of designing a mobile-friendly website. A mobile-optimized approach is better, but the best web designers out there right now are actually the ones that have shifted their paradigm to mobile-first web design. With over 50% of website traffic already on mobile and only slated to grow, why are web designers still creating desktop websites first and then optimizing them for mobile? Doesn't it make more sense to build websites for mobile and optimize for desktop? Also, ensure that your web designer knows how to build websites that are tailored for search engine optimization. Search engine ranking has become so competitive, and there are so many websites out there, that to build a website that is not accompanied by an SEO strategy will simply not bring you traffic.
Google's mobile-first indexing update is not MOBILEgeddon. It is however a major update and should be given some serious focus as part of your website strategy. Here are some key takeaways:
- Google's mobile-first indexing is focused on ensuring that the websites they display in their index provide a good user experience on both mobile and desktop and that users are able to obtain the exact same content on mobile.
- Using a subdomain (m-dot), separate domain or mobile app as the sole means of reaching mobile users will no longer be adequate. Google will begin viewing these strategies as separate content. Ensure that your primary domain can handle both desktop and mobile devices.
- Google will communicate with you or your site's webmaster via Google Search Console. Ensure your site is connected to Search Console in order to stay up-to-date on the status of your site's switch to mobile-first indexing.
- You have time to get your strategy in order, Google is not going to flip a magic switch over night, but rather will make changes gradually as sites are deemed ready for the switch. Get on board early though to take advantage of Google's historical favor towards early adopters.
- If you need a new website, find the right web designer. A web designer with a mobile-first design approach is best, but mobile-optimized or mobile-friendly are reasonable alternatives. If your web designer doesn't know what any of those 3 design philosophies means, fire them. Quickly.