Do you remember the first announcement regarding mobile-first indexing? Can you put a date on the announcement? Well, it was actually all the way back in November 2016. This was the month that Google first revealed that mobile-first indexing was being tested on several websites. It has been a long road since then, and the world has changed dramatically (including a global pandemic).
In March 2021, Google finally launched the system fully, which means that you can no longer avoid the change. After long delays and COVID-19 interruptions, mobile-first indexing is now used on 100% of all websites on the internet.
What does your marketing team need to know about this new process? Will it change the way that you operate? Let’s find out!
Since this is a guide providing all the information that marketing teams need to know, it makes sense to start with the basics. What does everybody mean when they refer to mobile-first indexing? Well, it means that, when ranking and indexing your website, the mobile version of your website has more weighting than the desktop version.
At this point, we want to clear one of the biggest misconceptions, there isn’t a desktop and a mobile index, there's just one. Despite popular belief, Google uses one index, and the mobile version of your website is playing a larger and more important role in this index. If you have content on the desktop version of your website and not the mobile version, Google will ignore it when ranking and indexing your website.
If you haven’t yet read the documentation released by Google, we highly recommend doing so because it explains everything you need to know (you should also stick with this guide to keep learning!). In the documentation, Google says that pairing the relevance of a page to the query of a user was all about desktop originally. However, the company has evolved with the user base who now primarily use mobile devices to search.
Moving forward, the Googlebot will crawl mobile websites primarily because this is where most Google users will land after their initial query. The good thing about the March 2021 update is that you can finally stop checking whether your website is in or out of the group of websites indexed mobile-first. For some time, 70% of websites were in the mobile-first group while the remaining 30% were in the traditional desktop indexing group.
Sadly, this doesn’t mean that you can stop worrying altogether because you’ll now switch your attention to optimizing your website for this change.
With mobile-first indexing now playing a critical role in Google performance, we’ve listed some of the basics that you’ll need to check to ensure strong performance.
Firstly, perform a site audit and make sure any third-party tools you use are scanning your mobile website as opposed to the desktop website. With the right tool, you can scan your desktop website, scan the mobile website, and then learn the differences between the two. For example, you might have a page error on mobile that doesn’t occur on the desktop.
When performing a site audit, your goal should be to clean up the mobile website as much as possible. The more errors showing on the website, the more Googlebot will punish you (and the less likely you are to show for search queries!). Check and correct the following:
Do all internal links work correctly and lead to a positive experience for all users? External links aren’t a huge problem but they mess up with the internal links which means mobile-first indexing won’t go so well. If you use a smaller menu for mobile, bear in mind that this will play a role when it comes to PageRank and indexing.
Naturally, it’s sometimes difficult to offer a mobile website that mirrors the desktop. Due to the nature of mobile devices, the screen is smaller and it’s not always possible or advised to cram everything onto the limited real estate.
Although Google doesn’t look for mobile and desktop websites that are identical, they should both at least hold all the essential content. When it comes to SEO, there’s nothing wrong with excluding email opt-ins, for example, from a mobile website. Yet, eliminating important content just because it doesn’t look or feel right will harm your efforts.
As time goes on, our options for content on mobile continually improve and we can take advantage of features like tabbed content. As long as you’re improving the user experience, you can hide content. Go too far, though, and Google will punish the website.
Nothing in the world of SEO ever seems to go smoothly at the first attempt, so your marketing team should be aware of two common issues with mobile-first indexing. Firstly, you may experience a problem with content if you have pages designed for mobile and separate pages designed for desktop. With less information from pages, Google struggles to score relevance, and ranking suffers.
Likewise, the Googlebot may struggle to crawl your mobile website. While sometimes it’s an issue with the request, other times the server treats the request differently. Either way, Google can’t get information from any page and you’re unlikely to appear in search results.
If your marketing team wants to avoid these two common problems, allow Googlebot access to your website, internal links, and every other aspect of the website. It’s never wise to block internal links, crawling mobile CSS, or use a robots.txt ‘Disallow’ directive. Furthermore, you also shouldn’t use noindex meta tags.
While reviewing, check the crawl capacity of the server. In an ideal world, the server should handle desktop and mobile crawls at a similar rate.
To finish, we have some advice for marketers and businesses optimizing their websites for this change. Firstly, we’d like to note that mobile-first indexing now applies to websites of all shapes, sizes, and ages. As a global feature, this isn’t something you can avoid - this is a Google update and one that affects everybody wanting to perform well on the search engine.
Consequently, one of the best things you can do is realign mobile and desktop websites. Over time, it’s normal to optimize the desktop and mobile websites individually. Now, it’s time to bring them back together because the experience should be as close as possible between the two.
After this, check your structured data. If this is present on your website, you should have it available for both desktop and mobile websites. At the same time, keep an eye on errors and make sure you’re fixing them as soon as they arise. Choose an advanced tool and you’ll quickly learn the biggest error while also spotting opportunities to boost page speeds. This could be enabling text compression, removing multiple page redirects, sizing images properly, or something else.
Next, many website owners always go hunting for industry secrets when much of the best advice comes from Google itself. With this, read the Google advice and learn what it wants from your website. As long as you’re following this advice, you’re following its guidelines and are more likely to enjoy your mobile-first indexing experience (rather than despising it!).
This advice includes:
While some changes we can all ignore and let pass without a second glance, mobile-first indexing requires a proactive approach because it changes the way that your website is indexed and ranked. From 2021, Google will crawl your mobile website first and a poor mobile experience cannot outweigh a positive desktop one!