What is mobile first indexing? Everything you need to know!

In mid-September, hundreds of thousands of website owners all around the world were sent this ominous message from Google … “Mobile-first indexing enabled for https:www…” And the internet is freaking out. Some hadn’t expected this news so soon and plenty more have no idea what “mobile-first indexing” even means! It’s caused widespread panic that this sudden change might cause massive drops in organic traffic. Well, it’s time to stop worrying. Heres everything you need to know about mobile-first indexing.

8th October 2018

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 53 seconds.

First off, what does “mobile-first indexing” actually mean?

When Google “indexes” your website, what it means is they crawl every page on your site and then add it to their search algorithm. Mobile-first indexing means that Google will index the mobile version of your site first, whenever it is deciding how to rank your content. So how does this differ to the past? Well, historically, Google has always used the desktop version of your site as the primary base for indexing. Google bots would crawl your pages and analyse everything. Including things like meta tags, text-based content, image, and links. Well, it will continue to do exactly this, except it will now take all of that information from the mobile version of your site. It’s worth noting that Google has spent a long time gradually introducing mobile-first indexing. They’ve already made the switch for plenty of sites that they deemed ready enough for the switch to occur.

Will Google continue to index your desktop site?

Yes. It is just that this will no longer be the primary basis for deciding where each page ranks. However, if there are desktop pages on your site that don’t exist on your mobile site, then they will use the desktop version for ranking. This leads nicely onto another question you likely have burning in your mind …

Is there a difference between having a responsive site and a separate mobile site?

Yes. Websites are typically built in one of two ways. Either the site is “responsive”, or it has separate desktop and mobile versions. A responsive site is one where the desktop version simply resizes to fit the proportions of any device it is being viewed on. You can still customise how it will look and appear. However, the content itself is identical. With a mobile site, you have the freedom to adjust the actual content on your mobile version and make it different to the desktop version. Typically, your URL structure would be something like “yoursite.com/blog/blog-post” for your desktop version and “m.yoursite.com/blog/blog-post” for the mobile version. Well, if you have a fully responsive site, then you should have a lot less work to do. However, if you do have a mobile version, then it’s time to get it up to scratch. Google recommends that you update your mobile site to include all of the same content as your desktop version. Below, we will delve into greater detail about any other necessary steps you should take.

Why is mobile-friendliness so important to Google?

Google has repeated time and time again that their core ambition is to provide searchers with the most accurate and useful response possible. Everything they do is based on achieving that mission. Which is why they constantly make updates to the Google Ranking Algorithm, in order to provide more accurate results. Well, for the last decade or so, smartphones have been growing in popularity. As such, more and more people have been using a mobile device with which to begin a search. So much so that in 2015, the number of searches initiated from mobile devices officially exceeded the number of searches that begin on desktops. So, what does this tell Google? It tells them that there are more people using Google on a mobile, as opposed to a desktop. So, in order to achieve their mission of providing the best service possible to searchers, they need to move with the times. This mobile-first indexing is simply another step towards them helping to ensure you are welcomed by a high-quality website whenever you ask Google a question.
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What should you be doing differently?

This all depends on what sort of category your website falls under. Which one best applies to you?

Your site is 100% responsive across all devices

Absolutely nothing. Just keep doing what you’re doing, Google loves you. If this is you, then there’s a chance that you’ll have seen an increase in traffic recently once the mobile-first indexing was fully released. This isn’t definite, as how well you perform is all relative to what your competitors are doing and how high quality their sites are as well.

Your site is responsive, but has some issues

It is completely normal that you would have put more effort into developing your desktop site over the years. But if there are any minor issues when switching to the mobile version of your site, it’s time to fix them. For example, many site owners have images and information tables that are too wide for a mobile screen, but which do not automatically scale down. This means that a user would need to scroll horizontally on their mobile device, which is a big no-no and you will be punished for it. The best recommendation is to look for any areas of your site that aren’t truly responsive and work with your developer to fix them. This shouldn’t be impossible and is certainly worth the effort.

You have a mobile version of your site

Chances are that, if this is you, then the content on your mobile site is different to the desktop version. In most cases, you’ll find that there is less content, largely because you have prioritised the desktop experience. If this is the case, then you need to go through the following checklist, to ensure everything matches up. Meta tags. Ensure that you have meta tags for all pages on all versions of your site. Written content. Have the same content for all versions of your site. Multimedia. Apply alt attributes to all images on your posts. It’s best to make sure you have the same images and videos in the same places. And make sure they are minimised on both versions so as to avoid increasing page load times. Update you robots.txt. Your robots.txt informs Google which parts of your site you want to be indexed and which parts you don’t. Make sure this is the same for both versions of your site. Links. First off, you will want to include the same internal and external links in all content. Secondly, you’ll need to make sure each one links to the correct version of your site. Meaning, all mobile links should link to the m. version of your site. Verify in Search Console. You will need to verify both versions of your site. That way, you can access vital data and messages from Google about each. Suitable servers. If each version is hosted on a different server, then make sure each server is strong and allows pages to load quickly.

Still a little confused?

Here’s the takeaway message from this post … How your site appears on mobile is now of the utmost importance! Regardless of which format you use, you need to ensure that anyone on your site has an awesome experience on all devices. By following all of the steps above and doing exactly that, you have the best chances of ranking highly for your target keywords and generating more traffic than your competitors. For this, we recommend having a fully responsive site as the best course of action. That way, whenever you upload new blog posts or update old ones, you only need to do it once. A truly responsive site will ensure that any new content added will load quickly and seamlessly, regardless of which device it is being viewed on. At Element Media, that’s what we have been doing for our clients for years. And we are always looking for new clients to help. All of our sites are 100% mobile responsive and incredibly modern. We understand SEO inside and out, so can help you in any other aspects of getting your site to perform more highly in google searches. To find out more, and to ensure your site is fit for purpose in this mobile-first world, simply drop us a message today.