Blog: SEO
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What You Need To Know About Mobile-First Indexing

Avatar for John Locke

John Locke is a SEO consultant from Sacramento, CA. He helps manufacturing businesses rank higher through his web agency, Lockedown Design & SEO.

If you have your website registered in Google Search Console, you may have recently seen emails about mobile-first indexing.

Google started rolling out mobile-first indexing in December of 2017, and now in July of 2018, is pushing this out to all websites.

Before we go further into what mobile-first indexing is, and how it will affect your rankings, let’s look at what indexing is, and how Google gathers web pages for their search results.

How Google Collects Information About Web Pages

There are several steps to getting the search results you see in Google. The basic steps are:

  • Crawling the Web
  • Indexing web pages
  • Serving search results (Ranking against a search query)

Crawling for Web Pages

Google using a crawling bot named Googlebot to go throughout the Web, from link to link, to discover new web pages. Googlebot also visits any XML sitemaps that you have submitted to Google Search Console for new pages. You can also submit new URLs to Google using the Submit URL link in Search Console.

How often Google crawls your website to see if your pages have changed depends on factors like: how many visitors your site gets each month, how often you publish new pages, and the crawl budget allocated for your site (how much time Google sets aside to crawl your site).

Indexing Web Pages

Once Googlebot crawls a page, Google tries to understand the meaning of the page. This is the indexing process. Google will look at the content of the pages, as well as any images or videos embedded in the page. From there, the page goes into the Google Index, a collection of all the pages and documents Google has crawled and analyzed. This database is quite large, and is stored in redundant data centers.

Google still has a easier time understanding text content versus images or video content, though it is getting better at parsing this information.

Up to now, pages that have gone into the Google Index have been the desktop versions of those web pages.

Serving Up Search Results

When you type a search query into Google, it tries to understand what you are looking for, and serve up the best results that answer or match your query.

What is important when serving up search results for a given search query? The quality of information, and the intent of the searcher (Examples: Are they searching for information? A nearby service? Do they want to buy something?) User experience factors also play a role in search results. These can include how fast does a website load? Is a given website mobile-friendly? Is the information on a site up-to-date and reliable?

What Mobile-First Indexing Means

Mobile-first indexing is a new way that Google is crawling and putting pages in their Index.

Up until now, Googlebot has indexed the desktop version of your website pages — these have been what appear in search results.

In December 2017, Googlebot Smartphone (a new crawler which scans pages as if it were a mobile phone) has been indexing pages in limited amounts. Now, in July 2018, Google is rolling out mobile-first indexing for everyone.

Why is Google Doing This?

Mobile use has accelerated over the last ten years, and more people access the internet through their phone than on desktop. Google had to address that. This is the reason for the mobile first index.

How Your Site Renders on Mobile Is How Google Sees Your Site

With mobile-first indexing, however your web pages render on mobile is how they will be indexed in search results. If you have a site that is not mobile-friendly, Google will then go to the desktop version and index that.

Google first started pushing website owners this direction in April of 2015, in what was known at the time as Mobilegeddon. This was when they announced they would be favoring mobile-friendly pages over non-mobile-friendly pages.

Fast forward to now, and it is imperative that your site is mobile-friendly if you want it to rank above your competition. You tell if your site is mobile-friendly by running it through Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test page.

In addition, your site should load quickly on both mobile and desktop. Mobile usage has increased worldwide to surpass desktop browsing. Not everyone has a stellar data plan for their smartphone, so site speed is a major part of overall user experience. Google wants to serve up the best search results, so slow-loading websites that are not mobile-friendly are at a serious disadvantage when it comes to SEO.

Google says on this page about mobile-first indexing:

To improve your serving and ranking:
Make your page fast to load, and mobile-friendly.
Put useful content on your page and keep it up to date.
Follow the Google Webmaster Guidelines, which help ensure a good user experience.

Google does not usually tell you exactly what to do to rank higher in search. When they say “make your page fast to load, and mobile-friendly”, that is something you should pay attention to!

Google has been telling webmasters for four years to make websites mobile-friendly. In 2018, they figure if you do not care enough about your customers to make your site mobile-friendly, there is little reason for them to care about your website either.

What Should You Do If Your Site Is Already Mobile-Friendly?

If your site is already mobile-friendly, there are still things you can do to maximize your visibility in search results.

Check to make sure that the mobile version of your web pages contain the same information as your desktop pages. Use caution if you are reducing the amount of main content information for mobile users. Google is looking at the mobile version of your site instead of the desktop version. This includes the structured data (Schema or Microformats) that is in the code base of each page. In most cases, you should be fine (more on that later).

Make sure your site loads quickly! Our advice is get good hosting where site speed and Time To First Byte are a priority. If you have a WordPress website, Kinsta or WP Engine are good choices. Get off the $5 a month hosting, as cheap shared hosting is almost always slow and can hold your SEO back.

Are There Different Indexes for Mobile and Desktop?

This is a widely-repeated myth. There are not two indexes of search results, one if you search on desktop, and one if you search on mobile. From now forward, there is only one Google Index, and it contains the mobile versions of web pages, if they exist.

If your site is desktop only, Google will still index those pages, but you will be disadvantaged in search rankings. If your competitors have similar pages that are mobile-friendly, it is likely those pages will rank above yours.

What Sites Will Be Most Affected by Mobile-First Indexing?

If you have a website that uses one code base for desktop and mobile, and if it rearranges the content on mobile, you should be fine. This is commonly called responsive design.

Let’s say you have a site that is desktop only, and is not mobile-friendly. Your website will definitely be affected by this update.

M-Dot sites, that exist strictly for mobile devices, and are on a subdomain (Example: m.yoursite.com) will also be affected by this update. These m-Dot pages will be what shows up in search results, not the desktop version of your website.

If you have used a app or plugin to create special pages for the mobile version of your site, those pages will now be indexed, not the desktop pages. WordPress sites that use WPtouch to create mobile pages will also be affected.

Additionally, if your site serves dynamic content, depending on whether a site visitor is on desktop or mobile, be aware your mobile pages will be indexed.

What About Google AMP?

Google AMP pages are popular for media sites, news sites, or other websites that publish content often. Google has said they will be indexing the mobile, non-AMP versions of your web pages for the regular list of links in search results. (AMP pages may still appear in new carousels at the top of Page One of search results.)

Prioritize These Things, In This Order

1) Make sure you have the best content for the search phrases you are targeting with a specific page. The best answers will have the best chance of moving up the search rankings.

2) Have a mobile-friendly site.

3) Make sure your website loads quickly, with emphasis on Time To First Byte.

Final Thoughts

Mobile-first indexing should not hurt your SEO if you’ve been trying to deliver a great user experience for your customers.

If you’re not sure about how your SEO stacks up, and you’d like a second opinion, you can reach out to us about an in-depth SEO audit.

Avatar for John Locke

John Locke is a SEO consultant from Sacramento, CA. He helps manufacturing businesses rank higher through his web agency, Lockedown Design & SEO.

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