Google’s mobile-first index: What do you need to know?

4-MINUTE READ - 7th August 2018

Emily Park
Emily ParkSenior Content Executive

Way back in November 2016, Google announced that it would respond to the rise in people using their phones to search by experimenting with a mobile-first index. Then, after a year and a half of testing, they began to roll it out in March of this year.

There has been some confusion among webmasters about what the mobile-first index is, how it works, and what it means for SEO. So, to clear things up and help to answer any questions you might have , we’ve put together this guide that will teach you everything you need to know.

What is Google’s mobile-first index?

Before the mobile-first index was created, Google would only look at and evaluate the content on the desktop version of websites and rank them accordingly. But, because the content on a desktop site often differs from that on the mobile version, this began to cause problems for the ever-increasing number of people who search on their phones. The mobile-first index was ultimately created to ensure mobile users are presented with the most helpful results possible.

Mobile-first indexing means that Google now uses the mobile version of your website as the starting point for what is included in its index. It’s called ‘mobile-first’ because, if you don’t have a mobile-friendly version of your website, the desktop site can still be included in the index. However, because the user experience is unlikely to be up to scratch for people searching on their mobiles, this could have a negative impact on your rankings. This means, if you haven’t already, creating a mobile-friendly site could give your rankings a boost — even on desktop.

How will the mobile-first index affect my rankings?

If your website has a responsive design, your rankings shouldn’t be affected by mobile-first indexing. Your mobile and desktop pages should adapt to accommodate the user, whether they’re searching from a laptop or a mobile phone. This is the design approach Google recommends for mobile optimisation so, if your website doesn’t yet have a responsive design, adopting one could help to boost your search performance.

The websites most affected by mobile-first indexing will be those that have separate mobile and desktop versions. In this situation, the mobile version will be crawled first. This means your rankings could be affected if:

  • the mobile and desktop versions of a page have different content,
  • your mobile pages lack structured data,
  • your mobile pages lack meta data,
  • the mobile version of a page isn’t properly verified in Search Console,
  • the link profiles of your mobile pages are weaker than those of your desktop versions, or
  • your mobile pages aren’t well-optimised.

You can remedy a lot of these problems by optimising your mobile site and pages, much like you do with the desktop versions. But, there are some more technical fixes, such as making sure your mobile pages are verified in Search Console. Google Developers has a guide to the best practices for mobile-first indexing, which is well worth reading, so you can ensure you aren’t unknowingly doing anything that could be having a detrimental effect on your search rankings.

What do you need to do?

If you’re worried that the mobile-first index has had a negative impact on your rankings, or your site still hasn’t been migrated but you want to be prepared for when it is, there are some steps you can take.

Use Google’s mobile-friendly testing tool

The first thing you need to do is test whether Google thinks your website is mobile-friendly, and you can do this using their special testing tool. This will let you know how easily visitors can use your site on a smartphone. It’s very simple to use: simply enter the URL of the web page you want to test, and you will be presented with results that include a screenshot of what your site looks like to Google, and a list of any mobile usability problems that are found. You can read more about this in Google’s guide to its mobile-friendly testing tool.

Switch to a responsive web design if you haven’t already

Most websites built today have a responsive design as standard but, if your website is on the older side, it might need an update. Having a site with a responsive design can save you a lot of time and effort, because you won’t have to manage the desktop and mobile versions of your site separately. Plus, it will help to ensure that all of the content on your sites is up to date, whether a user is browsing on their laptop or mobile, as everything will be synchronised.

Always make UX your number one priority

Google consistently tells us that offering the best possible user experience should be at the top of our list of priorities. And, it’s even more important to get this right when you’re trying to make sure that your website is mobile-friendly.

In order to ensure people enjoy using your mobile site, you need to consider how searchers might behave differently than they do on desktop. For example, mobile browsers are likely to be less attentive, more easily distracted, and on the go. And, their screens will be much smaller. So, you need to think carefully about how you’re going to reflect this in the design of the mobile version of your site. For example, you need to make sure that there isn’t an overwhelming amount of copy, and that everything is easy to find.

Make sure your content is concise to avoid information overload

You should always try to be concise when writing content for your website, but this is of the utmost importance when it comes to mobile. As we’ve mentioned above, people browsing the internet on their phones tend to be easily distracted, and they want to be able to find the information they’re looking for as quickly as possible. So, make a special effort to make all of your points in as few words as possible, and highlight the information that people are most likely to be searching for, perhaps with bolding or a bullet-pointed list.

Google’s mobile-first index is still rolling out, but it’s important you adapt your website accordingly, so your rankings don’t take too much of a hit. Follow the advice we’ve provided in this article, and your search performance should stay steady (and might even improve