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Google Search Switching to Mobile-First Index

If you’re like most people, you keep your smartphone nearby at all times and use it for numerous tasks throughout the course of each day. It wakes you up, it helps you communicate with friends and family, it guides you to new places, it updates you on current events, and it always satisfies your curiosity. Since phones and other mobile devices dominate so many aspects of our lives, it may not surprise you to learn that Google Search will soon switch to a mobile-first index. Gary Illyes, a Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google, announced this titanic change last month at Pubcon, startling SEOs everywhere. Like it or not, mobile devices have finally trumped desktop computers.

Google Search Switching to Mobile-First Index

The Advent of the Mobile-First Index

Once this change goes into effect, Google Search will index the mobile versions of webpages (not the desktop versions) within its primary index. This shift is unprecedented. Since Google’s birth at Stanford University in 1996, the search engine has indexed the desktop versions of webpages. And this didn’t change with the advent of mobile devices like cell phones and tablets; even then, Google indexed desktop pages first within its primary index. By indexing mobile pages first, Google will give them precedence. Although the search engine will continue to use one index (it will not divide into two, as some SEOs surmised), that index will primarily use mobile versions of webpages.

Why is Google switching to a mobile-first index?

It simply makes sense – mobile search dominates Google already. Earlier last year, the company finally confirmed that more people searched Google using a mobile device than a desktop computer in 10 different countries, including the United States. Since then, the percentage of Google searches conducted on a mobile device has only increased.

In addition, as Google noted today on its Webmaster Central Blog, mobile pages these days typically contain less content than their desktop counterparts. Thus, Googlebots and mobile users are not viewing the same pages, which can lead to misconceptions and shoddy mobile search results. Although Google wants to stick with a single index, its algorithm will switch to using mobile versions of webpages to rank them. This should improve the mobile search experience.

Is the mobile-first index live?

No, not yet. Google announced the change early, giving webmasters, site owners, and SEOs some time to prepare. Although Illyes did not provide an exact date for the switch-over, he did say that Google would announce the date and additional information within a blog post. So keep an eye on the Google Webmaster Central Blog. As of November 4, the blog post summarizing the shift states that Google “will continue to carefully experiment over the coming months on a small scale and we’ll ramp up this change when we’re confident that we have a great user experience.”

What should I do next?

You may already know that Google boosted its mobile-friendly algorithm earlier this year. Now that the king of search engines is also implementing a mobile-first index, you must invest in an excellent mobile-friendly version of your website – no ifs, ands, or buts about it.

If needed, create a responsive or mobile-friendly version of your website.

You might be tempted to create a slapdash, light version of your website and call it a day, but that certainly won’t do you any favors. Carefully consider the layout and content of your mobile pages. Try not to eliminate content as you convert a page from desktop to mobile, as this could cause a drop in your search traffic. If you’re worried about clunky, long-form content, try creating anchor links to direct users around the page. Avoid JavaScript, and be sure to evaluate your mobile site’s loading speed.

In addition, don’t rush to build a mobile site ASAP. Only launch your mobile site when it is complete, functioning, and ready. In the meantime, Google can still index your desktop site.

Review the mobile version of your website.

If you currently employ two different versions of your website (one for desktop, one for mobile) think long and hard about how you should react to this change. Is your mobile page up to snuff? Now that the index will prioritize mobile pages (making the mobile index fresher and more important), the mobile version of your site had better be in great shape. Don’t just review the page to ensure it will work on a mobile device; evaluate the content to ensure the page doesn’t lose any important information in the switch from desktop to mobile. For example, both the mobile and desktop versions of your site should have structured data (compare them using the Structured Data Testing Tool).

If you aren’t sure how your site appears on various devices, check out Google Search Console. Using the Fetch as Google tool, you can see exactly what Google sees when it crawls your site. Be sure to change the Googlebot type to see how a mobile crawler views your site. In addition, use the robots.txt tool to ensure that Googlebot can access your mobile site, and then use Search Console to verify that your site belongs to you.

Already use a responsive website design? Sit back and relax.

If you currently use a responsive design, on the other hand, which can adjust its elements to suit the user’s screen size, you don’t need to worry.  Since the mobile and desktop versions of the site offer equivalent content, the page should index well. However, you may still want to check the speed at which your mobile version loads on devices, the amount of JavaScript (keep it to a minimum), and the page’s layout (move important features to the top).

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Although exciting and sure to shake up the SEO landscape, this switch in priority from desktop to mobile certainly isn’t unexpected. Many people have anticipated such a change for years due to the dominance of mobile searching. Currently, as we mentioned above, Google Search’s mobile-first index remains in the testing and experimentation phase. Hovering on the horizon, it will soon overtake Google and fundamentally change the way in which the search engine’s spiders scrutinize websites.

Hoping to get a leg up with Google and other search engines? Check out 417 Marketing, an online marketing company based in Springfield, Missouri, that specializes in SEO and web design. Click here to contact us and learn more about what we can do for your company.

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