When we last discussed mobile-first indexing, it was so fresh on the scene, it hadn’t even gone live yet! At the time it was viewed as an unprecedented shift that reflected searchers’ newfound preference for searching on mobile devices. The updated index would predominantly use the mobile version of a webpage’s content when evaluating the relevance of that page to a searcher’s query. (Previously, Google had primarily used the desktop version of a webpage for indexing and ranking.) Now, three years later, the domination of mobile search is a simple fact of life. Since Google recently updated its mobile-first indexing best practices documentation, now is a great time to review your website’s content, structured data, and metadata to ensure your users have the best possible experience on your website.
Mobile-First Indexing 101
Before we dig into best practices for mobile-first indexing, let’s review a few quick facts about the system.
Mobile-first indexing is the default for new websites.
As of July 1, 2019, Google enables mobile-first indexing by default for all new websites. Whether your website is new to the entire web or simply new to Google Search, Google will primarily use the mobile version of your website for its index. Because it is the default setting, Google will not notify you of this.
You can’t force mobile-first indexing.
Older or existing websites are still monitored and evaluated based on best practices and then switched over when Google determines they’re ready. When Google switches over any of these old sites, it notifies the site owner in Search Console. If your website has not been moved over yet, Google encourages you to be patient.
You can’t opt out of mobile-first indexing.
Google’s long-term goal is to move all sites to mobile-first indexing, so site owners are not allowed to opt out of the system. And because you don’t get a say in the way your website is indexed by Google, it’s important that you create a mobile-optimized website. Remember that this isn’t just about catering to Google – most people searching Google are doing so on mobile devices, so you’ll also be helping your viewers.
There are not two separate indexes.
Some people mistakenly believe that there are unique mobile-first and desktop-first indexes. In reality, mobile-first indexing simply means that Google primarily uses the mobile version of a website for ranking and indexing. So if your website has separate mobile and desktop URLs, Google will index the mobile version.
Mobile usability does not indicate readiness for mobile-first indexing.
According to Google’s Webmaster Trends Analyst John Mueller, mobile usability (i.e., whether or not your page is functional on a mobile device) is completely separate from mobile-first indexing. So even if your webpage passes Google Search Console’s mobile usability test, Google may not have moved it to mobile-first indexing. The opposite is also true; even if your webpage fails to pass the mobile usability test, Google may use it for mobile-first indexing. Don’t equate the two.
Mobile-First Indexing Best Practices
Now that you better understand the purpose and function of a mobile-first index, let’s discuss some best practices. If you want to ensure that your website is ready for mobile-first indexing and optimized for Googlebot’s ranking and indexing methods, use the techniques listed below.
Check that Google’s spiders can access and render your mobile website.
To ensure that Googlebot has access to everything it needs on the mobile version of your website, you’ll need to do three things:
- Use the same meta robots tags as you do on your desktop site. Without them, Google may not crawl and index your website when mobile-first indexing is enabled.
- Let Googlebot crawl your site’s resources. If the resources on your mobile site have different URLs than your desktop site, check that you’re not blocking them with a disallow directive.
- Don’t use “lazy loading” for primary content. This refers to deferring the loading of non-critical or non-visible content. Note that Google won’t load content that requires user interaction (a swipe, click, typing, etc.) in order to load.
Your website should provide the same experience on mobile and desktop.
Does your mobile site contain less content than your desktop site? Your website’s visitors shouldn’t be penalized for using a phone or tablet versus a laptop. For this reason, Google encourages you to provide the same experience on the mobile and desktop versions of your site. What does that mean exactly? Try to keep the following factors consistent across both versions of your website:
- Website content, including headings
- Meta data
- Structured data
- Alt text for images
- Error page status
Keep in mind that once Google prioritizes the mobile version of your website for indexing, it won’t use the desktop version at all. If you decide to include less content on the mobile version of your website, don’t be surprised if your traffic drops.
Follow Google’s recommendations.
Conveniently, Google has published a list of mobile-first indexing best practices. We’ve summarized these in the list below, but consider visiting Google’s guide for more thorough explanations.
- Check that Google can see your lazy-loaded content.
- Don’t let any ads create a bad experience for users.
- Use high-quality images on your mobile site.
- Only use images and videos in supported formats.
- Don’t use image and video URLs that change every time the page loads.
- Ensure that videos are easy to find and view on your mobile site.
- Avoid using fragment URLs on your mobile site.
- Verify your mobile and desktop sites in Search Console.
- Check hreflang links on separate URLs.
- Ensure that your mobile site can handle an increased crawl rate.
- If you use separate mobile URLs, make sure to use them consistently within your structured data.
Consider switching to a responsive website.
A responsive website is able to adjust its elements to adapt to the user’s screen size. The viewer always sees an optimized version of the website, whether they’re viewing it on a phone, a tablet, or a desktop. Plus, due to responsive web design’s flexibility, webmasters don’t need to create multiple versions of their website to suit different devices. If you use responsive web design, mobile-first indexing shouldn’t have a significant impact on your site’s SERP performance. According to Google, responsive websites that correctly use dynamic serving don’t need to make any changes. Responsive web design is a convenient, incredibly versatile option that eliminates the need to have both a mobile version and a desktop version of your site.
Times have changed. Users are more likely than ever to access the internet on a mobile device as opposed to a desktop computer, and Google’s decision to switch to mobile-first indexing is simply a response to this. If your website isn’t optimized for both mobile and desktop users, now is the time to act. Better yet, switch to a responsive web design so that you never have to worry about designing another version of your website to suit differently sized devices.
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