Everything You’d Want to Know About Google’s Mobile-First Indexing

Posted at 11/09/2020

A decade ago, website owners mostly concerned themselves with how their domains displayed on desktop PCs. Much has changed since then and this conventional approach no longer applies in this day and age. As a matter of fact, the script has been completely turned as webmasters find themselves scrambling to cater to an entirely new demographic: mobile users.

With smartphones, tablets, and laptops accounting for nearly half of the Web’s traffic these days, we can’t emphasise enough the fact that site owners have to optimise their portals with the goal of making them mobile-friendly. Not only will this get you a leg up on the competition, but it’ll also make sure your site won’t be left behind as Google shifts to mobile-first indexing.

What Is Mobile-First Indexing?

Ever since Google first announced its experiment with mobile-first indexing back in 2016, it has been looking at mobile websites first when indexing and ranking content on SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages). The development has been fast-tracked by the fact that most people using the search engine these days do so on their handheld devices.

With this seismic shift in the Internet search trend, the search giant has tirelessly encouraged website owners to put more resources into making their virtual platforms more mobile-friendly. This call is in line with the fact that Google has also ramped up its efforts to offer users a seamless Web browsing experience. Heed the call and you can be sure that your site can rank better than the competition in search results.

On that note, here is everything we know about Google’s Mobile-First Indexing (that you probably should acquaint yourself):

Entry Is Gradual and Mandatory

It may have been years since Google announced rolling out mobile-first indexing but not all websites have been enabled for it. In fact, John Mueller, Senior Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google, has asked website owners to be patient because it may be some time before every site could be moved over.

In the same breath, Martin Splitt, search developer advocate at Google, said that there is no way to know exactly when a domain will be moved to the new indexing protocol. He emphasised that site owners can’t possibly do anything to make the migration happen faster, too. 

If you’re not a big fan of the waiting game, know that Google has reminded webmasters that opting out of mobile-first indexing isn’t possible. That means you’ll have to keep working toward making your site mobile-friendly as Googlebot constantly assesses how ready a website is or this new kind of indexing. Web crawlers will gauge your site’s readiness based on its content (e.g. videos, links, images, text, etc.) as well as its structured data and metadata.

 It Isn’t a Separate Index for Mobile

This one may be widely known in the search community at this point, but outsiders will likely find it relatively confusing as a concept. To clarify, Google has stated that there isn’t a separate mobile-first index. Instead, the search engine giant primarily uses the mobile version of a website for purposes of ranking and indexing.

Say your website has separate URLs for its mobile and desktop sites, by default Google will show the desktop URL to desktop users and mobile URL to mobile users. However, the one that will be indexed is the mobile version.

The Experience on Mobile and Desktop Should be Similar

Early this year, Google shared the best practices for mobile indexing and there has been a big emphasis on providing an identical experience for both desktop and mobile users. If you’re not too sure how that’s done, here’s a quick list you can refer to: 

  • Ensure the mobile website contains the same content as its desktop counterpart.
  • Make sure Googlebot can access and render both mobile and desktop page content and resources.
  • Use the same headings on the desktop and mobile site.
  • Use the same meta robots tags on the desktop and mobile site.
  • Ensure the same structured data for both the desktop and mobile sites.

If webmasters serve less content on their mobile site (in comparison to their desktop counterpart), their website will likely suffer a major drop in traffic. This can especially hurt your online platform, especially when your desktop site has been ranking well. The best way forward, according to the search giant, is to offer similar content on both versions of the domain.

This Indexing Applies to New Sites by Default

Has your website been launched after July 1, 2019? In that case, mobile-first indexing is enabled for it by default. In an announcement, Google explains that this protocol applies to any websites previously unknown to Google Search on the said date.

Mobile-first indexing applies to new sites by default because most new sites are ready for this kind of indexing. This assessment comes from Google’s findings after years of experimenting on using a smartphone Googlebot to crawl the Web.

Google Is Clear About the Best Practices

In the goal to ensure the best experience for mobile users, Google has been transparent on the best practices to successfully prepare for mobile-first indexing. But a closer look reveals that the guidelines are nothing new. In fact, they’re pieces of advice that Google has shared elsewhere through the years.

Here are a few recommendations on their list of best practices:

  • Make sure Google can crawl your site’s resources.
  • Make sure ads don’t disrupt the mobile user experience.
  • See if Google can see lazy-loaded content.
  • Use supported formats for videos and images.
  • Use the same metadata on mobile and desktop websites.
  • Supply high-quality images on your site.
  • See if videos are easy to find and view on the mobile’s site.
  • Use the same alt text on both the desktop and mobile website.
  • Avoid using video and image URLs that change every time pages load on the mobile site.

If that’s a lot to take in, know that Google has a troubleshooting section on its best practices document. It details common errors that either leads to a drop in rankings or make your site be less ready for mobile-first indexing.

A Responsive Website Design Isn’t Mandatory for Eligibility

As long as your website can be crawled by Google and the content can be displayed on a mobile device, Google will already consider your portal for mobile-first indexing. John Mueller explains that even if your website doesn’t pass the mobile usability test, it can still be considered for mobile-first indexing as both are separate categories.

This means that you shouldn’t solely rely on Google’s mobile usability test or the same report in Search Console as a means to gauge how prepared your domain is for mobile-first indexing.

Despite this, you shouldn’t shy away from leaning toward a responsive website design as it has proven to boost the search visibility of your domain. If this doesn’t convince you to head down this road, keep in mind that Google has confirmed over the years that the design principle is simply one of the best ways to instantly optimise your search rankings. 

Future-Proofing Your Website

The thought of gearing up for Google’s mobile-first indexing may be intimidating. However, once you understand the reason behind the shift and know what you can do to optimise your site for the mobile demographic, you’ll be off to a great start!

If you need a hand with optimising your website and ensuring it’s ready for mobile-first indexing ahead of your competitors, you’re in luck! TopRankings will discuss the right approach to embracing this search paradigm shift today!


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