What Is a Mobile-First Index?
And how will it differ from Google’s current indexing practices?
In its current setup, Googlebot crawls the desktop version of a page’s content in order to categorize and determine its relevance to the user. This means that if a site has a separate mobile experience, Google’s algorithm isn’t necessarily taking that into consideration for indexing and ranking content to display for a user on a mobile device.
On November 4, 2016, on its Official Webmaster Center Blog, Google announced that they were experimenting with the new mobile-first index as a means of better serving the fact that the majority of searches are performed on mobile devices. Dubbed by some as “Mobilegeddon 2.0,” Google’s mobile-first index is expected to have a significant impact on search as well as strategies such as SEO and content marketing.
While Google will continue to keep a unified search index of desktop and mobile content, it will crawl the mobile experience of a page’s content to determine indexation, categorization and ultimately, rank.
The intent with this change is for Google to further dedicate tailoring the search experience to the platform in which users are searching on most (in this case, mobile).
How should brands & webmasters prepare themselves for the move to mobile-first index?
What, if any, action needs to be taken will depend on the setup of your current web presence.
Q: What if my site is mobile responsive?
A: While mobile responsiveness isn’t a catch-all solution for having a mobile-friendly site, having an identical content experience and markup, regardless of device, should make it so that no further action is needed.
Q: What if my site doesn’t have a mobile version?
A: Google’s new algorithm will be mobile-first, but it will not be mobile-only. In cases where a site isn’t responsive nor does it have a mobile version, Google will simply crawl the desktop site for index and ranking consideration. However, sites without a mobile experience will not receive the ranking benefit that’s given to mobile-friendly sites.
Q: What if I have separate mobile and desktop sites with different content/markup?
A: According to Google’s Webmaster Central Blog, the following steps should be taken by site owners that deliver content and markup differently across mobile and desktop platforms.
If your site delivers content and markup differently to mobile and desktop users, Google suggests the following:
- Verify your mobile site is accessible to Googlebot using the robots.txt testing tool.
- Set up and verify both your desktop and mobile sites in Google Search Console. Data from your mobile site, as well as crawling errors or other important messages are only delivered to that profile, and vice-versa. We’ve seen far too many webmasters miss this important step when setting up monitoring and tracking.*
- Do not hastily build a mobile site just to accommodate this change. A fully developed, properly functioning desktop site will perform more effectively than something put together quickly with the sole intent of addressing mobile-first indexation.
*Bonus Tip: if you host a blog on a subdomain such as news.yoursite.com or blog.yoursite.com, those, too, should have their own profiles in Google Search Console for monitoring.
Should I Be Concerned?
What are the potential pitfalls after mobile-first indexing is rolled out?
As mentioned previously, if you are a site owner that delivers the same content and markup experience to users on both mobile and desktop, then there should not be much of a difference in how your site is crawled and ranked once mobile-first indexing rolls out.
If you deliver different content experiences, however, or have a desktop site with no mobile equivalent, then it is possible for your traffic and/or rankings to be impacted.
Especially in cases where the mobile site has less content or more summarized versions of the full desktop experience, then the site will no longer reap the benefits of the content built for the desktop experience.
A desktop page with 1000 words that was ranking strongly, for example, will get de-prioritized for a mobile equivalent that may only have 100 words. If the desktop page was ranking well due to the length and breadth of its coverage on the subject, then this would be an instance where a significant impact could be felt from mobile-first indexation.