Mobile-first indexing explained

Today we’ll elaborate on Google’s mobile-first indexing, and what that means for your website. Beginning in 2015, Google announced that they were going to give more favor toward sites that were mobile-friendly. At the time this was called Mobilegeddon. Now at the end of 2017, Google started rolling out something called mobile-first indexing. Now it’s the beginning of July 2018, and both myself and everybody I know is seeing mobile-first indexing rolling out to all the websites that they manage.

So that means that Google is definitely pulling the trigger on this. Before we get into what mobile-first indexing is, let’s look at what indexing is, and how it relates to search results. When you type something into Google, and you get a series of search results back, those results are coming from the index of all the web pages that Google has crawled, rendered, and brought back to Google, and put them in their index.

An iPhone X on lock

The Googlebot

Google uses a spidering bot called Googlebot to go out and crawl links all throughout the web, and try and index all the pages that exist on the web. Up until now in 2018, what you’ve seen in the Google index, meaning the search results pages, has been the desktop versions of sites.It has been a desktop-first index.

Meaning, if you have two versions of your site, say a desktop version and a mobile version, that desktop version has been what’s appeared in search results up to now. So with mobile-first indexing, Google now has a different user agent and that’s called Googlebot Smartphone. So basically, it’s crawling link to link, indexing web pages as if it was a mobile phone. Here’s how the indexing is changing in 2018.

Like I said in the past, Google would try and crawl the desktop version of your site, and then index it. That’s changing now. What’s happening now is, they’re crawling the mobile version of your site, and indexing that [mobile version].

If your site does not have a mobile version of that page, then it will index the desktop version. Here’s a myth that I would like to clear up, that I’ve seen some confusion about.

There are not two indexes for Google. There is only one index of search results. Meaning, if you’re searching on a desktop, you’re not going to see an index of just desktop results. If you or your customers are searching on mobile, or on desktop, or tablet, or anything else, you’re going to see the same index of results. So mobile-first indexing: the things that you need to be aware of.

Here’s what it doesn’t affect: if your site is already mobile-friendly, if you use one code base for both your desktop and your mobile site, if you’re on your phone, or you’re on a tablet, and it just kind of rearranges the content — you’re fine.

No changes. If you have something that’s what they call either responsive design or adaptive design, that’s the same thing. You’re fine. No changes.

Now if you have an MDOT site, if you have a separate web address for the mobile pages on your site if your site is configured in a way where it dynamically gives different page content to mobile users versus desktop users, then you definitely need to pay attention, because this update does affect you.

WordPress site & AMP pages

Similarly, if you have a WordPress site and you’ve used a plug-in like WP Touch to serve up different versions of your pages on mobile versus desktop, then this update will also affect you because those mobile pages are what Google is going to index, and not the desktop version of your site. Also, if you have a site that uses AMP pages, like Google AMP to have different pages, what Google is going to index is the mobile, non-AMP versions of those pages. Google is not going to index the AMP pages.

Those might appear at the top of the search results, in the carousel, but what’s going to get indexed in the regular ten blue links is going to be the mobile, non-AMP version of your site.

The reason why this is happening. So a lot of things have changed in the last 10 years. It’s not that desktop use has decreased, it’s that mobile use has increased to a point where basically everybody has portable access to the Internet in their pocket, in their hand, at all times. So Google has to respond to that [situation]. So here’s what you need to do if your site is not mobile-friendly at this point.

You need to make that a priority very quickly, and here’s why. At this point, the world is basically driven by smartphones.

Google thinks you don’t care

If you are not investing in having a mobile-friendly version of your site, Google is just going to figure that you don’t care about your customers as much as all the other businesses on Earth that have mobile-friendly sites. As I said, they’ve been giving people a heads up on this for at least three and a half years. That’s more than ample time to get a mobile-friendly site up in place.

So basically, they figure if you don’t care about it, they shouldn’t either. The other thing that’s of prime importance, since we’re talking about mobile-first, is you need to prioritize having a site that loads quickly. Google usually does not come out and tell people exactly what goes into their ranking algorithm.

It’s very rare that they tip their hand and just outright say some of the things that go into the ranking algorithm. But on the page on the Google site where they’re talking about mobile-first indexing, they very clearly state that sites that do not load quickly may be down ranked.

They may be devalued versus similar sites that load quickly.

Are you competitive?

So if you’re in a competitive vertical of any kind, if you’re competing for local SEO, if you’re on a national scale trying to sell industrial products or services to a bunch of different people, you need to have a fast-loading site. That’s just the bottom line because they’ve said it. They don’t normally just come out and say stuff like this, but they’re basically saying, if your site doesn’t load fast, and every other site in your competitive market loads quicker than yours, then you are probably going to be down ranked. There’s a lot of ways that you can do this.

You can optimize your site for speed in a lot of different ways. One of the biggest ways is to get on good hosting. There’s a lot of optimizations that you can do from that point. But get on a good web host that prioritizes speed. Again, if you’re on a WordPress site, you can get with a host like Kinsta or WP Engine that prioritizes speed.

And the third thing that you should really do is make sure that the information on your mobile site and your desktop site is the same.

Google is going to be looking at the mobile version of your web pages. The pages on your site should match the information that’s on the desktop version. iIf you have less information on the mobile versions of those pages, then that’s something to look at and reevaluate. There’s another excerpt that I found very interesting from the page on Google’s site about mobile-first indexing.

So they said it’s not automatically a thing where you’re going to get down ranked, depending on these things.

Search queries

If your site has the most relevant content for that search query, meaning, the things that people type in — if your page answers [the search query] the best out of everybody else, then they might still choose to show that at the top of search rankings. Even if it’s slow loading, even if it’s not mobile-friendly. But I would not put too much faith in that. Because in any competitive category, there’s going to be a lot of content.

The chances are very high in any competitive industry or market that somebody else is going to have a page that answers those questions as well as your page or better. If anybody wants to rank their site, these are the things that I would prioritize in this order.

Making sure that you have the most relevant content for the search query that you’re trying to rank for. Meaning, if somebody types in a search phrase, make sure that your content for that page — your target page — is the best-in-class of anybody else in your category. Then second priority: make sure that [your website] is mobile-friendly.

Because again, Google is going to do a mobile-first index. Meaning, they’re indexing the mobile version of those pages first, and they are going to give priority to mobile pages over desktop. Third and equally important: make sure that the site loads quickly.

The reason for this is, a lot of people are on mobile. They’re on their phone; they’re not at their desk in their office. So a lot of people are just out in the street, out and about. Everybody’s got a phone. Not everybody’s data speed is the best. So that’s why speed is a priority. Make sure that you’re on a host that prioritizes [site] speed.

Don’t get that $5 a month hosting. Spend a little bit more and get on a web host that prioritizes speed, and that has good Time To First Byte. And the last thing I would say is, to make sure that you have structured data on these pages. This is part of a separate thing, where Google is building out the Knowledge Graph or the Entity Graph.

Data structures are key

Make sure that your structured data — your Schema or your Microformats data — matches on mobile and desktop. If you have a mobile-friendly site that basically is a responsive design, and you use one code base for both the desktop and the mobile version, and it just rearranges the content to be mobile-friendly, then you’re in good shape, because you’re going to have the same structured data markup. If you don’t know what structured data is, it’s hidden markup that basically tells you a little bit more about your entity. All kinds of things can be entities, whether it’s a person, a company, a thing, an idea, a country. Google is moving toward this [system]. This is a whole other discussion about the Entity Graph.

But just making sure that all the data from your desktop site and your mobile site match, including the structured data. In most cases, it takes care of itself. The only time that you should be worried is if you have either different web addresses for the mobile versions of your pages, or if you’re using some sort of plugin or app to serve up different versions of those pages.

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