In September of 2020, Google rolled out mobile-first indexing for the whole web, which means that all websites will be re-indexed.
Now, mobile-first indexing could determine how your website and blogs are formatted and rewarded in the SERPs.
If you’ve heard of mobile-first indexing, know that it is important, and content marketers should take the necessary steps to transition client pages to this indexing format.
If you’ve never heard of mobile-first indexing, but you have noticed that your SERP ranking has shifted (or dropped), then you are likely being affected by this shift.
Here’s what you need to know about Google’s switch to mobile-first indexing and why we should care:
What is Mobile-first Indexing?
Not surprisingly, mobile-first indexing is exactly what it sounds like.
According to Google, mobile-first indexing is a way of indexing and ranking all web pages predominantly through the mobile version first. This is a switch from Google’s old way of indexing and ranking, which was based on the desktop version of the page content and evaluated based on a given query.
It’s also important to note that there aren’t two indexes—the index is not being split up into desktop index and mobile index. There is still only one index, and Google continues to provide users with the most appropriate search for every query.
The switch to mobile-first indexing comes with some caveats. This switch was defaulted for all new to the web pages or previously unknown in Google Search starting on July 1, 2019. And then the rest of the pages were switched over in September 2020. Site owners are informed on Google Search Console when their site was switched to mobile-first indexing.
If you have an older website, Google may have been more lenient with your page to start. However, it is likely switched over completely by now. No matter what, monitor your page based on best practices in this guide.
Even if you don’t have a mobile site, your website is still be indexed through mobile-first. We’ll touch on this later.
Best Practices for Optimal Mobile-only Indexing
If you have a mobile site, follow mobile SEO (search engine optimization) best practices in order to continue ranking highly:
1. Make Sure Googlebot Can Access and Render Your Content
Googlebot rendering capabilities are centered around tags and crawl allowances. Be sure to use the same meta robots tags on your mobile and desktop site (especially when it comes to the noindex and nofollow tags); if you don’t, Google may fail to index and crawl your mobile page through mobile-first.
Be sure to fix lazy-loaded content as it won’t load content that requires user interactions. If your primary content is lazy-loaded, then this could be a significant hit on its ranking and quality factors.
Also, enable Google to crawl your resources. You should not block the URL with the disallow directive.
2. Make Sure the Mobile Content is the Same Desktop Content
If you intend to have less content on mobile, then you can expect some traffic loss.
In any case, try to make sure that content on each site is the same, and the primary content is on mobile. Even with similar content, DOM and layout differences may result in Google understanding your content differently.
User clear and meaningful headers on both sites.
3. Check Structured Data
Both sites should have the same structured data. Prioritize the types of structured data that are added to your mobile style. Start with Breadcrumb, Product, and Video0bject.
Also, be mindful of your URLs. Try to use the correct one in both site versions. You can also use a Data Highlighter to provide structure data, which can regularly check for extraction errors and upload these to your Data Highlighter dashboard.
4. Put The Same Metadata on Both Versions of Your Site
5. Check Ad Placement
Ads can be disruptive on a mobile site and harm your page ranking. Follow the Better Ads Standard for improved user experiences.
6. Check Visual Content
There are a lot of visual best practices to be mindful of. In general, always source high-quality but compressed images to ensure that they appear clearly on both mobile and desktop versions. Also, use supported image formats and tags. Avoid image URLs that change every page load, as some images work like this.
Additionally, each image should have alt text, the same descriptive titles, captions, filenames, and text on both sites.
7. Check Videos
Videos follow similar guidelines as images. Don’t use an ever-changing video URL, and find one that is a supported format and with supported tags.
Use the same structured video data on both mobile and website. You should also be mindful of the position of the video for the mobile experience.
8. URL Best Practices
If you use two separate URLs for the mobile (or m-dot) and desktop page, then you’ll have to be mindful of additional issues that could crop up. You should go through and test all your links to make sure that error page statuses don’t pop up. Additionally, your m-dots shouldn’t have fragment URLs or those URLs that start with # as these are largely unindexable and will be missing from the index once enabled for mobile-first.
You’ll have to check that both URLs are in Search Console and the rel=hreflang links on each URLs (which are used for link elements and internationalization). There’s more to know about URL best practices, so refer to Google’s documentation for this.
9. Perform A/B Site Testing
Continue to monitor user interaction on a mobile device and desktop device, navigating to your site through mobile search as well.
SEO Starter Guide
Naturally, if you’re like us, then you at least want a better understanding of what’s going on. Here are some things to get started:
If you haven’t set up on Google Search Console and you don’t really have an idea of how you would go about restructuring your page, start here, and you can learn more about how Google search works here.
Google’s search engine works based on SEO or search engine optimization. This means that your page is optimally set up for the Googlebots to crawl your page and read the data that it transmits.
Important terms for SEO include:
- Index: Google stores all web pages that it knows about in its index. The index entry for each page describes the content and location (URL) of that page. To index is when Google fetches a page, reads it and adds it to the index.
- Crawl: The process of looking for new or updated web pages. Google discovers URLs by following links, by reading sitemaps, and by many other means. Google crawls the web, looking for new pages, then indexes them (when appropriate).
- Crawler: Automated software that crawls (fetches) and indexes web pages.
- Googlebot: Google’s crawler, which crawls the web constantly.
- SEO or Search engine optimization: The process of making your site better for search engines to read.
Before you can consider the mobile-first indexing switch, make sure that your page has been crawled by Google. You can do some troubleshooting by typing site:YourURL.com in the Google search bar. If your site shows up, then your site has at least been indexed.
The most important first-steps are:
- Signing up for Search Console
- Verifying and adding ownership of your site
- Testing to make sure that your site is indexed by Google
- Adding a sitemap
- Following the best practices for advanced SEO
Then you can optimize your site for mobile-first by checking how your website reads on mobile. You can do a Mobile-Friendly Test or use WordPress Guides to customize your software for mobile-friendly pages.
Why is Mobile-first Indexing Important?
While Google announced this shift to mobile-first back in 2016, there are still many businesses that are not aware of this shift nor prepared to make the shift.
This shift to mobile-first is super important for a few reasons:
- We know that more users are accessing web content more often on their mobile devices (approximately 54.8%). However, this proves that this is a significant factor in how sales and page visits are being determined. It is so major that Google has shifted its entire indexing system to reward mobile-friendly web pages first and then reward desktop-friendly web pages next.
- It is not required that you have a mobile version of your web pages, which means that your URL will still show up in a Google search result. However, the switch to mobile-first is prioritizing and rewarding those who do. Google “strongly recommend[s]” getting a mobile version of your page.
- Most hosting sites optimize webpages for a mobile responsive design already. Therefore, hosting platforms like WordPress and eCommerce platforms will be rewarded over custom-built ones, in general (as mobile responsiveness is not yet a default in web development). Luckily this evens the pot a little bit in terms of website spend: those who have an expensive website are being impacted roughly the same amount as those who spend less. However, in general, those with more resources might be able to make more customizable shifts to mobile-first indexing rather than relying on hosting generalizations.
The shift to mobile-first might leave some start-ups in the dust.
In general, it is a big deal to get your website up and running. Unfortunately, the web start-up process is already complex.
A new site owner who isn’t experienced in setting up their webpage SEO might rely on hosting platforms. This puts them at a disadvantage for mobile friendliness, as they will not have prioritized this aspect of their web set-up at all. So a new, busy, or inexperienced website owner may struggle to put up a mobile device-friendly site at all.
However, the switch to mobile-friendliness might force website owners to prioritize mobile-friendliness, which could make for an interesting landscape for desktop webpages. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw weird restrictions in terms of layout and flow. Lots of images and ads might be speckled infrequently, disrupting the web page flow unless site owners are smart enough to customize that in the coding.
Prioritizing UX/UI Over SEO
While a lot of these updates and web talk usually circulate around SEO, there are some key trends that we have spotted that you should pay attention to.
1. It’s Not About SEO
The focus on optimizing web pages for SEO and mobile indexing isn’t really about SEO. While you may use SEO tools to modify your page, what you really need to consider is the relevance that all of this is to an algorithm, but also to human searching.
Ask if it makes sense for human experiences while updating your page for SEO callouts.
2. Reframe SEO in terms of UX/UI
As content marketers, we need to work on reframing the discussion around SEO to prioritizing UX/UI or user experience and user interfacing.
When we prioritize pages set up for mobile usability, then making changes that make your life easier (as a mobile user) are prioritized first. Then SEO is framed around that.
3. Stay Ahead of Google Updates
By redefining our web efforts in humans terms, we will find ourselves scurrying around less and fixing this SEO and that SEO. It doesn’t make sense to keep up on this.
Instead, optimize for human interaction, and the rest will fall into place.