Google announced that they are switching to mobile-first indexing for all websites in March 2021. This means that Google will prioritise the mobile version of a site for indexing, as opposed to the desktop version. The reason for this change is that a majority of internet users (almost 60% according to Hitwise) now use their mobile devices for search.
What does mobile-first indexing mean for your website, and what steps can you take to prepare? Let’s take a closer look.
What is mobile-first indexing?
In mobile-first indexing, search engines prioritise the mobile version of a website for indexing, rather than the desktop version (which is what they used to index first). Where there is no mobile version of a site, Google defaults to the desktop version. So, if you only have a desktop site, don’t panic – Google will still crawl your website.
Google points out that “there isn’t a separate mobile-first index; Google Search continues to use only one index…[and] continues to show the URL that is the most appropriate to users (whether it’s a desktop or mobile URL) in Search results.”
Will the update affect your site?
If your site uses responsive design, you should be all set. Responsive design means that the website can adapt to mobile devices. If you’re not sure whether your website is responsive or not, it’s worth checking this with your web designer.
If there are two versions of your website (one for mobile and one for desktop), then the update may affect you more.
Is your site already indexed as mobile-first?
Google has been working on mobile-first indexing for some years now, with many sites already indexed as mobile-first. Back in 2018, Google announced they “now use mobile-first indexing for over half of the pages shown in search results globally.” This is likely to be significantly higher now. So how do you know if your site is already indexed this way?
All websites created from 1 July 2019 onwards are automatically mobile-first. So, if you published your site after that date, there is nothing to do. However, as mobile devices now play a significant role in search traffic, it is worth checking your site for mobile-friendliness (more on this below).
If you created your website before 1 July 2019, your site may or may not have moved over to mobile-first indexing already. The good news is that you can find out via Google Search Console using the URL inspection tool.
Input the URL for your homepage and hit enter. On the report that comes up, scroll down to “Coverage” and open up to see more information. If it says “Googlebot smartphone” by “Crawled as”, then your site is already indexed as mobile-first.
Some steps to help you prepare
Below are some pointers to help you check if your site is ready for mobile-first indexing:
Is all your content present and correct?
Because Google will only look at what’s on the mobile version of your site, make sure that it contains all of your primary content, including text, images, videos and files.
If the mobile version has less content than the desktop version, consider updating it to make sure that you can continue to rank for your important content.
Additionally, good quality content is central to ranking well, so make sure the content quality is good on both of your sites.
Do headings and sub-headings reflect what’s in the content? And are they the same on both versions of your site? Meaningful titles and headings help both site visitors and search engine bots to understand what your page is about.
Make sure images are not too small or low res. If you use thumbnails for the mobile version, consider changing these.
Does your alt text contain meaningful descriptions, and is it the same on both versions of your site?
Alt text is the text that appears in place of an image should it fail to load. It describes images to visually impaired users with screen readers and helps search engines to understand the context of images.
Are they the same on both sites? If they are different, the URLs on the mobile site will be new to Google, which could result in a drop in traffic during the transition. Google advise that to “minimize a temporary traffic loss from search, review whether you can retain the image URLs used by desktop.”
To find out more about best practices for images and video, have a look at Google’s helpful guidelines for images and video over on their support pages.
Metadata tells search engines about your site. The title of your page and Meta description is what often appears in the snippet of your site in search results. These descriptions should be the same on both versions of the site.
Is your site mobile user friendly?
While you do not have to have a mobile-friendly site for mobile-first indexing (these are different things), with more people using their phones to access the internet, it is good practice to make sure that your site is mobile friendly.
Compared to reading from a desktop computer, reading on a mobile device is more difficult as the screen is smaller; therefore, your copy needs to be easy to read on a small screen. Try writing shorter sentences and paragraphs. Providing enough whitespaces will also offer a more comfortable reading experience on a compact screen.
Another factor to consider is the placement of ads on your mobile site. On a small screen, an ad placed at the top of the screen can be annoying to users and will therefore not provide a good user experience. To find out more about user experience, read our article on Google’s page experience update. You can also use Google’s handy tool to test the mobile-friendliness of your site.
As with anything SEO related, there is always more to learn, especially around the more technical aspects. Therefore we highly recommend reading up on Google’s own documentation on mobile-first indexing.