Originally posted December 2017.
Change is coming and it could impact your bottom line. In 2018, Google will be making a switch to something called mobile-first indexing.
Does this sound like gibberish? Well, keep reading, because this changing trend in search will have a very real effect on your website’s traffic and rankings. In short, mobile-first indexing will effect your digital marketing and your bottom line.
To keep up, you need to start paying attention to your website’s mobile capabilities. Sites that are mobile optimized (not simply mobile-friendly) will receive priority ranking in Google’s search results. Sites that aren’t? Well, they’ll see a decline in their SERP ranking—possibly a sharp, sudden decline.
But don’t panic. There are deliberate steps you can take to prepare for the Google switch.
How Is Mobile-First Indexing Different From What Google Does Now?
Wondering what’s with Google changing it up? Well, first of all, Google’s rules and parameters for search results (aka their algorithms) are ever-changing and adapting. Google’s goal is to constantly offer users faster, more accurate results with every search. Basically, Google is ALWAYS changing. This mobile-first switch is simply more likely to hit your radar because it will have a big effect on your business.
Today, more Google searches are performed on a mobile device like a smartphone or a tablet, than on a desktop or laptop computer. Think about it—how often do you use your mobile phone to google the answer to a question, find a location or make a purchase? Our phones are constantly with us and when it comes to search, they’re our go-to device.
Mobile-first indexing means Google will prioritize information (like your website’s content) on the mobile version of your site to create it’s search engine rankings. Currently Google uses the desktop version of sites to determine the best result.
To say this another way, in many cases, there are two versions of a website—one created to view on a desktop and one created to view on a mobile site (sometimes called .mobi). Google is currently using the data on the desktop site to decide where a site should fall in its search engine rankings.
But when they switch to mobile-first indexing, Google will use a website’s mobile version to determine ranking in search. Those that aren’t ready—the sites not mobile optimized—will appear lower and lower on the search engine results pages (SERP).Why Will Google Use Mobile-First Indexing?
Google is a business—and like your business, Google wants to provide its customers with exactly what they want or get as close as possible. So when a Google customer (i.e. a search engine user) queries the search engine, Google’s main goal is to deliver their customer the best information available on the web and in the best possible format.
So the way the content is delivered does make a difference, because it’s been proven people appreciate good website design. It doesn’t matter how amazing the content is if it’s presented in an unappealing way. User-friendly, great website design makes Google users happy, therefore making Google happy.
According to Adobe, “59% of consumers globally would rather engage with content that’s beautifully designed as opposed to simply designed—even when short on time.”
So, if a majority of Google’s search users are performing searches on a mobile device, it only makes sense that Google wants to serve their customers information from websites created with a mobile user experience in mind.
However, this doesn’t mean the desktop user is ignored—it’s just that the mobile user is given more attention than in the past. This also doesn’t mean business owners should only care about the mobile-friendly versions of their site, since at least 40% of search is still conducted on desktop.
So now you might wonder, “Is there a way to serve both the mobile customer and the desktop customer the best website experience?”
Lucky for you, web developers have been working since the early 2000s to solve this problem. The solution? Something called mobile responsive design.
What Is A Mobile Responsive Website?
Mobile responsive (or just “responsive” web design) means the design of a website (think of it as the layout) responds or adapts to the device the site is viewed on. Mobile responsive sites may look the same or similar when viewed on a desktop or a mobile phone. This is partly because a site with mobile-friendly design is often created on a grid, so the design elements change size (and sometimes shape) in proportion to the device—ensuring a easily accessible and workable site from any device.
It’s easiest to understand mobile responsiveness by first understanding what a website looks like when it is NOT mobile responsive. Say there’s a favorite news, ecommerce or other business site you frequent on your desktop computer. It has a lot of great content, eye-catching photos—overall you find it pretty intuitive to use.
One day while away from your computer, you think of something you want to look at on your favorite site, so you use the browser on your smartphone to view the site. Much to your dismay, the text is miniature and hard to read, the photos take up way too much space, and you can’t even find the navigation features you’re used to seeing. And even more frustrating, it takes forever to load.
You can be certain this site isn’t mobile responsive. There’s a good chance this website looks great on a desktop but hasn’t been optimized to work on your tiny screen.
As Google sees it, this is a big problem. Google wants sites to look good and function well on BOTH desktop and mobile. If your site isn’t responsive, there’s a good chance it won’t perform well on a mobile device. When Google switches to mobile-first indexing, those sites that aren’t responsive will be penalized and their rankings are likely to fall.
The good news is that if your website runs on a common platform such as Squarespace, Wix, Weebly or a newer version of WordPress, it’s likely your site is already mobile responsive because the latest templates were created with mobile users in mind.
With this upcoming change in Google’s algorithm, mobile responsive sites are in good shape. There’s not much these site owners need to do besides improving their site’s SEO and congratulate themselves on being ahead of the curve (until the next Google update comes along).
How To Test Your Site for Mobile Responsiveness
Use Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test Tool to easily determine if your site is up to Google’s standards. Simply copy your website’s name into the box and click Run Test to see your results.
If your site isn’t responsive, now’s the time to fix it. Yes, this will cost money, time and resources. But with the switch to mobile-first indexing your business can’t afford NOT to make the switch.
In the past, Google has essentially forced websites to change to keep up with algorithmic changes and trends. Recently, via Google Chrome, they began penalizing non-secure sites by explicitly stating (with a pretty scary message and bring red background) that the site is “not secure” if a user attempts to navigate to a site without an SSL certificate. This isn’t meant to hurt businesses, but to encourage secure use of the internet by strongly “encouraging” sites to make the switch from HTTP to HTTPS. (But that’s another story…)
While your website (or .mobi site) is already accessible on smartphones and tablets, it’s not the same as ensuring your site is mobile responsive and providing the best user experience. Google’s goal is to ensure the best experience for all users—desktop and mobile alike.
Prepare for Google’s switch to mobile-first indexing by checking if your website has a responsive web design. If your design isn’t responsive, contact a trusted SEO expert to help you make the switch. While the switch will require an investment in both time and money, when your site ranks well in Google search results, it’s good for your bottom line, long-term.
Update February 2019
About half of all results in Google are the result of mobile-first indexing now.