“To make our results more useful, we’ve begun experiments to make our index mobile-first.”

― Doantam Phan, Google product manager



Mobile’s continued command over digital devices just became a heck of a lot stronger.

Earlier this month, Google announced via the Webmaster Central Blog that it would begin to test its mobile-first indexing experiment. The exercise will now begin to look at mobile versions of a website and rank those as primary over their desktop counterparts.

This should come as no surprise to those keeping track of SEO-related news, as this was hinted at in a tweet by Gary Illyes, Google Webmaster Trends Analyst, over a year ago. Not to mention Google’s continued emphasis on mobile with its AMP Project, Mobilgeddon, and other small-screen initiatives.

The reasoning behind the experiment is quite clear, and rational, as it has been frequently noted that more searches are now taking place on mobile devices than desktops.

This in itself is the core complication of Google’s current indexing structure; it still relies on desktop versions of websites to establish page ranking within the SERPs.

As a solution to the soon-to-be antiquated framework, Google will now view the content, links, structured data, and other vital elements of mobile websites when indexing.

In the blog post about the test, Doantam Phan wrote:

“Although our search index will continue to be a single index of websites and apps, our algorithms will eventually primarily use the mobile version of a site’s content to rank pages from that site, to understand structured data, and to show snippets from those pages in our results.”

If your business has no mobile destination, however, the algorithm will still revert to the company’s desktop version, so there is no need to panic, yet.

This so-called “experiment” is actually the beginning of a new era in search. One where mobile content is used to determine ranking, no matter if users are on mobile or desktop devices. “Mobile-friendly” boosts in the SERPs are soon to be a thing of the past, and in time, those who do not adopt a mobile strategy will be impacted, even for desktop searches.

This mobile-first future can be extrapolated from Google’s own statements within the blog update which states that the company will, “. . . continue to carefully experiment over the coming months on a small scale,” and “. . . ramp up this change when we’re confident that we have a great user experience.”

So with the massive modification to how sites are indexed and ranked, what exactly do site owners need to know about the potential ramifications?

Who Will This Hurt?

As was stated before, if you do not have a mobile site as of now, there is no reason to go into a frenzy. Google will still be indexing desktop sites when there is no mobile version, but will be doing so with its mobile Googlebot. In this case, you should take the time to fetch and render as the mobile Googlebot to verify that content is fully accessible.

It is also wise to begin development on a mobile website. Don’t rush it, however, as Google issued a few words of warning:

“If you are building a mobile version of your site, keep in mind that a functional desktop-oriented site can be better than a broken or incomplete mobile version of the site. It’s better for you to build up your mobile site and launch it when ready.”

While Paul Haahr, a Google software engineer, tweeted that he is not expecting to see any impacts as of now, there are almost certainly groups that will be effected.

The first group is websites that serve different/abbreviated content to their users, more fit for mobile consumption. Since Google is indexing mobile content first, those materials may not conform to optimized content standards. The same goes for webpages that simply have less content than their desktop counterpart. Websites that serve up less/dissimilar/shortened content are often sites. Another group to be impacted are those who removed structured data markups from mobile pages.

That brings us to the ultimate question: What can you do to prepare?

Getting Ready for Mobile-First Indexing

First, a bit of good news: Google has stated that the core ranking signals for the mobile SERPs will remain the same. Moreover, businesses that are leveraging responsive designs or a dynamic serving site, “. . . where the primary content and markup is equivalent across mobile and desktop,” should not need to make any alterations and are in the clear.

Outside of that, here are some preparations that Google recommends:

  • If you have a site configuration where the primary content and markup is different across mobile and desktop, you should consider making some changes to your site.
    • Make sure to serve structured markup for both the desktop and mobile version. Sites can verify the equivalence of their structured markup across desktop and mobile by typing the URLs of both versions into the Structured Data Testing Tool and comparing the output.
    • When adding structured data to a mobile site, avoid adding large amounts of markup that isn’t relevant to the specific information content of each document.
    • Use the robots.txt testing tool to verify that your mobile version is accessible to Googlebot.
    • Sites do not have to make changes to their canonical links; Google will continue to use these links as guides to serve the appropriate results to a user searching on desktop or mobile.
  • If you are a site owner who has only verified your desktop site in Search Console, make sure to add and verify your mobile version.

While Google is currently calling this new indexing structure an “experiment,” in reality, this is going to end up as a permanent change to the engine’s algorithm and it will be gradually tweaked, modified, and rolled out to larger subsets of users.

I’ve said it a thousand times before and it just becomes more relevant; if you haven’t enacted a mobile-first strategy for your company, you really need to hop on that bandwagon.

How do you think these changes will effect website rankings when all is said and done? What upsides do you see coming out of this shift?

To learn more about Google’s mobile first plan, click here for an article by Mark Pedersen.