What is a mobile-first index?

There has been a lot of chatter around the Radd Interactive office about what Google’s “mobile-first” index experiment means for SEO. On November 4th, 2016, Google made SEO news when it announced that it is beginning to test a new mobile-first index. Currently, Google’s index archives the desktop version of webpages. Google’s algorithm uses these pages to evaluate page rank when a search query is made. Google’s mobile-first index will work in the exact same way. The only difference between the current desktop index and the future mobile-first index is that Google will archive the mobile version of your site for its index first and fall back to your desktop version if there is no mobile site.

Why is Google switching to mobile-first?

While this is a huge change, it’s not unexpected. Google confirmed in May 2015 that “more Google searches take place on mobile devices than on computers in 10 countries including the US and Japan” and this trend is expected to continue. Because most of the searches Google encounters now come from mobile, its desktop-based index is not returning the best possible results. This dip in quality for mobile users is because desktop sites often do not display the same content as their mobile counterparts and are not optimized for mobile devices.

How should sites prepare for a mobile-first index?

First, we at Radd Interactive think it is important to note that Google is only performing small tests with the mobile-first index at the moment. While they do intend to slowly scale up the process, most sites will not be affected by these tests.

If you do not have a mobile site, Google will “continue to index your desktop site just fine, even if [they’re] using a mobile user agent to view your site.” However, if you do not have a mobile site, you will not receive any benefit from Google’s mobile-friendly ranking boost that rolled in April 2015’s “Mobilegeddon” update.

According to Google, if you have a responsive site or a dynamic serving site with content and mark up that is similar on both versions, you do not need to do anything to prepare for the mobile-first index. If your content and mark up is different across desktop and mobile, Google recommends that you:

  • Make sure to serve structured markup for both the desktop and mobile version.
  • 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.
  • Make sure you add and verify the mobile version of your site.

The most important thing to remember as you prepare your site for Google’s new index is don’t rush. A broken, poorly optimized mobile site will do nothing to help your rankings. Google will still be able to index your desktop site. Take your time, review Google’s recommendations, and implement your mobile site when it’s ready.