On March 26th, Google revealed that it had begun to roll out sweeping changes to its core indexing algorithms in response to the growing number of mobile internet users. This change, known as “mobile first indexing,” comes after over a year and a half of tweaking and experimenting with how websites present their content to mobile users.

Now, websites that are properly optimized for a mobile experience are being moved over to Google’s new mobile first index. Google had begun slowly doing this with a handful of mobile-optimized websites in late 2017, but this latest announcement confirms that Google has begun this new indexing process en masse. However, this change didn’t come as a shock to Radd Interactive’s SEO specialists or anyone else who’s been following internet usage trends over the past few years.

In 2015, Google first announced that more internet searches take place on mobile phones and introduced a mobile friendly algorithm update in response. This trend continued when StatCounter, a global internet monitoring firm, published a report in 2016 that showed more people accessed the internet from mobile phones than from desktops.

More recently, Hitwise, a company that measures internet behavior across multiple devices and analyzes internet market trends, conducted a report in 2017 that showed nearly 60% of all internet searches are performed on a mobile device. The study broke down the data into types of industry. In some industries, like food and beverage websites, over 70% of relevant internet searches were performed from a mobile phone.

This may seem like a shock to some internet users; after all, the internet is practically synonymous with desktops and computers. But with the rise of smartphones, the internet is more accessible than ever. According to a study done by Pew Research Center, over 75% of adult Americans have a smartphone. Compared to 2011, when only 35% owned a smartphone, and coupled with vast improvements to mobile technology and growing internet access, it’s really no surprise that web searches are now performed much more frequently on mobile devices.

At the end of 2016, Google announced that it was beginning to experiment with mobile-first indexing to keep up with the changes in how people search. A year later, they announced that they had begun “evaluating sites independently on their readiness for mobile-first indexing… and transitioning them [to the mobile first index] when ready” in an official blog post in December 2017. Fast forward to today, and Google is indexing a growing number of websites based on their mobile content. Like internet searches themselves, Google’s index is increasingly mobile-first.

Now, if you own a website, you don’t need to panic. Google isn’t implementing a mobile-only index; many web searches are still performed on desktops, and computers certainly aren’t going away anytime soon. This means that for websites that don’t have a mobile version, your desktop website will still be indexed the same as it was before. The same goes for websites with Responsive Web Design, or if your website has Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMPs) with canonical tags to relevant pages. For these, mobile-first indexing won’t affect your SERP rankings, at least not any more than it already has. After all, Google did start factoring mobile-friendliness into their ranking algorithm back in 2015. So, if you have a website that doesn’t have a separate mobile version, you need to make sure that your website is mobile friendly, which we’ll go over later.

For websites that use separate URLs for their mobile and desktop versions, this change is going to affect you. The same goes for websites that use dynamic serving to show users different content depending on the device they’re on. If your website uses both Accelerated Mobile Pages AND Non-AMPs with separate URLs, you will also be affected by this change.

Basically, if your website is presenting different content depending on the device that’s accessing it, the new mobile-first index will affect you. If your website is showing the same content across all devices, then you don’t need to worry too much. However, if you are serving up separate content across different devices, there are certain things that you can do to better prepare your site for indexing.

Make sure that your content is the same across both versions. Some web developers try to present less content on their mobile versions in order to improve load times. Google has always placed emphasis on meaningful content in their ranking factors, and mobile-first indexing is certainly no exception. So, if you’ve got a separate mobile website, don’t skimp on the content.

Metadata needs to be present for both versions of your website. For SEO-savvy webmasters, this seems completely logical. Metadata can tell Google about your webpage, and Google can use that information to show users what your page is about. Make sure your Title Tags and Meta Descriptions are the same across both versions of your website. Equivalent metadata means that Google has less of a chance of indexing your mobile website differently.

Both versions of your site should have structured data. Like metadata, structured data allows search engine crawlers to understand what’s being shown on a page. If you’ve got a separate mobile website, you need to have the correct markers to tell Google what’s on your webpage. If anything, it can help your business’s online presence by allowing Google to present relevant information about your website on their SERP, like your business hours or any upcoming events.

Make sure your site can handle being crawled by the Smartphone Googlebot. As Google begins to phase more websites into their mobile index, Google’s Smartphone Crawlbot will be crawling websites at an increased rate, so making sure that the site’s servers can handle this increased crawl rate is necessary to ensure an optimal user experience with minimal load time.

In addition to these broader guidelines for webmasters with two versions of their site, Google also provided a few technical tips for websites that use completely separate URLs for mobile and desktop:

“Verify both versions of your site in Search Console to make sure you have access to data and messages for both versions. Your site may experience a data shift when Google switches to mobile-first indexing for your site.

Check hreflang links on separate URLs. When you use rel=hreflang link elements for internationalization, link between mobile and desktop URLs separately. Your mobile URLs’ hreflang should point to mobile URLs, and similarly desktop URL hreflang should point to desktop URLs.

Ensure your servers have enough capacity to a handle potential increase in crawl rate on the mobile version of your site.

Verify that your robots.txt directives work as you intended for both versions of your site. The robots.txt file lets site owners specify which parts of a website may be crawled or not. In most cases, sites should use the same directives for both mobile and desktop versions of their sites.

Make sure you have the correct rel=canonical and rel=alternate link elements between your mobile and desktop versions.

Make sure you have the correct rel=canonical and rel=alternate link elements between your mobile and desktop versions.”

No matter which type of website you have, the best practice you can implement is to think about your website from a user’s standpoint. Making sure that your website loads quickly and presents high-quality, non-invasive content across every device needs to be standard operating procedure for any website in 2018. Featuring content that’s unusable or cumbersome on mobile devices, like unplayable Flash videos or blocking JavaScript and image files, is going to hurt your user experience. You can test how Google will crawl your website is with the “Fetch as Google” feature in the Google Search Console. Additionally, you can use Google’s Mobile Friendly Test tool to see how compatible your website is with mobile devices. When in doubt, think about users interact with your website. If users don’t have a good experience on your website, on mobile or otherwise, they will leave, and this is going to hurt your rankings more than any algorithm or indexing change that Google will ever implement.

The growth of mobile is one of the most exciting new technological trends in modern history. With the nearly infinite proliferation of mobile phones comes a seismic shift in how we access the web and what we’re using it for. As more technologies respond to these changes and adapt themselves to better serve the user, webmasters and developers will have to change the way they think and work in order to keep up. Google’s new mobile-first index is the natural reaction to these changes. After all, changing is the only way to make it in this fast-paced virtual world.

Contact Radd Interactive today to see how our team of SEO experts can help your website stay competitive in the constantly evolving search engine landscape.