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  • What is Mobile-First Indexing & How Does it Work

    What is Mobile-First Indexing & Why it Matters for SEO

    There’s been plenty of talk about mobile-first indexing for a few years, but what is it? How does it work? Are any webpages at risk of being de-indexed?

    Although Google first introduced mobile-first indexing in 2016, SEO communities are still talking about the implications and effects on ranking. The initial introduction of mobile-first indexing was Google’s attempt to make search results as mobile-friendly as possible. Years later, people are still wondering what the effects are (or will be) on non-mobile webpages.

    While some people have said there’s no reason to be concerned, that’s not entirely true. While mobile-first indexing began as a Google experiment, the company is now taking it very seriously as a Google standard. If your website isn’t mobile-friendly, it’s only a matter of time before you’ll see your rankings drop… or worse, your pages might be excluded from Google’s index.

    In other words, while you might already know that mobile-first indexing might suppress your desktop webpage rankings, as of 2021, you probably haven’t heard that desktop results are being dropped entirely from Google’s index. That’s definitely something to be concerned about.

    According to Search Engine Journal, as of March 2021, John Mueller confirmed that all desktop-only websites will be dropped from Google’s index. What was once just an experiment has now become a standard. If your website is not mobile-friendly, you won’t get indexed in Google.

    What does Google say about mobile-first indexing?

    What does Google say about mobile-first indexing

    On November 4, 2016, Google published an official announcement about how the company was beginning to experiment with mobile-first indexing. This experiment was launched in response to the fact that more people were browsing the internet from a mobile device. Google wanted to make sure its search algorithms provided mobile users with the best experience possible.

    Back in 2016, webmasters were still creating separate websites for mobile users and serving an entirely different experience to desktop users.

    Prior to the mobile-first experiment, mobile users would get the short end of the stick in searches. Desktop webpages were given more ranking importance than mobile pages simply because Google’s algorithm evaluated pages based on content. Since mobile pages usually had less content, they weren’t ranking alongside the desktop pages equally. This meant mobile users would be given desktop results even when mobile pages existed.

    Mobile-first indexing was launched to fix this dilemma and make using the internet a better experience for mobile users. Around 2016, more people were accessing the internet primarily from mobile devices, so Google felt it was time to make a big change to support mobile users.

    Naturally, webmasters have been concerned regarding the status of desktop results. However, Google clarified that if you have a mobile-friendly site design, there is nothing to be concerned about. Google’s announcement explicitly stated that responsive websites that display the same content to mobile and desktop users won’t be affected.

    However, you do need to be concerned if you’re serving a different version of your website to mobile users. If you’ve been reading older announcements and analysis of mobile-first indexing to try to figure out what’s going on, you don’t have the full story. Mobile-first indexing has been evolving for the last several years and there is no more leniency for desktop-only websites.

    Mobile-first indexing has evolved since 2016

    Google doesn’t usually roll out a change without evolving that change over time. The mobile-first indexing rollout is no longer an experiment, but a standard.

    The full details will be discussed further down in this article, but you need to know that Googlebot is being retired and replaced with a smartphone Googlebot. This means Google is now indexing all webpages with a smartphone bot. If the smartphone Googlebot can’t access webpage content because it’s not mobile-friendly, it won’t make it into Google’s index.

    People are concerned that mobile-first indexing will cause desktop pages to stop ranking

    Since Google never publicly discloses the finer details regarding its search ranking criteria, the most people have been able to do is perform experiments and document their results. It’s hardly a scientific approach, but it’s the best we’ve got. Even so, once you have a full understanding of what mobile-first indexing is and why it exists, you won’t need to be so concerned – there are simple solutions.

    In the last few years, people have been trying to optimize their website to make sure this new change doesn’t adversely impact their rankings. However, mobile-first indexing doesn’t eliminate or de-rank desktop results as long as the desktop results are simultaneously mobile-friendly.

    Since there’s a lot of confusion around what this change actually means, let’s dive into what it is and how it might affect your ability to rank webpages in Google.

    What is mobile-first indexing?

    SERP Decline and Mobile-First Indexing

    Mobile-first indexing performs three main functions:

    • Prioritizes the mobile version of a webpage from the same domain. When two versions of a webpage on the same domain are available, mobile-first indexing delivers the mobile-optimized version in search results.
    • Prioritizes mobile results in the SERPs. When a user performs a search, Google’s algorithm has to decide which webpages to display in the SERPs. With mobile-first indexing, Google’s algorithm prioritizes mobile-optimized search results across the board. This means that your desktop webpage will be outranked by a mobile-optimized webpage of the same nature. Beginning in March 2021, desktop webpages won’t even be indexed.
    • Searches Google’s mobile database first. Google has one search results database, but has been segmenting results as either desktop or mobile. Google used to pull search results from the desktop segment first, but now searches the mobile segment for results first.

    This means that if you don’t have any mobile-optimized webpages indexed in Google’s database, and mobile-optimized webpages match a user’s search, you’re unlikely to rank high regardless of how much work you’ve put into your website. As Google stops indexing desktop-only webpages, if you don’t have mobile-friendly webpages, it will eventually become impossible to rank high in the SERPs.

    Although it seems like many websites would be hit hard by this change, that’s not the case. Most people haven’t had any major issues ranking because of this change simply because most modern websites are responsive, making them naturally mobile-friendly.

    Who will mobile-first indexing impact the most?

    You might be wondering how mobile-first indexing will affect your search engine rankings. The answer depends on how your website is built. As stated above, Google says that some people don’t need to worry about this change at all. For instance, if your website is responsive and serves the same pages to desktop and mobile users, you don’t need to be concerned.

    You do, however, need to be concerned if you serve separate websites to desktop and mobile users. In that case, you’ll need to pay close attention to optimizing the following on your mobile webpages:

    • High-quality content creation. Content has always been king. This will never change. However, since desktop pages are not being indexed anymore, your mobile page content needs to be as high-quality as your desktop page content.
    • Metadata, including social metadata. Your metadata and descriptions need to be equivalent for your mobile and desktop webpages. They don’t need to be identical, since mobile users will prefer shorter titles. However, at least make your mobile metadata a truncated version of your standard metadata.
    • Structured data. Just like metadata, your structured data should be the same on your mobile and desktop versions of your website.
    • XML sitemaps. Your sitemaps should be valid and accessible from your mobile website.
    • Search Console verification. Make sure to add and verify your mobile website in Google Search Console.
    • Robots.txt. Make sure your robots.txt file isn’t blocking Google from crawling the mobile version of your website.
    • Canonical URLs. Double check to ensure rel=canonical and rel=alternate elements prioritize your mobile site as canonical. However, John Mueller has confirmed that the mobile version of a website will be considered canonical even if the desktop site is set as canonical.

    The mobile version of your website should be optimized as much as possible. However, for the best results, you may want to consider consolidating your separate websites into one responsive design.

    A responsive design will solve two problems: your website’s design will be inherently mobile-friendly and it won’t take much effort to ensure the content remains mobile-friendly. Pre-set typography styles and other page elements will make that easy.

    You need to know that mobile-first indexing and mobile usability are separate issues. With mobile-first indexing, you can rank webpages with mobile usability issues as long as the content is visible to Google’s smartphone Googlebot. Switching to a responsive design with a professionally-designed theme will help you stay within the boundaries of mobile usability.

    Why you should drop the ‘m-dot’ subdomain

    If you’re like most webmasters, your mobile users are automatically redirected to the mobile version of your website hosted on a simple subdomain consisting only of the letter ‘m.’ For example, m.facebook.com serves up the mobile version of Facebook.

    Now that Google is only indexing mobile sites, if you’re using an “m-dot” subdomain, all of your desktop users will be served search results from your mobile site. That means when Google indexes your ‘m-dot’ webpages, all of your desktop users will get those results and it’s not going to look good. It’s not easy to navigate a strictly mobile site from a desktop computer.

    You can automatically redirect desktop users to the desktop version of your site, but all that work is no longer necessary. It would be better to ditch the m-dot subdomain entirely and just create one website with a responsive design.

    With the introduction of responsive design, there is no longer any reason to have separate sites for desktop and mobile users. Having separate sites was a workaround that was once needed, but now creates more work for you as a webmaster. Having separate sites also makes SEO harder because it’s the equivalent of ranking two separate domain names.

    Ranking m-dot subdomains requires 2x the SEO effort

    Google treats subdomains as separate domains. For example, www.mydomain.com and https://testing.mydomain.com are considered to be independent domain names. Ranking one won’t affect the other. Whenever you want to rank pages from a subdomain, you need to have a separate SEO campaign for that subdomain.

    The fact that your m-dot subdomain is seen as an entirely different domain to Google presents a huge inconvenience. If you’ve spent years performing SEO for your desktop website, but not your mobile website, you’ll have to start over from scratch to rank your mobile website.

    Maybe you’ve always counted on a redirect for your mobile users. Well, that won’t work anymore. Now you have no choice but to rank your mobile site directly because Google will drop your desktop pages from the index if they’re not mobile-friendly.

    In this case, the answer is to move to a responsive design. With a responsive design, you’ll retain all of the benefits of your SEO work from the past and you’ll have a mobile-friendly website that Google will continue to index.

    Going forward, responsive design is the best way to serve both mobile and desktop users, hang onto years of SEO work, and make sure you don’t get de-indexed by Google.

    Using a responsive website design is the answer to mobile-first indexing concerns

    responsive design

    When you’re using a responsive design, you don’t need to worry about losing rank or getting de-indexed with mobile-first indexing. The webmasters who need to be concerned are those who have built separate websites for desktop and mobile users.

    Thanks to responsive design, it’s no longer necessary to create a different version of your website for mobile users. Responsive design is the ideal way to ensure your site gets served in relevant searches.

    If you haven’t already created your website with a responsive design, it’s a wise move to revisit your design. If you’re still in touch with your original website developer, find out if they can convert your existing design into a responsive design.

    If you’re using a content management system (CMS) like WordPress, consider buying a new professional theme. You can find thousands of responsive themes on Template Monster or Theme Forest for under $100.

    Need help getting your website aligned with mobile-first indexing? We can help!

    Google’s major changes can be confusing and complex; mobile-first indexing is no exception. If you’re not sure how to optimize your website for Google’s mobile-first indexing, contact SEO.co today.

    Our team of SEO experts will perform a mobile SEO audit and analyze your site to determine your best course of action. We’ll help you optimize your entire site for mobile search and preserve your past SEO efforts. Contact us today to get your site in line with all the changes that come with mobile-first indexing.

    Chief Marketing Officer at SEO Company
    In his 9+ years as a digital marketer, Sam has worked with countless small businesses and enterprise Fortune 500 companies and organizations including NASDAQ OMX, eBay, Duncan Hines, Drew Barrymore, Washington, DC based law firm Price Benowitz LLP and human rights organization Amnesty International. As a technical SEO strategist, Sam leads all paid and organic operations teams for client SEO services, link building services and white label SEO partnerships. He is a recurring speaker at the Search Marketing Expo conference series and a TEDx Talker. Today he works directly with high-end clients across all verticals to maximize on and off-site SEO ROI through content marketing and link building. Connect with Sam on Linkedin.
    Samuel Edwards