How to Prepare for the Coming Wave of Mobile-First Indexing

By Russ Jeffery

For nearly a year now, Google has been talking about rolling out a mobile-first index. Along with it, there will be some subtle but important changes that web designers, content creators and anyone that follows the SEO world should be aware of. In this blog post, I’ll explain why Google is making this change, what you need to know and how you can adapt your designs to fit into the new system.

Why Mobile-First?

Mobile-first started as a design term, coined originally in 2009 by Luke Wroblewski, that means designers who build interfaces of any kind (web, app, etc.)  should design and optimize for the mobile experience first. Wroblewski’s argument for mobile-first design emphasized two points as to why designers should adopt this approach. They were:

(a) Mobile-first design forces designers to simplify interfaces.

(b) Mobile is how people will primarily compute in the future.

More than half a decade later, we can easily observe that his analysis was correct, with many web design teams implementing a mobile-first strategy across today’s web.

What this really means in practice is that website and design mockups are done on mobile screen sizes first. Interactions on screens are imagined and planned in terms of taps and slides, instead of clicks of a mouse.



Translating this to today’s world, Google is using the term mobile-first in relation to how it indexes, views and understands websites and their content.

The change Google is making to its index is that the search engine will now exclusively use the mobile version of your website as the source of content, instead of the desktop (which was previously where Google looked for content and positive ranking factors).

Looking at today’s internet, this makes sense. We know that about 60% of Google Searches are from a mobile device. The fact that Google does not yet use the mobile-index as its primary source of content is a “behind the times” view of how the web is used today. Due to this, Google can currently send users to mobile websites that might not have relevant content (i.e. if the website has different content on its mobile and desktop versions). This is the problem Google is looking to solve by moving to a mobile-first index.

What Web Designers Need to Know

The changes web designers and developers need to prepare for will be technical in nature, as this is changing how Google technically crawls websites. Here’s a rundown of important points:

  • Your mobile view/website should have all the content you want to be returned in search results. If the mobile version of your website reduces or removes content on mobile, you might be in trouble.
    Important Note: This mostly applies to a significant difference in content. Minor changes like different images, small tweaks to content, different CTAs, etc., will have very little impact here. This mainly refers to large chunks of content or information that might be missing on mobile.
  • You can safely use hidden content that is only displayed after a click. Website features like tabbed content, read more expanding paragraphs, expanding FAQs, etc. will be fully indexed. In a mobile-first world, these types of interactions are much more user-friendly than on a desktop-first.
  • If you don’t have a mobile-friendly website, this will not impact you. With the update to mobile-first indexing, your desktop website content will still be indexed, but just by a mobile-first crawler.

    However, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a mobile version of your website at all. It is an incredibility critical marketing tool on today’s web.

    Back in 2015, Mobilegeddon 2.0 lowered the rank of websites that were not mobile-friendly. You won’t be further penalized by the coming mobile-first index, but any websites that aren’t mobile-friendly are already most likely suffering an SEO penalty, so you’re going to want to address this sooner rather than later.
  • Websites that are responsive (meaning they deliver the same content or HTML to all devices) will not need to make any updates. This is because all SEO settings, such as rel=canonical tags, meta tags, alternate links, schema, etc. are all delivered the same way to both mobile and desktop devices. This will allow the mobile-first index to crawl the same canonical settings.

This Could Take a While…

Okay, so it might not be a wave of mobile-first indexing. It’s probably better described as a rising tide.

While we don’t have precise dates or exact details for when this update will roll out, Gary Illyes, Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google, says that Google is investigating ways to make this a limited impact rollout, starting probably in 2018. Illyes hinted that the update could take years because of the wide variety of websites online today and the complexities that arise while indexing sites. The web has more than 20 years of content on it; it’s clearly a difficult and complex task to change how Google indexes it all.

If Google decides to make this a low impact update to start, they’ll likely start by only using the mobile-index on websites that they know won’t be impacted. As mentioned earlier in this post, responsive websites will not be impacted by this update, so they’ll probably be indexed first.

As a reminder, there are three ways that mobile-friendly websites exist online today:

  1. Responsive Web Design (RWD), which means the website shrinks and reorganizes based on the size of the screen it’s viewed on.
  2. Dynamic Serving (also known as Adaptive), which delivers different content based on the device type, usually with some type of user-agent detection.
  3. Mobile-only websites, which functions as a secondary website that is specifically developed for mobile and shown to users that click on a desktop URL but are browsing the web on a smartphone.

Google clearly prefers responsive websites in this process ― it makes their job easier because the content that they index on the website is the exact same on desktop and mobile. Since they have a high level of confidence that the website won’t change in a mobile-first index world, it would be logical that Google will open the mobile-first index to responsive websites as a phase one.

What to Watch For

Google has stated that when they get close to launching the mobile-first index that they’ll be very loud about the changes they are making. Keep an eye on the Webmasters Blog for news about the mobile-first index. When the news comes, I would look for the following answers from Google:

  • What is the release strategy? We know that Google is already testing the mobile-first index in the wild, but it seems clear that only certain websites will be part of the mobile-first index first.
  • How will the mobile-first index relate to website speed? Google has hinted that speed will be more of a factor than it is now and we know how much Google is focusing on speed, both on the AdWords and Search sides of their business.

What type of communication(s) will Google send to Webmasters? When Google makes big changes like this, they historically have sent webmasters emails (via Search Console). If you have not set up Search Console on websites you own or manage, you should do this ASAP.

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About Russ Jeffery

Russ Jeffery is a Technical Product Manager for at Duda. He is well known around the office for his 'Russ Effect,' where issues magically disappear once he shows up. His favorite Big Lebowski character is Jesus.
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