What you Need to Know about Google’s Mobile-First Indexing Rollout

Caleb Cosper, SEO Strategist

Anyone reading this has probably already heard the news: Google announced last week that they’re “migrating sites that follow the best practices for mobile-first indexing.” Anyone who keeps abreast of SEO news (or works with clients who do) has probably received an email since that announcement wondering nervously what this means for their site.

Worry not!! This update to Google’s indexing process is not likely to affect your site or your clients’ sites, especially if you’re already following best practices for mobile friendliness. Unless you serve noticeably different content to mobile users than you do to desktop users, the mobile-first index should not change your rankings.

What exactly did Google announce?

This is not the first time Google has talked about mobile-first indexing. In November 2016, they announced that they’d “begun experiments to make [their] index mobile-first.” Now, the mobile-first index is being rolled out “more broadly”, starting with “sites that follow the best practices.”

The mobile-first index is not a separate Google index. Rather, Google will be replacing desktop versions of pages in its index with their mobile counterparts.

If a site you work on has been chosen as one of the lucky ones, you should have received a notification in Google Search Console with the subject line “Mobile-first indexing enabled for www.yoursite.com.” If you haven’t received a notification, I would not assume that your site isn’t being moved to the mobile-first index. As is often the case with Search Console, the absence of information doesn’t tell you much.

Who is NOT affected by mobile-first indexing?

The Google Developer post about the mobile-first index (updated this week) very clearly outlines what kinds of sites will or will not be affected by this update.

Google's Mobile Best Practices in Table Layout

This table from that post shows some of the most crucial information about the mobile-first indexing update.

Let’s break it down.

Your Site is Desktop Only

If your site is designed only for desktop users and does not change when a user is on a mobile device, mobile-first indexing will not affect you. That said, you should definitely tailor your site experience for mobile users if you care about SEO, since a growing majority of searches happen on mobile devices (and the data in this post is from 2016)!

Your Site is Responsive

A site using responsive design based on the viewport will not be affected by mobile-first indexing. This is because the “mobile version” of the site has the same content and code as the desktop version, so the indexed content will not change.

Your Site Exists Entirely in AMP

Good for you! If the only version of your site is built in AMP, your site is essentially already in the “mobile-first index”, because your site is streamlined for mobile users.

Who IS affected by mobile-first indexing?

Your Site has Separate URLs for Mobile and Desktop Content

If your mobile site exists on a separate subdomain (such as m.yoursite.com), or you serve up mobile URLs in place of desktop URLs (yoursite.com/examplepage/mobile), mobile-first indexing WILL affect you. Google will start to index the mobile pages preferentially over the desktop pages

Your Site Dynamically Serves Content based on User Device

Similar to the scenario above, if your site is changing the content that a page delivers based on the device a user is on, the mobile versions of your pages will be going into the mobile-first index. The main difference between this and the Separate URLs scenario above is that your mobile content is not on a different URL or subdomain.

A quick note on these two cases, which could really be a separate blog post: We SEO talking-heads at Portent generally advise against separate URLs/different content for mobile users. Google Best Practices require you to deliver the same content on both versions of your pages. If you fail to do this, you could get flagged and penalized for cloaking, which is bad-news-bears. If at all possible, go with responsive design.

Your Site has AMP Versions of non-AMP Pages

This stands out to me as the most interesting part. If your site has AMP and non-AMP pages, “Google prefers the mobile version of the non-AMP URL for indexing.” In other words, mobile-first indexing will ignore your AMP pages and index regular versions of pages in their mobile forms. If you rely on AMP for your mobile experience, check to make sure your non-AMP pages work well on mobile devices.

Other Takeaways on Mobile-First Indexing

  • Everything in this post is contingent on whether you believe what Google says to be “true.” There’s nothing in the rulebook (nor in their track record) that says Google has to be 100% forthcoming, so take it all with a grain (or shaker) of salt.
  • The Official Google Webmaster post reinforces what we already know, but it’s good to hear it again: making a site mobile-friendly will help it perform better in mobile search results. A critically important example: fast-loading content helps a site perform better for users, and will perform better in organic search than slow-loading content after the update in July 2018.
  • We said it above, but it bears repeating: inclusion in the mobile-first index does not inherently mean you will rank higher.

This is all very new and exciting stuff, and I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts. Have any of your clients received the Search Console notification that they’re being included? Have you seen any changes in how your site shows up in Google search?

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    1. It’s not always easy to figure out what exactly Google is saying in their announcements, so I’m glad I was able to help!

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