Mobile-first indexing is one of the biggest shifts in the operation of Google's search indexing engine since launching nearly two decades ago. Google has announced, that with so many sites still failing to address the growing number of users visiting from mobile devices, the warning is stark: invest in mobile-friendly development or risk a serious drop in search traffic.
Google frequently adjusts its search indexing engine, keeping webmasters and search engine optimization specialists on their toes. Its most recent sweeping change was to promote sites which offer Transport Layer Security (TLS) connectivity over their unencrypted counterparts. This is part of Google's effort to promote HTTPS connections for all website traffic. Now it's aiming to do the same for websites offering mobile-friendly content and follows up on a promise it made during Pubcon in October this year.
Where Google's previous index has been generated from robots crawling the same pages as a desktop browser would see, it now generates its index from mobile-friendly content instead. Although, at present the move is limited to a series of experimental crawlers, the company is clear that mobile-first is an inevitable outcome.
"Although our search index will still continue to be a single index of websites and apps, primarily our algorithms will eventually use the mobile version of a site’s content to rank pages from that site. This will aid the understanding of structured data, and show snippets from those pages in our results," explained Doantam Phan, a product manager at Google. "Of course, while our index will be built from mobile documents, we're going to continue to build a great search experience for all users, whether they come from mobile or desktop devices."
The Likely Impact
Phan advised that those who run responsive or dynamic-serving sites and already provide optimized content to mobile devices, should have little to fear from the change.However, those running desktop-only sites and relying on display optimization techniques built into mobile browsers, could risk seeing their content dropping down Google's search rankings like a stone. Therefore they are under some pressure to make serious changes.
It's easy to see why Google is promoting mobile-first indexing: the company's smartphone and tablet software, Android, accounts for nearly nine-tenths of the market according to the most recent figures from IDC. The industry has already passed the point where the majority of web traffic originates from mobile devices, as revealed in SimilarWeb's State of the Mobile Web report, making Google's decision a logical one that is driven by customer behaviours and the resulting demand.
How to Protect Your Site's Ranking
For webmasters concerned about the potential negative effects of Google's new mobile-first indexing, there are simple steps that can be taken to minimize impact.
- The first is to ensure that properly-structured markup is being served for both desktop and mobile versions of the site, using Google's own SEO tools and structure tests to verify that data is properly equivalent between the two. This is especially important for sites which hide selected content from mobile browsers: if the content isn't available to mobile clients then it may no longer appear in Google's search index at all. Or it may be bumped down the results compared to sites which offer the same content across multiple client devices.
- 2.Google's robots.txt parser should also be tested to ensure Google search indexing robots can properly access the mobile version of sites, rather than being forced to the desktop version. Anyone using Google's Search Console is also advised to ensure that their mobile site is added and verified alongside the desktop version.
Phan, though, is counselling a calm and methodical approach when it comes to reacting to mobile-first indexing.he has some sober advice for webmasters: "If you are building a mobile version of your site, keep in mind that a functional desktop-oriented site can be better than a broken or incomplete mobile version of the site," Phan explains. "It's better for you to build up your mobile site and launch it when ready. If you only have a desktop site, we'll continue to index your desktop site just fine, even if we're using a mobile user agent to view your site."
For those offering web design, management and search engine optimization services, Google's announcement could come as a welcome shot in the arm. A static indexing algorithm gives little room for clients of such services to invest in improving their results. A major shake-up like mobile first, however, provides opportunities which could be exploited into major gains for sites willing to put in the effort to ensuring their mobile content is up to snuff. It also carries the added bonus of improving the experience for the majority of site users visiting from mobile devices, of course.