What Is Mobile-First Indexing, and Should I Worry?

On July 1, 2019, Google will move to mobile-first indexing by default for all new websites. Throw that out at your next social gathering, and just guess who the big hit of the party will be.

Obviously, when you put something like that out there, you’ll be inundated with frantic questions and panicked reactions. Rest assured we’ll give you all you need to know to prevent the villagers from gathering up the pitchforks and torches.

The Majority of Internet Traffic Is (and has been) Mobile

Quite honestly, we’re all a bit surprised that it took Google this long. Mobile device traffic first outpaced desktop traffic in 2016, and those numbers increase every year. It only makes sense that Google would consider mobile performance first. But this move is most certainly going to impact sites developed by folks who aren’t paying attention to development best practices.

Here’s the official announcement from Google:

Mobile-first indexing means Google predominantly uses the mobile version of the content for indexing and ranking. Historically, the index primarily used the desktop version of a page’s content when evaluating the relevance of a page to a user’s query. Since the majority of users now access Google Search with a mobile device, Googlebot primarily crawls and indexes pages with the smartphone agent going forward.

By now, your party audience will be dutifully impressed by your knowledge. But of course, there will be that jackwagon who pipes up, “Yep, already know about that. We don’t even worry about the desktop index anymore, we only care about the mobile index.”

Bad news, Mr. Jackwagon: You are WRONG. There is only one index, not a separate mobile index. It’s just that Google will give preference to a well-prepped mobile site versus a well-prepped desktop site.

You’re Doing It Wrong

Historically, good developers have been obsessed with site speed – for desktop sites. Mobile? An afterthought. And from now on, that’s bad juju.

Add to it the fact that the vast majority of websites are thrown together on WordPress using a pre-made theme (for more on why this is a terrible idea, check this out), and it’s a recipe for disaster. WordPress itself is inherently a slow beast; in the wrong hands, it becomes downright lethargic. Add bloated images (typical) and your sparkly new website will be summarily dismissed by the Google gods.

A well-developed site actually starts with mobile-first design, with attention given to how mobile users will interact with your site. That beautiful Google map that you embedded on your page? Well, on a mobile device, users can’t scroll past it. Oops. Phone number and/or contact info buried in the footer, with tons of scrolling to get there? Fail.

As for development, responsive design is the only way to go (don’t get us started on separate mobile sites). More fodder for the party guests: Responsive design uses a fluid, proportion-based grid, flexible images and media queries to render the site on multiple devices and screen sizes. It’s one site, but it automatically adjusts itself to look good, whether you’re using a 27″ monitor or a smartphone. The problem is that most people don’t test their sites, and don’t realize that the navigation disappears on tablets, or that the main image is 1500 pixels tall on an iPhone.

But Google knows. Google knows all.

Is My Site Ready for Mobile-First Indexing?

Well, if you have an existing site, you may not have to worry, at least not right away. Here’s more from Google:

Starting July 1, 2019, mobile-first indexing is enabled by default for all new websites (new to the web or previously unknown to Google Search). For older or existing websites, we continue to monitor and evaluate pages based on the best practices. We notify site owners through Search Console once they’re seen as being ready. Since the default state for new sites is mobile-first indexing, there’s no need to send a notification to new sites.

If you have a well-developed site and good search presence today, you probably won’t notice much. However, as more new/rebuilt sites come up, the playing field changes. Google will give preference to sites with killer mobile experiences (because, well, mobile-first). Now is the time to check your site and make sure that your competitors don’t have a window of opportunity.

So how will you know? The simplest way is to contact us and have us do an evaluation. It’s free, and our experts can usually uncover issues that don’t readily jump out to normal humans. If you’re a do-it-yourselfer, here’s a quick list:

  • Grab as many different mobile devices as you can, and go through your entire site. Look at it in landscape mode AND portrait mode. Make sure you don’t have to scroll horizontally, pinch, zoom or do anything else that makes it hard to use. Alternatively, you can use a testing tool like Browserstack.
  • Run a speed test using something like Google’s Test My Site tool.
  • Check your images. We warn people until we’re blue in the face, but people still upload monster images to their sites. Check the overall sizes, and use any one of the bazillion tools out there to optimize your images.
  • Check Google Analytics. See how much of your traffic is mobile, and how that traffic compares to your desktop traffic. If your mobile traffic has high bounce rates, low page views, etc., you’re in trouble.
  • Check Google Search Console. There’s even a tab for Mobile Usability. Never heard of Search Console? Reason #852 that you should contact us.

I Have Problems. How Do I Fix Them?

Unfortunately, image optimization is one of the only things that can be done without a developer, and if you don’t have a CMS (Content Management System), then you even need a dev for that. Most fixes entail editing code, and you’ll generally need a propeller head for that. But hey, the first step is acknowledging you have a problem, right?

Have fun at that party, and you’re welcome for the sudden popularity.

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