On May 28th, Google dropped the news that all new domains were going to be indexed on a "mobile-first basis" starting on July 1, 2019. Mobile-first indexing is a big deal and something that all marketers (and communicators) should be paying attention to because it could have a big impact on how people find your website.
What is Mobile-First Indexing?
To understand mobile-first indexing, you have to first understand how Google search works. When you search Google, you're not searching the world wide web, you are searching their index.
To build the index, Google has an army of "bots" that are constantly out there on the web, looking for new websites and changes to existing ones so that it can maintain its index. Google uses its complex algorithm to rank pages in the index and present them to you when you search. So, it's important that you understand indexing (what gets searched) and the algorithm (how items in the index are ranked).
Google sells advertising against its search results (and across websites, etc) so they want to keep you coming back. They do this by presenting you with the most relevant information when you search. If you think about it, a person searching for the nearest gas stations probably needs gas ASAP. Somebody looking for gas stations on their desktop might be looking for all gas stations in a area so that they can browse their options. This is just one small example of how the context of a search can determine what you might find relevant.
Because of the way people search for things on mobile devices and the overall increase in mobile search traffic, Google has been experimenting with mobile-first indexing for years. Mobile-first indexing is when Google's bots look at the mobile version of a website and index it before they look at the desktop version.
Why It Matters
For the past few years, Google has been using the mobile-friendliness of your website to determine where it should rank in search. At first, the mobile-friendliness of your website only impacted how it would show up in mobile searches but now that's starting to change. So while this recent announcement changes things for anyone launching a site on a new domain, it won't be long before Google rolls this out across all domains.
I have always tried to explain to people that Google just wants to make sure you're paying attention to your customers, how they search for you, and what they find. It's a very simple way of trying to help people understand that if your site is slow, full of useless information and not very easy to read on a mobile phone, that Google will have to assume you don't care. When they indexed your website, it didn't have a lot of information on it and it was slow to load. Google can see that it doesn't render properly one a mobile phone and that people don't spend a lot of time browsing on the mobile version.
Now your competitor has a website with all kinds of helpful content, loads quickly and works great on mobile... don't you think they should rank higher than you?
Mobile-first indexing is Google's way of saying "look, we gave you a few years to get your mobile user experience in order and it's getting close to the point where you can't ignore this anymore.". Search marketers love to use announcements from Google to get people motivated to take action and it's going to happen soon once they start indexing all websites on a mobile-first basis so it's a good idea to get ahead of this issue now.
What You Can Do About It
The first thing you should do it check out your site's mobile device user experience. Have a look at what and how your website displays on a mobile device. In particular, look at how you are serving up the mobile version of your website. If you are running a separate version (aka mdot) of your site for mobile then you should get serious about developing a fully-responsive website design because mobile-first indexing means that Google will start indexing the mobile version first... so if it's light on content, it will hurt you in the long run.
Next you want to take a look at your site's usability and speed. Those are also signals in how your site will appear in search results so take the time to use your website on search and make sure the user experience matches what you'd expected on the desktop side. Look at your page load speeds and make sure your site is loading quickly for users on mobile devices.
When you design websites or pages in the future, the best way to guard yourself against issues with mobile search is to use what's called "mobile-first design". What this essentially means is that you design your site for the mobile user BEFORE you start looking at the desktop. Most sites are still built with the desktop user in mind first and that is what leads to many of the mobile usability issues we have today. Here are some examples for how you can do this:
- Use a Grid Layout: Break your website's content down into boxes that get organized into a grid that can stack for different mobile devices.
- Cut the Clutter: Designing for mobile means that you have less space for fluffy content so remove any language and or graphics that aren't necessary. Focus on what the user needs to get out of each page.
- Get Speedy: Use caching, mobile-optimized images, content deliver network (CDN) and other tools to help you make sure your site loads quickly.
If you want to better understand how mobile-first design can impact your website and how you can optimize your website for mobile visitors, use some of these tools:
Google Search Console: This is the best free resource for managing your website's search indexing for Google.
Google Page Speed Insights: This free tool from Google will give you valuable insight into the ways you can speed up your website.
Cloudfair Content Deliver Network (CDN): Make your website load faster by pushing the content close to the visitors.