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Google’s Mobile-first Indexing – What Does It Mean To Your Website?

Google’s mobile-first indexing – what does it mean to your website?

As mobile phones evolved into smart phones, and faster internet connections via broadband and mobile networks were rolled-out, it was becoming more and more obvious that a radical shift in web development technology needed to take place.

Websites were simply not designed to be viewed on small, mobile devices and were impossible to navigate as the website was scaled-down to about one fifth the size of a standard desktop screen (even flat desktop screens were not as large as they are now) to fit a mobile screen, resulting in tiny menus and tiny buttons being poked and prodded with fingers the size of sausages.

The web development community’s response was interesting. For each client website they designed a separate set of pages that could be more easily viewed and used on mobile devices. Typically, these mini-sites were identifiable by the ‘m’ seen at the start of the usual website address. So, for example, the usual address for the desktop version of this website would be clivewilson.com but, for the mobile version, it would be m.clivewilson.com. The mobile address was rarely disclosed directly as anyone visiting the main website would, in the early days at least, be asked to select either the desktop or mobile version and be directed accordingly. Improvements in user experience later allowed for automatic device detection and appropriate redirection.

This system worked well and everyone from plumbers to banks introduced mobile versions of their main website often with cut-down content designed to fit the cut-down screens but with a link to the main site if you really needed the additional information or functionality.

However, mobile technology was evolving at an exponential rate with screen sizes growing and screen resolution increasing constantly. Soon, the new fixed-size mini-web pages were beginning to look out of place on the bigger, better mobile screens.

It was all becoming a bit of a mess and hugely impacting the end user’s experience. Eventually, Google stepped-in and decreed that the mobile experience should be the same as a desktop experience in terms of structure, navigation and content because it was planning to penalising website owners by downgrading the SERP (Search Engine Results Page) position of websites that didn’t comply. Clearly we needed a different approach and one that used an entirely different technology.

Necessity really is the mother of invention and, when the techno-bods banged their heads together and, by 2008, we had variety of solutions and working examples of something called ‘responsive design’. In fairness, early versions of responsive design had been around since 2004 but it really was a solution to a problem that was yet to exist.

Suddenly everyone paid attention as responsive design was THE answer to a big problem. It hailed-in a new era of website development where the exact same content and menu system looked and worked one way on a desktop screen but magically flowed into an entirely different layout on smaller mobile screens, even dynamically changing to refit the screen if the mobile device was rotated from a vertical to horizontal position.

Google even gave us an easy way to check how mobile-friendly our websites were with a free testing tool: https://search.google.com/test/mobile-friendly
There have been many iterations and variations of responsive technology since, but they fundamentally perform the same fluid content function and responsive design is the defacto-standard technology in the vast majority of popular Content Management Systems used in web development, such as WordPress, Joomla, Droopal, Magento etc.

However, going back to the original point, that Google was only too aware how the march of time was revealing that more than 50% of users (in some sectors such as streaming audio/video content, 70% – 80% of users) consistently choose their mobile device to access the internet. In May 2019 Google stated; “We’re happy to see how the web has evolved from being focused on desktop, to becoming mobile-friendly”.

Mobile phone obsession is due partly to all the other live-enhancing features they provide so it made sense that people were starting their online search journey on a mobile, even if they later continued or finished it on a desktop.

To this end, and never one to rest on its laurels, on Friday, November 04, 2016, Google announced on the Webmaster Central Blog that it would begin testing ‘mobile-first indexing’.

Paraphrasing, the announcement said:

Today, most people are searching on Google using a mobile device. However, our ranking systems still typically look at the desktop version of a page’s content to evaluate its relevance to the user. This can cause issues when the mobile page has less content than the desktop page…

To make our results more useful, we’ve begun experiments to make our index mobile-first… …our algorithms will eventually primarily use the mobile version of a site’s content to rank pages from that site… …to build a great search experience for all users, whether they come from mobile or desktop devices.

Whilst Google never likes to put all its cards on the table, we know mobile-first indexing is in full swing and Google is, potentially, penalising websites that don’t present the user with a rich mobile experience to match their desktop site.

But Google wasn’t finished…

On May 28th 2019, Google announced that, from July 1, 2019 mobile-first indexing will be the default for all new web domains. This means that when Google finds a new website even on a domain that has been around for a while but not used, it will be scanned by Google’s smartphone scanner (known as Googlebot) and only the mobile-friendly content will be used to index its pages. Therefore, if your mobile content is anything less than exemplary, it will reflect in the position you appear in Google’s search results.

The moral of this story is that in order to compete with everyone else out there, it’s no longer enough for you to just have a website. Instead, you need to be thinking about the experience visitors will have when they visit your website, on whatever device they choose.

What would the world be without a bit of healthy competition eh?

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