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

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

In the early noughties, websites were simply not designed to be viewed on small, mobile devices. Instead, when viewed on a mobile device, websites were scaled-down to about one-fifth their original size to fit inside a small, low-resolution mobile screen. As a result, they were near impossible to navigate with fingers the size of sausages poking and prodding scaled-down tiny menus and tiny buttons. It wasn’t a great experience, and many believed websites would never work at that size. 

As mobile phones began to evolve into smartphones, and faster internet connections via broadband and mobile networks became the norm, it was evident that a radical shift in web development technology needed to take place.

The web development community’s initial response was interesting, rather than radical.

Instead of attempting to figure out how to modify existing websites to work efficiently on mobile devices, they took a more pragmatic, results-based approach. Developers began creating separate pages, using existing technology, explicitly designed to match the size and resolution of mobile phones.

Typically, these mini-sites were identifiable by the letter ‘m’ (for mobile) that preceded the usual website address. For example, the mobile website address for clivewilson.com would be m.clivewilson.com.

Business owners rarely disclosed the mobile-only website address as anyone visiting the main website on a mobile device would, in the early days at least, be asked to select either the desktop or mobile version, and be directed accordingly. Advancements in technology, and a desire to improve user experience, later allowed for automatic device detection and appropriate redirection – if you typed-in a website address on a mobile device, you would automatically see the mobile pages.

For a while, the concept of mobile-only pages worked well, and it sparked a surprising array of creative approaches. However, the additional design, development and maintenance costs involved meant that it tended to be only larger businesses that chose this route.

Mobile websites tended to contain less content and fewer pages than their desktop counterparts. For example, as it was very early days for eCommerce and payment solutions that would work well on mobile devices, many companies chose to display product images in the mobile view but little else. Users had to visit the main website for both more product information or to make a purchase. Not exactly user friendly and, given the seamless, rich mobile experience we all enjoy now, it seems counterintuitive in hindsight.

A vision of the future.
Mobile technology continued to evolve at an exponential rate with the size and resolution of screens growing in tandem – each manufacturer trying to out-do the next. Soon, the new fixed-size mini-web pages began 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. If something wasn’t done soon, the future of mobile eCommerce and rich user experiences would be seriously compromised.

The vast majority of website developers would remain in limbo until the coding Gods developed a way forward.

They didn’t disappoint.

However, it was Google who forced the step-change in website development. Not because they got involved in web-development itself, but because they decreed that the mobile experience, for the end-user, should be the same as the desktop experience in terms of structure, navigation and content. Google didn’t want people to see one set of content on one device and different content on another device. It had to be seamless.

Google’s reasoning was based on its core value that only pages relevant to a user’s search term would be displayed at the top of the search results. Having different versions of the same page served only to confuse users. Google began enforcing this by threatening to penalise websites with downgraded SERP (Search Engine Results Page) positions for websites that didn’t comply.

Clearly, a different approach was needed for developers and one that used an entirely different technology.

Responsive design changed everything.
The old saying; ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ hit the nail on the head perfectly here and, by 2008, we had various solutions and working examples of a methodology badged as ‘responsive design’. In fairness, earlier versions of so-called responsive design had been around since 2004, seemingly developed by those with an uncanny ability to predict what was to come, and extremely high-end coding skills. Despite this, back then, it was a solution to a problem that was yet to exist.

Web-developers were getting twitchy with excitement and began paying attention. Responsive design was THE answer to a big problem and gave rise to a whole new look and feel that promised to be sleek, sexy and stylish. Responsive design hailed-in a new era of website development where the content and menu system looked and worked one way on a desktop screen, but magically flowed into a different layout on smaller mobile screens. Both devices now displayed the same content which would dynamically change to refit the screen if the mobile device was rotated from a vertical to a horizontal position, and back again.

Responsive design has been through many iterations and variations over the years, some of which remain active to this day. Each variation performs fundamentally the same fluid content function and achieves similar end results, but using slightly different rules. However, the resulting functionally that performs the responsive layout itself is now the defacto-standard in the vast majority of popular Content Management Systems such as WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, Magento etc.

Google even provided an easy way to check how mobile-friendly our websites were, with a free testing tool, which remains in place.

Mobile phone technology appeared to be expanding at an exponential rate, bringing many new types and functionality to the market. No doubt the birth of the iPhone in 2007 was a direct response to the explosion in usage of mobile devices generally and, once again, Apple changed the world.

By the mid-late 2000s, more than 50% of online users consistently chose their mobile device to access the internet. In some sectors, such as streaming audio/video content, this rose to  70% – 80% of users, and that was 10+ years ago.

Mobile phone obsession is now normal and due, in part, to all the other life-enhancing features they provide. It made sense that many people were beginning their online search journey on a mobile device, even if they later continued, or finished, on a desktop.

Google announces mobile-first indexing.
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.

We know Google never likes to lay all its cards on the table. We also know mobile-first indexing is in full swing and that Google is, potentially, penalising websites that don’t present the user (someone searching) with a rich mobile experience to match that of the desktop site.

However, Google wasn’t finished.

On May 28th 2019, Google made a shocking announcement. From July 1, 2019, mobile-first indexing would be the default for all new domain names. No longer would great content alone guarantee a top-rank position in its search results for any given search term. If the fabulous content wasn’t fully mobile-friendly, the website would, potentially, be penalised and found languishing lower down the results page.

The battle between SEO and website development.
Overnight, the SEO and web-development world was in turmoil. The vast amounts of time and effort SEO consultants had lavished on high ranking websites could be undone in a flash, and by an automated algorithm outside of their control.

Google intended to use its smartphone scanner to find all new websites, even those newly launched on a domain name that has been around for a while, and index the content only if the website was mobile-first ready. If the mobile content and responsive functionality were anything less than exemplary, Google wouldn’t consider the website to be mobile-first ready, and it would naturally slip down the search results, in favour of those that were.

This is as true now as it was then, only it’s far more sophisticated, as are the tools and methods used to build websites that use responsive design to fit content into the ever-increasing range of mobile devices available.

In the late 90s there were an estimated 2.3m – 3m websites. Google was a fledgeling search engine, and just having a website gave you competing rights and a massive chance of success. Now, every website is competing with around 2 billion other websites. It has never been more important to consider the experience visitors will have when they visit your website – on whatever device they choose – and it makes sense to presume this is very likely to start with a mobile device.

The chances are, your web developer will be fully aware of how important mobile-first website design is, and will be appraising you of this at the outset. Either way, as your website is developed, and you’re checking progress along the way, make sure you keep checking and comparing the desktop experience with the mobile experience.

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