Google’s mobile-first indexing – what does it mean for your website?
Update from March 2021: Google changes the rules again
From March 2021, Google has implemented a major change that will affect all websites that do not have a mobile-friendly version. Full details are below.
Before websites were mobile-ready
In the early noughties, websites were not designed to be viewed on small, mobile devices. They were designed to be viewed on a desktop/laptop screen.
Mobiles were capable of displaying the website, but only as a scaled-down version of the original.
Roughly one-fifth their original size, websites squeezed into the small, low-resolution mobile screen and were near impossible to navigate with fingers the size of sausages prodding scaled-down tiny menus and buttons.
It wasn’t a great experience for users.
The smartphone changed everything
As mobile phones began to evolve into smartphones, and faster internet connections via broadband and mobile networks became the norm, a radical shift in website technology was needed.
The initial response from the web-development community 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 used existing technology to create separate web-pages, designed to match the size and resolution of mobile phones.
Typically, these mini-websites were identifiable by the letter ‘m’ (for mobile) preceding the usual website address. For example, the mobile website address for clivewilson.com would have been m.clivewilson.com.
But this didn’t matter because business owners rarely disclosed the mobile-only website address to potential visitors. They didn’t need to because anyone visiting the main website on a mobile device would usually be asked to select a button to take them to either the desktop or mobile version. As time progressed and web-developers caught-up, the switching began happening automatically.
The mobile version of websites tended to contain less content and fewer pages than their desktop counterparts. For example, eCommerce and payment solutions didn’t work well on mobile devices, so many companies chose to display product images in the mobile view but little else, forcing visitors to go to the main website for more product information or to make a purchase. Not exactly user friendly and, given the seamless, rich mobile experience we enjoy now, it seems counterintuitive in hindsight.
A vision of the future
Mobile technology evolved at an exponential rate and web-developers found it difficult to keep pace. The fixed-size, mini web-pages were looking out of place on the bigger, better mobile screens, but there was no new web-technology available to anything different. The majority of website developers were held in limbo, waiting for the coding gods to develop a way forward.
They didn’t disappoint, but it was actually Google who forced the step-change in website development by decreeing that the mobile experience [of a website], 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, e.g. desktop/laptop, and a different set of content on another device, e.g. mobile. 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.
Necessity is the mother of invention
By 2008 we had working examples of a methodology badged as ‘responsive design’. In fairness, earlier versions of so-called responsive design had been around since 2004, developed by those technical wizards who possess the uncanny ability to predict what’s coming. However, back then, it was still a solution to a problem that was yet to exist.
Web-developers were getting twitchy with excitement.
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. It hailed-in a new era of website development where the content and menu system looked and worked one particular way on a desktop screen, but magically flowed into a different layout on smaller mobile screens. Both devices now displayed the same content which dynamically changed 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 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 to use.
The exponential rise of mobile use
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.”
Google never likes to lay all its cards on the table, but we knew mobile-first indexing was in full swing, and that Google would, potentially, penalise websites that didn’t present the user (someone searching) with a rich mobile experience to match that of their desktop website.
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 not, 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 it’ll be a mobile device.
GOOGLE ANNOUNCES MAJOR INDEXING UPDATE FROM MARCH 2021
Since July 2019, Google has been hell-bent on making sure the mobile version of a website is its best version because the majority of searches begin on a mobile device, so it makes perfect sense to focus on that.
It’s estimated that around 70% of websites are now optimised for mobile, so website owners and developers have clearly been paying attention. However, that still leaves 30% of websites that are not optimised for mobile, some of which don’t even possess the capability to display on a mobile device.
Here’s what this means in layman’s terms:
- Google has been using a website’s mobile version as the one it indexes since July 2019. If it couldn’t find a mobile version, it defaulted to indexing the desktop version.
- From March 2021, Google will no longer step back to indexing the desktop version if it can’t find a mobile version. READ THAT AGAIN - it means if Google can’t find a mobile version of your website, it will no longer index your website. Period.
- When Google stops indexing your website it will also remove all images and other assets from its index, so you will have no presence in Google whatsoever.
Next steps to take
If your website was built in the past 2–3 years, and especially if it was built using platforms such as WordPress or Joomla, the chances are it will be fully mobile responsive and Google will/should be a happy bunny.
However, it’s still vitally important to ensure the mobile version of your website contains all the content and assets (images & graphics) that you feel are essential to be found in Google searches. Any elements of content Google can’t see on the mobile version, will not be added to its index.
Discuss with your website developer how your website fits into Google’s mobile-first indexing and what changes might need to be made.
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