Google has finally started to transfer more sites to the mobile-first index. Mobile-first index – what the heck is that supposed to be? Let’s find out in today’s blog post.
Mobile-First Index: A Timeline
- November 2016 – Google officiallyannounces the mobile-first index (MFI) on the Webmaster Central Blog. Google also points out that nowadays the majority of users conduct searches via a mobile device, however, the search engine giant still primarily uses the desktop version of a website in its ranking systems.
- November 2017 – During his speech at Pubcon Las Vegas 2017, webmaster trend analyst Gary Illyes says that Google has started to test the mobile-first index on a couple of sites, which are being closely monitored with regard to traffic changes. Illyes also mentions that no fixed release date of the MFI exists at this point.
- December 2017 – In a second post Google confirms the transfer of sites to the MFI saying that “This process has already started for a handful of sites and is closely being monitored by the search team.”
- February 2018 – At Pubcon Austin 2018 Gary Illyes says that Google will be moving many more sites to the MFI in the coming weeks.
- March 2018 – Google announces that it has started to migrate sites to the MFI that follow best practices.
What Is The MFI?
In the past, Google used to crawl only the desktop version of a page to evaluate content relevance and determine how the page should be ranked in the SERPs. In many cases that was totally fine, since the desktop and mobile version of most sites were identical. Only a small percentage of users conducted searches via a mobile device at that time.
Back in 2015, however, mobile search surpassed desktop search, and accounts for about 60% of all online searches today. Above that, in terms of content, more webmasters have started to optimize their mobile website versions with less or slightly different content. That, in combination with desktop indexing, can lead to less accurate search results for mobile searchers that may not find the information they are looking for.
Google solved this issue with the mobile-first index. The mobile-first index means that Google will be using the mobile version of a site’s content to index and rank pages – even for all desktop search results. This is why it’s super important that you prepare your website for this imminent change.
How To Prepare Your Site For Mobile-First
Google has released a number of recommendations and best practices on how you can prepare your website for the MFI.
First of all, if your website is responsive, you can sit back and relax, as you don’t need to make any changes at all.
If your website is still desktop only, it’s definitely time to make the switch and go responsive. This will help with your mobile search rankings going forward. You should also think about optimizing content for mobile users.
If you serve content dynamically or on separate URLs, here’s what you need to do especially in regards to the technical side of things:
- Claim your mobile site version in the Google Search Console.
- Use Google’s robots.txt testing tool to ensure site accessibility and eliminate possible crawling/indexation errors.
- Make sure to serve the same structured data markup on both versions with updated URLs pointing to the mobile version on all mobile pages. This also applies to social metadata.
- The mobile and desktop site version should serve equivalent, high-quality content including optimized images and video.
- Meta descriptions and title tags should also be equivalent. In other words, they should contain the same, but not necessarily identical information. For example, as less characters of a title tag get displayed in Google’s mobile version, you should try to reduce the length of it on the mobile page.
- For international SEO or if you use the hreflang attribute, keep mobile and desktop URLs separated. In other words, the hreflang links on a mobile URL should point only to the language or region equivalents of other mobile URLs, and the same applies to desktop URLs.
- An additional mobile site version leads to an increased crawl rate, so you have to ensure that your host servers have sufficient capacity (only applies if the mobile version is on a separate host).
On a side note: Google said that “a functional desktop-oriented site can be better than a broken or incomplete mobile version of the site“, which is something you want to keep in mind.
When Will The Transfer To The MFI Be Completed?
There’s no information on a full release yet. Google has already started to transfer sites that follow best practices. These sites get notified via the Google Search Console and see a crawl rate increase from the Smartphone Googlebot.
How Will The New Way Of Indexing Impact Current Rankings?
In the March 2018 announcement, Google said that mobile-friendly content can perform better for those who are searching on mobile. A site that was transferred to the MFI does not have an automatic ranking advantage over a site that’s still in the “old” desktop index.
Will There Be Two Different Indexes?
No. Only the way of how content is added to the index is changed.
What If The Mobile Site Version Has Less Content Than The Desktop Version?
That’s a problem. Google recommends that mobile site content is equivalent to desktop site content.
Do You Need To Make Any Changes To Canonical Tags?
Google Does Not Value Expendable Content On Desktop That Much. Does The Same Apply To Mobile?
Expendable content makes much more sense on mobile than it does on desktop, as it can help with user experience. Hidden content on mobile will therefore likely be given full weight.
Will Backlinks Become Less Of A Ranking Factor In SEO Because Of This?
That’s quite possible. It also looks like URLs in general get less important to organize and structure content.
You should keep in mind that starting in July this year Google will add page speed as one of the ranking factors for mobile searches (“Speed Update“), as it has a huge influence on user experience.
According to Google that change will only affect super slow pages and therefore only a small part of the search queries. Google also pointed out that even a slow page can still be placed in the top positions of the SERPs, if it features highly relevant and high-quality content.