What is Google’s Mobile First Index?

Google has confirmed that more searches are carried out on mobile devices (tablets and phones) than on desktops. So, it is hardly surprising that Google wants to start ranking results based on the content and user experience for mobile users.

Mobile Friendly Update

Back in April/May 2015, Google introduced the mobile friendly update (affectionately known as Mobilegeddon), where mobile friendly content would rank higher than other content. What this really meant is that, if you had a website that didn’t either have a separate mobile-friendly site or a responsive layout (changes layout to accommodate the screen size) then you were penalized on mobile searches. This was a sensible move by Google to ensure a good the mobile experience for the user. There have been additional attempts to improve things for mobile users, such as Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) for faster loading, though it is unclear where this will go in the future.

Mobile First Indexing

The most recent major mobile announcement from Google is the intention to implement mobile first indexing.

What does this actually mean?

Well, the details are still unclear, including how and when this update will roll out. However, the essence of the update is fairly clear. Google intends to rank pages based on what a user would see in a mobile environment, rather than a desktop.

Mobile vs Responsive Site

Many of today’s sites are responsive, meaning that the user sees the same (or very similar) information, regardless of whether they are viewing the site on a mobile device or large-screen desktop. Using CSS and media statements, the website layout changes as the screen size reduces, so a mobile user can still see everything without needing to zoom in.

However, many companies still have a separate website that is only displayed on mobile devices. This separate site often has reduced information; everything that the company believes is most important to a mobile user. For example, imagine an urgent care facility. Casual desktop users may be interested in viewing testimonials, reading staff bios, etc. However, they may expect a mobile user, possibly with a medical emergency, to be far more interested in a simple interface that allows the user to determine if they’re open and how far away they are. In this instance, it may be very sensible to have a simplified interface (with a link to the full website) that provides quick user access to critical information, with large phone-friendly buttons. Of course, with Google’s proposed mobile first index, a reduced interface of this type is far less likely to rank well.

Is it a Good Idea?

At Google Search Engine Optimization, we were fully in favor of the mobile friendly update. Even though we still have clients in industries where a low percentage of visitors are using mobile devices, it does make sense to ensure that all users have an enjoyable website experience.

We are far more skeptical about mobile first indexing. As we’ve described, there are situations where it makes sense to provide less information to a mobile user, and to provide it in a different interface. Even though, in our minds, this provides a better user experience for users, Google’s new update will effectively penalize the site.

What Should I Do?

Regardless of whether, or not, you agree with Google’s planned update, Google has such a huge share of the online market, you need to ensure that your website is optimized for the Google ranking algorithm. This means:

  1. If you don’t have a mobile friendly site, what rock have you been hiding under? It is time to update your website immediately.
  2. If you currently serve two site versions (one to desktops and one to mobile devices), you should either expand your mobile site to provide sufficient information that it can rank well in its own right, or (recommended) update your site to serve a single responsive site to all device types.