New Google Search Index Prioritizes Mobile Content

Google’s Mobile-First Index Goes Live

Google Mobile-First Index

Graphic by Rachel Ann Custodio

Google’s mobile-first index is live—at least for a small group of users. The search giant is experimenting with an index that prioritizes mobile content over their desktop versions. It began experimenting with the new search index on Friday, November 4. A global rollout of the mobile-first index is coming within the next few months.

How the mobile-first index works

The mobile-first index works the same as the current desktop index, but it prioritizes mobile documents. Google’s algorithms will display snippets based on the mobile versions of your primary content and structured data.

Preparing for the mobile-first index

You may need to take a few extra steps to ensure your website is mobile ready. Below are Google’s recommendations for each situation.

Mobile responsive site: For websites that are already either mobile responsive or dynamic serving where your primary content and markup are the same across mobile and desktop devices, nothing more on your end is required. You should, however, ensure your mobile responsive site is added and verified in Google Search Console.

Unique site configuration: If your primary content and markup are different across devices, make sure you have both for each device. Then, use the robots.txt testing tool to verify your mobile version is accessible.

No mobile version: For those who only have a desktop site, your site will continue to be crawled and ranked. Google emphasized providing users with the most relevant search results. If your website is relevant, but not necessarily mobile-optimized, you can still show up for your keywords.

Although you do want to eliminate as many disadvantages you have. While Google states you can rank, you may drop in rankings for a number of other reasons. For example, slow page load time and bad user experience can affect your rankings.

On the other hand, if you have a website that’s functional on desktop, don’t rush to make your website mobile-friendly for the sake of the new index. Retrofitting your website to be mobile responsive may lead to clunky design or poor usability.

“If you are building a mobile version of your site, keep in mind that a functional desktop-oriented site can be better than a broken or incomplete mobile version of the site,” reads Google’s blog. “It’s better for you to build up your mobile site and launch it when ready.”

Canonical links don’t need to be changed. Google’s blog reads: “We’ll continue to use these links as guides to serve the appropriate results to a user searching on desktop or mobile.”

RELATED: New Google Penalty: Intrusive Interstitial Mobile Penalty

Mobile: It’s been a long time coming

You know mobile is more than a trend when Google restructures its legacy ranking systems to prioritize mobile content over desktop content. Though, the switch to a mobile focus shouldn’t come off as a surprise. In fact, we’ve known this was coming for a while.

Ranking changes based on misconfigurations

Google announced it would make ranking changes that would affect websites with mobile misconfigurations on June 11, 2013. Websites that looked badly on mobile devices would be negatively affected in the SERPs.

GoogleBot seeing the user’s view

The following year, GoogleBot began fully crawling and rendering web pages. This enabled Google to see pages the way users see them and thus judge the level of your website’s user experience across different devices. For instance, the bot was able to tell if the font size was illegible on mobile devices or if users were required to zoom in on your content to view the entire web page.

Introduction of mobile-friendly labels

Six months later was the launch of “mobile-friendly” labels in November 2014. Websites were qualified for the mobile-friendly label if they avoided mobile misconfigurations, avoided flash, used mobile-optimized viewports, and had appropriate tap target sizes.

Google recently removed the mobile-friendly label in August 2016 because it had become obsolete. The company stated 85% of pages in its mobile SERPs are now mobile-friendly.

Official mobile-friendly update

The first sign that indicated just how important mobile was to Google was the release of its mobile-friendly update on April 21, 2015. It was dubbed “Mobilegeddon” because not everyone had mobile-friendly websites at the time of the announcement, leading many to believe catastrophe would ensue.

Google’s warning apparently worked because there was a 4.7% uptick in mobile-friendly sites from when the company made the announcement on February 26, 2015, to the actual release date. The update was recently refreshed in May 2016.

Rise of mobile searches

Perhaps as another nudge to webmasters to convert their sites, Google search chief Amit Singhal said that more Google searches were being performed on mobile devices than desktop computers for the first time in history. The reality of mobile trumping desktop was definitely settling in.

AMP release

As if having a mobile website wasn’t enough, Google introduced accelerated mobile pages (AMP) this time last year. AMP is an HTML document stripped down to contain only the essentials and primary content. Pages written in the AMP code load within half a second and are accessible through mobile devices. AMP-powered documents are no substitute for a mobile site, and they shouldn’t be treated as such either.

AMP isn’t a ranking factor (yet), according to Google. Will AMP be a ranking factor for the new mobile-first index? Will AMP still be relevant once everyone provides faster website experiences? No word on either of these questions yet. However, we do know there’s absolutely no doubt that mobile is the future.