March 2018: How to get ready for Google’s Mobile First Index
Posted by Sean Butcher on March 1, 2018
Gary Illyes, one of Google’s Webmaster Trends Analysts, confirmed at the recent 2018 Pubcon conference in Austin, Texas that the much-anticipated Mobile First Index (MFI) will be rolling out imminently, most likely within the next few weeks.
So are you ready for the changes ahead? What will the Mobile First Index mean for your website? And what impact might it have on your organic rankings?
In this article we’ll look at what you need to do in order to make the most of the changes that a Mobile First Indexing world will bring.
What exactly is the Mobile First Index?
The idea of a Mobile First Index has been around since 2015, when Gary Illyes said that it was something Google were developing during the SMX West conference.
However, the MFI wasn’t officially announced until towards the end of 2016 – shortly after statistics revealed that the number of web searches carried out on mobile devices had overtaken those carried out on desktop for the first time.
In order to preserve your rankings as well as possible, you need to aim for parity between your desktop and mobile websites.
Essentially, the Mobile First Index will mean that Google will crawl the mobile web primarily, and assess the experience offered on mobile websites in preference to their desktop equivalent when deciding on how to rank websites in its organic listings.
This makes sense; if a bigger proportion (and ever-increasing number) of Google’s users are searching via mobile devices, it seems like a no-brainer for them to rank websites based on the content they provide on their mobile websites first.
Will you be impacted by the MFI?
This very much depends on how your website loads on mobile devices.
In simple terms, in order to preserve your rankings as well as possible, you need to aim for parity between your desktop and mobile websites. This means that your content, internal links and markup should be very similar, if not completely identical, across both your mobile and desktop presence.
Google have said that those using a responsive or dynamic website shouldn’t have to change anything, as the two websites should be equivalent and adapt to the device they have been loaded on.
If you have a separate mobile website however (e.g. a m.domain.com site), you may find that you’ll encounter some issues if your mobile website is a stripped back version in comparison to your desktop website.
What should you be checking prior to the Mobile First Index roll-out?
If you do fall into the separate mobile website category then there are a number of checks that we’d suggest carrying out.
Robots.txt checks – There’s little point even carrying on if Google can’t even access your mobile website. If you have a separate mobile domain, make sure Googlebot can get to it by checking your robots.txt file. You’ll certainly want to avoid using a “Disallow: /” command here if you want to retain your visibility post-MFI rollout.
Content parity checks – Load your desktop and mobile websites side by side (using Chrome Developer Tools to emulate a mobile device) and visually assess a number of key pages including the homepage, main navigational landing pages, search results pages, as well as blog posts and/or news articles. Check that all content available on the desktop site can be accessed via a mobile device. If not, you’ll need to take steps to ensure this content is accessible to users and bots across both versions. Make sure these checks also include your meta titles and descriptions, as these should match across desktop and mobile.
IA/structure checks – Assess the main navigation/menus on both versions, the breadcrumbs used across your pages, as well as any important links within the website footer. For those websites utilising any facets/filters (such as an ecommerce website), you’ll need to ensure links are provided to these via the mobile version; this is a particularly tricky issue as including these can sometimes impact the browsing experience on mobile devices.
Page speed checks – This is a hugely important area for user experience, and it was announced in January that Google would be taking mobile page speed into account as a ranking factor as of July 2018 (previously this was only a factor for desktop). You should therefore ensure that your mobile website is optimised for speed; utilise tools such as Pagespeed Insights and Lighthouse to uncover recommendations specific to your website.
One of the key differences will be how Google deems “hidden” content
Structured data checks – The structured data that you use across your desktop website should also be used on your mobile website. This allows Google to gain further information about the content on your website and its webpages, and understand how this can be used to benefit user searches. You can use Google’s Structured Data Testing Tool to assess equivalency here.
ALT text checks – The text used on your images should be replicated on both your desktop and mobile websites to increase the relevance of your page, and help your images rank within image search (an area which seems to be becoming more prevalent). This is something which was discussed by John Mueller in July last year.
Search Console – Make sure that you have a Google Search Console account set up and verified for your mobile website (if on a different URL), and submit an XML sitemap containing the mobile website URLs to it in order to monitor its crawling and indexation status.
What if you have a responsive website?
Then you should, on the whole, be absolutely fine.
However, we would still recommend carrying out checks around content parity, as well as the internal links accessible to users and bots when the website loads in its mobile form.
Could including all desktop content mean a poorer UX on your mobile website?
This is a common concern, but the answer is no, not necessarily. There will be some other changes to content rules that may actually benefit websites when the Mobile First Index goes live, whilst they may have previously been detrimental.
One of the key differences will be how Google deems “hidden” content – i.e. content that isn’t immediately displayed when the page loads.
Previously, in a desktop-first indexing world, any content that would require a user to perform an additional click (such as changing between tabs, opening up an accordian, or expanding content via a drop-down or ‘Load More’ button) would be devalued by the search engine.
However, with mobile first indexing, this content will be considered as part of the normal mobile browsing UX, and therefore will no longer be demoted.
You should however ensure that this content is contained within the code of the page and therefore accessible to Googlebot to benefit from this change.
Here are some other things to keep in mind in the lead up to the MFI rollout:
Canonicals – It would make sense to repoint your canonicals to your mobile pages if Google is primarily going to be looking at your mobile website first, right? However, for now, this doesn’t seem to be necessary – Google have confirmed that they will work out the relationship between your mobile and desktop websites when crawling through these tags, so no manual change needs to take place.
AMP – If you are utilising AMP to serve mobile content then you need to ensure that your AMP pages are offering a comparable experience with your “canonical page” – most likely your desktop/responsive version. Therefore if you only offer a very scaled down version on your AMP pages currently, you’ll need to consider how you can establish parity between your AMP and canonical offerings moving forward. If your AMP pages are actually your canonical pages (which is perfectly fine) then they’ll be used for ranking signals (including page speed).
Desktop only/not optimised for mobile – Google have officially said that if you only have a desktop-only website (i.e. a website that isn’t mobile responsive) then they will continue to index this “just fine”.
However, to phrase Gary Illyes’ comments from September 2017’s Brighton SEO keynote session: “If you have (…) only a desktop site then well, what’s wrong with you? You probably want to create a mobile site at one point.”
The roll-out of the Mobile First Index is a significant change in the way that Google indexes the web. However, by carrying out the right checks and putting the recommendations highlighted in this article in place, you should be able to enjoy the benefits that this change will bring.