May 4, 2017

Mobile-First Indexing: What Does It Mean for SEO?

We live in an interconnected world where it feels that smartphones are everywhere; with people engrossed in their screens at every turn.

In the USA, UK, and Canada, to name a few, mobile devices amount for over 60% of total internet traffic; in fact, mobile internet usage surpassed desktop usage back in 2014. With these statistics in mind, it’s no surprise that Google is moving to mobile-first indexing.

Mobile internet usage surpassed desktop usage back in 2014. Credit: Smart Insights

Now, you might be asking yourself: what is mobile-first indexing?

It is simply the way that Google’s indexing bots, also known as spiders, crawl the web. So far, the emphasis was on desktop internet usage, which meant that these bots gave priority to desktop versions of web pages. Now, they will prioritize mobile optimized content while crawling the web.

Will the change impact page ranking and SEO?

Possibly. If you are using a responsive site, or if you have a properly optimized mobile version, you should see little change, if any.

Google announced its plans for mobile-first indexing back in November 2016 and they will be implementing it gradually across 2017. Testing is currently being carried out to ensure that the quality of user experience and search results are not affected due to this indexing change. As Doantam Phanof of the Google webmaster blog said:

“We understand this is an important shift in our indexing and it’s one we take seriously. We’ll continue to carefully experiment over the coming months on a small scale and we’ll ramp up this change when we’re confident that we have a great user experience.”

While it might seem simple on the surface, the key issue with the move to mobile-first indexing is that desktop sites have been around for so much longer than mobile sites, and the amount of metadata for mobile is not as abundant. In other words, mobile web has much less content and links due to the head start that desktop has had.

In essence, Google has to develop new signals and metrics that are going to fill in this gap in order for the change to be seamless. A good example of this is the new page speed measurement process that is planned for mobile sites – the desktop page speed is not relevant to mobile.

How should I prepare for mobile-first indexing?

First of all, Google has already focused on mobile-friendly search engine updates, so this move just makes it more official. If you haven’t optimized your blogs and sites for mobile so far, your site performance is already suffering.

Now, regarding the solution, the first and most obvious answer is to optimize for mobile. There are a number of steps you can take to do this. The simplest way to improve your website and its functionality is to use a responsive design – a dynamic approach to the way your website looks, depending on the screen size, resolution, and operating system.

This isn’t a new development, and most CMS platforms offer responsive themes and layouts. In addition, you have simple tools at your disposal to establish if your site is mobile-friendly.

Of course, you can still use separate versions of your website or even keep on using a desktop only site, since the new algorithm will index it just fine, but it could potentially be marked down in SERPs due to poor mobile performance.

So, other than major design changes, what else can you do to improve your ranking and SEO?

Use Structured Data

Structured data is on-page mark-up that allows crawlers to fully understand what your website is about. It also enables search engines to produce rich snippets in search results and potentially push your website higher up in SERP results. The Structured Data Testing Tool is a free tool from Google that allows you to validate and test structured data in websites.

Although it is important, this structured data can be removed from the mobile version of your site to increase site speed and adhere to mobile-first indexing.

If your site has only a desktop version verified in the search console, make sure to also add and verify your mobile site. It’s also recommended to use a robots.txt testing tool to see if your mobile site looks healthy to a Googlebot (Google indexer, or spider).


While this is a major change, standard practice still applies to producing SEO-friendly content.

There are a few little tweaks that you can make to your content that could improve your mobile performance, from the point of user experience. For the most part it isn’t about any particular technique, but how you think about your content.

One of the first questions you should ask yourself is this: is browsing your website on a mobile device a good experience?

Sure, long and informative articles are important, but that 5000 word article can look really intimidating on a smartphone. Using short paragraphs with a lot of white space will make your content easier to read when it’s scaled down for smaller screen sizes.

You should also consider breaking up your copy with images and infographics. Video and audio content also work great on mobile, as impatient browsers won’t stick around to read a swathe of text. By varying the content on a webpage, whether it’s video or audio, you’ll appeal to more users as well as encouraging spiders to crawl your site.

What does the future hold?

To anyone following SEO trends, mobile-first indexing is not really news. Google has been focusing on increasing and improving the mobile experience for years now.

Mobile-specific updates are slowly changing the online landscape; the introduction of AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) allows users to access your content at greatly improved speeds and app streaming allows you to use apps without actually downloading it to your device.

Luckily, improving your website for mobile-first indexing isn't complicated for the average Digital Marketer. Simply focus on creating great content and keep user experience at the centre of all changes you make to your desktop and mobile sites.

Ultimately, optimizing your blog for mobile is a matter of common sense as most of your audience is slowly migrating there, and there is a clear shift in marketing trends in the past few years.

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