Who among us weren’t excited as kids by the idea of a Star Trek future? Who didn’t want to take a walk on the holodeck, or travel through space, or hold all the information in the universe in the palm of their hand? Well, folks, the future is now – virtual reality is now a consumer electronics product, private space travel is taking us to Mars, and in the United States, most online activities are taking place on mobile devices. Of course, if we as content creators aren’t ready for the future, we’ll be left behind. Case in point: Google’s Mobile-First Indexing.
What is Mobile-First Indexing?
All the information Google collects on your website (and on every other website) goes into an enormous catalog called an index. This is used to formulate and display search results for various queries. For example, the high-density keyword for this blog post is “mobile-first indexing,” so when someone searches for that phrase Google will pull this page from the index and display it in the search results. However, it will display us lower than, say, Forbes’ article on the same topic, because the index also has information stored which says that that page is much more popular and is therefore more likely to have what the user is searching for.
Up until January of this year, Google prioritized desktop versions of websites over mobile versions, treating the latter as important, but secondary. But now, recognizing that mobile content is what most people are looking at most of the time, the company is slowly rolling out an update which will flip that order and make the mobile versions of each page the primary page in their index. Thus: “mobile-first.”
How does this impact organic search?
Google is confident that this change will not affect search rankings in a major way. Although Google already ranks sites it deems as being “mobile-friendly” higher in search results, mobile-first indexing will not affect whether or not Google sees your site as mobile-friendly.
However, ranking signals (the tags, headings, view counts, etc. that Google stores in your index entry when it crawls your page) from the mobile version of a page will now be attached to the desktop version of that page. This means that if the mobile and desktop versions of your website are significantly different, it could affect what organic search traffic brings users to your site. For example, many blogs’ mobile versions will split longer posts onto multiple pages. If this post you’re currently reading was split across multiple pages instead of one, there would be fewer instances of the keyword “mobile-first indexing” on this page, and Google would assume that this page was less relevant to that topic, even on the desktop version which includes the full post.
What do I need to do?
One of the most important things about this update is that it signals, very clearly, that Google is going to continue shifting their focus to the experience of mobile users going forward. So if you don’t already have a fully-functioning mobile version of your site, it’s time to get on that, even though for now the lack of a mobile version means that Google will index your desktop site the same way it did before.
In addition, you need to ensure that the desktop and mobile versions of your website have the same content on the same pages with the same tags and keywords. This is the only way to guarantee that mobile-first indexing won’t affect your place in the search rankings. The easiest way to do this is to use a responsive design, which automatically changes its appearance based on the device used to access it.
One thing is clear: mobile devices are the way of the future, and if you’re not making sure that mobile device users feel welcome on your website, it’s only going to affect your organic search traffic more and more in the coming months. What’s more, content creators should make sure to always keep their eyes on Google, as even the smallest changes in their algorithm can have huge implications for your website.