Mobile-First Indexing Explained: Everything You Need to Know
By: Ananyaa Venkat
Updated On: January 27, 2023
Mobile-First Indexing Explained: Everything You Need to Know
Mobile-first indexing is Google’s way of prioritizing the mobile version of websites to rank content.
When was the last time you did an online search using your desktop device?
It’s been some time since the number of mobile searches has outnumbered the number of desktop searches online.
With the massive shift in the way people search online, Google has been working on mobile-first indexing for a few years now.
In this blog, I’ll tell you everything you need to know about Google’s mobile-first indexing. Let’s get started right away.
What is Mobile-First Indexing?
As the name suggests, mobile-first indexing means that Google will primarily consider the mobile version of your site to determine your search rankings.
However, it doesn’t mean Google only considers the mobile version of your site to rank your content.
So, are there two Google indexes?
As Google puts it, “It’s important to note that there isn’t a separate mobile-first index; Google Search continues to use only one index. Google Search continues to show the URL that is the most appropriate to users (whether it’s a desktop or mobile URL) in Search results.
That said, if you have different URLs for your desktop and mobile versions, Google will show the desktop URL to desktop users and the mobile URL to mobile users.
Nevertheless, the first to be indexed will be the mobile version.
Is Mobile-First Indexing Same as Mobile Usability?
You can, of course, test your site’s mobile friendliness.
Use Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test Tool to know how mobile-friendly your site is.
Paste your page URL and find out the potential mobile usability issues on your site.
So, are mobile usability and mobile-first indexing one and the same?
That’s a popular misconception.
As Google’s John Mueller puts it, “Mobile usability is completely separate from mobile-first indexing. A site can or cannot be usable from a mobile point of view, but it can still contain all of the content that we need for mobile-first indexing.”
Here’s an example from Mueller himself.
“An extreme example, if you take something like a PDF file, then on mobile that would be terrible to navigate. The links will be hard to click, the text will be hard to read. But all of the text is still there, and we could perfectly index that with mobile-first indexing.”
So, domains without a dedicated mobile site can be eligible for mobile-first indexing as long as they work on mobile devices.
The Mobile-First Indexing Timeline
While it’s been some time since Google initiated mobile-first indexing, here’s a look at how it has progressed over the years.
- November 2016 – Google started experimenting with mobile-first indexing
- December 2017- Google began evaluating sites for their readiness to be indexed on a mobile-first basis.
- March 2018- Mobile-first indexing was rolled out.
- July 2019- Mobile-first indexing made default for new sites.
- March 2020- 70% of sites in Google’s index moved to mobile-first indexing.
Why is Mobile-First Indexing Important?
Mobile-first indexing isn’t a choice but a necessity.
Let’s say the desktop version of your site is well-optimized to drive traffic, but your site isn’t mobile-friendly.
With mobile-first indexing in place, the poor quality of your mobile version will be more obvious to Google than the outstanding quality of your desktop site.
Plus, your competitors with an optimized mobile version will gain the upper hand in terms of search engine rankings while you stay behind.
Also, without a mobile-friendly site, users who visit your site using mobile devices, including smartphones and tablets, are likely to prefer your competitors’ sites instead of yours.
That means you will lose a great deal of traffic from mobile devices. That’s not a good sign for your website, especially with users increasingly resorting to mobile searches.
So, if you want to improve your chances of ranking higher on Google, your site should be mobile-friendly.
Want to get your site optimized for mobile-first indexing? We’ve got you covered. Let’s talk.
How to Optimize Your Site for Mobile-First Indexing
With Google putting mobile-first indexing in the forefront, a mobile-friendly site is a must-have.
In fact, while Google is implementing mobile-first indexing for older sites, the search engine giant announced that mobile-first indexing is default for all sites launched after July 1, 2019.
This is also applicable to sites that weren’t crawled by Google previously.
If you are wondering how to brace your site for mobile-first indexing, here is a look at the best practices you should follow.
Give Access to Your Content
In order for Google to index and rank the mobile version of your site, you need to make sure that the crawlers can access your content.
Ensure the robot.txt file is not blocking access to the main parts of your content, especially on your mobile version.
Google recommends using the same meta robot tags on both desktop and mobile versions.
If you use different meta robot tags, Google is likely to miss out on crawling and indexing your content once mobile-first indexing is enabled for your site.
Avoid Lazy Loading of Primary Content
Do NOT enable lazy loading of your main content, especially the segments that prompt user interaction when people visit your site.
These interactions can be anything, including clicking, swiping and typing.
Make sure your lazy-loaded content is visible to Google. That’s how Google will be able to crawl your assets.
Feature the Same Content on Mobile and Desktop Versions
Does your site’s mobile version display less content than your desktop counterpart?
If yes, it’s time to update your content.
Less content on your mobile page means less information and that will affect the traffic flow to your site.
In fact, Google recommends using the same content on the mobile and desktop versions of your website.
This way, the content on your mobile page will be equivalent to the one that appears on your desktop page with mobile-first indexing in place.
However, your mobile version can have a different design for a better mobile user experience.
Use the Same (and Comprehensive) Headings in Both Versions
Make sure your headings are clear, easy to understand and to the point. Use the same headings in both mobile and desktop versions of your site.
Be it your visitors or the search engine, headings help in easily figuring out if your content is relevant to a particular search.
Leverage your heading tags well to drive qualified leads to your site and boost conversions.
Use the Same Structured Data as in Your Desktop Version
Organizing your content using structured data or schema markup is one of the best ways to appear at the top of Google.
If you’ve included schema markup in your desktop pages, make sure you use the same type of schema for your mobile pages as well.
Also, ensure that you add the right URL in your structured data, especially if you have different URLs for your desktop and mobile versions.
Include the Same Metadata
The meta tags you use, including titles and descriptions, pass relevancy signals to the search engine.
Make sure you use the same meta tags for your site’s mobile version as in the desktop counterpart.
By doing so, you ensure that the metadata of your mobile page is equivalent to the desktop version.
So, using your meta tags wisely is one of the best ways to reap the benefits mobile-first indexing has in store.
Choose Your Ad Placements Wisely
Mobile users don’t view your content like your desktop users.
Given the compact size of the display for mobile users, you have to be very clear with what you want them to see when they visit your page.
Excessive or inappropriate ad placements can result in a poor user experience for mobile users.
So, make sure you place your ads in places that don’t affect the mobile user experience.
For example, ads that hide content, ads at the top of the page, full-screen scroll-over ads and auto-playing video ads are poor ways of placing ads.
Such ads are likely to drive users away from your site and increase its bounce rate considerably.
These, of course, are red flags when it comes to mobile-first indexing.
Verify Your Visual Assets
Make sure the visual content on your website, including images and videos, are in formats supported by Google.
Check if your visual content is of good quality with a high resolution. If not, consider replacing them with high-quality images and videos.
For images on your mobile pages, you need to use the same alt text, file names and captions you use for their desktop counterparts.
As for videos on your mobile version, ensure you position them in appropriate places that are easily visible to mobile users.
Do NOT use URLs that alter every time an image or video loads. Google can’t index such visual assets.
Avoid Fragment URLs
So, what are these fragment URLs?
URL fragments are parts of URLs that begin with #.
For instance, www.yoursite.com/abc.htm#print is a fragment URL.
Google claims that a majority of fragment URLs are not indexable.
That means they won’t be ranked.
Fragment URLs are often unavailable in Google’s index after the search engine takes up your site for mobile-first indexing.
That said, fragment URLs are unhealthy for your website, with Google prioritizing the mobile version of sites to rank content.
Maintain the Same Error Page Status
Suppose a desktop page on your site displays content for the users and the search engine alike, while your mobile variant for the same page shows an error page status.
No matter how great the content on that particular page is, once mobile-first indexing is enabled, this page won’t be available in the Google index.
And the result?
Your page will not show up on search results when a relevant search happens.
To avoid this, ensure that the same page status is on your mobile and desktop versions.
If it shows an error page status on the mobile version, your desktop page has to display the same as well.
In case of discrepancies, Google will deindex your page.
Check Your Site’s Mobile-First Indexing Status
As I said earlier, Google has moved a majority of older sites to mobile-first indexing and has made mobile-first indexing default for sites built after July 1, 2019.
However, there may be sites that are yet to be taken in for mobile-first indexing.
You can verify if Google has moved your site to mobile-first indexing.
If mobile-first indexing is enabled for your site, you will see this notification in the Google Search Console.
If you haven’t come across such a sign or want to check if Google has taken your site into account for mobile-first indexing, here’s how you do it.
Go to the Google Search Console and perform a URL inspection for one of your pages.
You will get the results shortly.
If you see this:
Google has moved your site to mobile-first indexing.
Is optimizing your site for mobile-first indexing consuming all your time? Let’s help. Sign up now.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
What if I don’t have a separate mobile site?
Your website is still eligible for mobile-first indexing even if you don’t have a dedicated mobile site as long as people can view your site on mobile devices. However, a poor mobile version may not rank well on Google. So, optimize your site for mobile devices.
Will Google only use the mobile version of my site to rank my content?
Google prioritizes mobile versions of domains to rank sites. However, if a mobile version of your site doesn’t exist, it will consider your site’s desktop version to determine your rankings. But the problem is your rankings are likely to vary considerably when you rely only on your desktop version. That’s because when Google finds that your competitors have a mobile version, it will automatically prefer ranking their sites before considering yours.
Does Google specify guidelines for mobile-first indexing?
Yes. Google suggests some best practices for mobile-first indexing. If you follow them closely, you can improve your chances of ranking higher on Google.
How do I know if mobile-first indexing is live on my site?
You will get a notification in the Google Search Console once Google migrates your site to mobile-first indexing. Alternatively, you can check the status manually using the URL inspection tool in the Search Console.