Google mobile-first indexing and you — disaster or no?

Google email notifying me that one of my website was going to be switched to mobile-first indexing

The email from Google informed me that mobile-first indexing had been enabled for one of my websites.

Maybe you’ve gotten that email too. Google is rolling out mobile-first indexing now. But what does that really mean?

There was the alarmist headline I saw — something about how Google mobile-first indexing is going to utterly and totally destroy your business. Because that stuff gets clicks. But is this mobilegeddon? The end of the web as we know it?

Hardly.

Here’s what Google switching to mobile-first indexing is about: Since 2015, more searches online happen from mobile devices than from desktop computers. Mobile accounts for over 60% of searches now and the trend is increasing. So Google wants to serve that audience the best it can.

But not all websites show the same content to all visitors. That’s the real issue. Back when we just started to access the web from mobile phones, the screens were tiny and connections super-slow. To deal with that, someone came up with a brilliant idea: Have separate websites for desktop and mobile. Because who doesn’t want to have more content to manage?

Fast forward to today: Web design has changed a lot. It’s possible to build responsive, mobile-first designed websites that deliver a great user experience on any device and screen size. And more people than ever are searching the web from their mobile devices. So it only makes sense to create search indexes from what all those mobile devices see, instead of from the desktop versions.

Up until now, the standard for Google has been to crawl and index the desktop version of a website. That means that if the ACME Explosives website has one version for desktop and one for mobile, it gets ranked based on the desktop site that has all the content and bells and whistles. But their mobile website may be a lite version with half the content and features.

So you do a search and based on the search results, you go to ACME Explosives on your mobile phone and instead of getting all the info about their latest fireworks, you get a very limited listing of what they offer. Hardly all that exciting.

Going forward, Google will look at that mobile site, index what it finds there and use that for search results when you go looking for ACME Explosives on any of your devices. Better search results on mobile. Possibly worse on desktops.

There are 4 key areas where this change may affect your website:

Content

If the mobile site presents a lite version of your content, that will affect search results. The preferred way (for some time) has been to deliver the same content to all devices.

Page speed

Mobile sites were built very slimmed-down because mobile surfing was often on slower networks. We have better connectivity now than even a few years ago, but with the same content going to all users, it’s very important to make sure pages are properly optimized to load quickly and don’t contain things that needlessly slow down the user experience.

Internal links

If you have 2 versions of your website — a mobile and a desktop, then the mobile links are different. Google won’t like that so much. It also doesn’t like if some content is hidden on mobile devices, but shown on desktops.

Going forward, internal links should be the same across the board. That of course actually makes it easier for you and me to manage our websites.

Structured data

When the mobile site was all about slimming down and hiding content, structured data that tells search engines what a page is about and the elements it contains was often stripped out. You guessed it, Google won’t be happy about that and it will likely negatively affect your search ranking.

Those are key areas of impact. Fortunately, there are fixes for going forward, so we can do well with mobile-first indexing in the search engines.

Here are 5 scenarios, based on your current website situation:

Current, responsive website that was designed mobile first

Best case scenario. You’re good to go. Changing to mobile-first indexing won’t affect your SEO, since there’s no difference in what Google sees when crawling the mobile version of your site compared to the desktop version. Because it’s all the same website that just shows up optimized for whatever device it’s being viewed on.

Responsive website that is older and not mobile first designed

This was the first generation of responsive websites. Essentially a desktop site with added on code to display responsively on mobile devices. Content should be okay here (unless your code hides some of it from mobile devices). The underlying code may need restructuring because every device has to load the desktop code first and then the mobile code, meaning more data is transferred, potentially slowing down the site.

Separate desktop and mobile websites

Just say “No.” Save yourself the ongoing headache of trying to manage 2 separate websites and build a new, responsive, mobile first designed website that will deliver a great user experience on all devices.

One website that shows full content on the desktop and hides much of it from the lite version on mobile devices

It’s a headache to manage and keep track of what content shows up when and where. Plus Google will not like this. Save yourself the pain and build a new, responsive, mobile first designed website that will deliver a great user experience on all devices.

Desktop only website

You know this type of website. It was built several years ago and designed strictly for desktop viewing. To access it on a mobile device means you see only part of the website at any time and have to do a lot of scrolling and zooming to get to all the content. Still plenty of those sites around. But the world has moved on. It’s time to bite the bullet. Redesign. Get a new, responsive, mobile first designed website that will deliver a great user experience on all devices. You’ll do your site visitors a huge favor.

At the end of the day, Google changing to mobile-first indexing is not a sinister plot to destroy the web as we know it. No need to panic.

What is important, is to know and understand how this change will affect your website and search results and then take proper action. Ignoring this change won’t make it go away, but it could make you fade away in search results.

There’s little to no impact for websites designed to current standards. For older websites, fixes may be possible or it may just be time to build a new, fresh website that better represents your business or organization.

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