Come March 2021, your website may disappear from search engines. Poof. Gone.
Which. Would. Be. Bad.
Thank mobile-first indexing. Which when fully applied will change everything.
When Google (and other search engines) index a website, they crawl all the pages on the website, checking and grading content. Until recently, that focused on the desktop version of the website by default. Because at one time that was all there was.
So all our websites were indexed and showed up in searches online. Which is what we want. Yay!
Except now things are about to change fundamentally. It’s been brewing for some time — I first wrote about mobile indexing in 2018: Google mobile-first indexing and you — disaster or no?
It’s the mobile phones, silly…
Back in the early 2000s, when phones got smarter and the first mobile web browsers appeared, those tiny screens and slow connection speeds could only handle simple websites and limited data. So we created special mobile versions of websites. With less content and functionality. That could load on a mobile phone in a reasonable amount of time.
If you wanted the full experience, there was a link to the full website. Once it loaded, you scrolled and zoomed to see the page content. Because the mobile phone screen was so much smaller than whatever desktop size the web page was designed for.
And if you did manage to see the entire page in your mobile browser, everything was so small you couldn’t ready any it. Until you zoomed in. A lot.
2x the work for not much benefit
Special mobile websites were a limited solution at best. Creating and maintaining a separate mobile version of a website was a major pain for website owners and developers. Now you had to make content updates in 2 places and keep track of what went on the desktop version and what went on the mobile version.
And for all that, the mobile site contained a very slimmed down version of the real thing. So pretty much nobody was truly happy.
Responsive websites to the rescue
Therefore it was huge breakthrough when websites became responsive. All of a sudden the same website could be viewed on a small mobile phone as well as on a desktop computer with a huge screen, since it automatically adjusted the layout to fit the current screen size.
Everything could have been good now.
Except there was still an issue of mobile connections being slower. Limiting design complexity and content.
Because when you’re standing on a sidewalk on random street, waiting for a particular web page to load, it’s hard to be patient.
Even so, many designers really liked moving effects on the screen and heavier content. Taking a cue from the old separate mobile websites, enterprising developers figured out how to prevent select content from loading on slower connections and smaller screens.
A game of hide and seek
As a result, even though it was the same website and it was responsive, content got hidden or not loaded at all on mobile devices. In part because it was hard to fit everything onto a smaller screen. The designer might feel really clever for making one website not only be responsive, but show varying content based on what device it was displaying on.
If you visited a website like this on your mobile phone, then you saw a shorter version of the content than on a desktop computer. From the same page. Of course, you’d probably never know, unless you loaded the same page in both places and compared line by line.
Plus, since search engines only indexed the desktop version of websites (where full content was present), the website got credit for a bunch of stuff nobody could ever see on a mobile device.
Which might be okay-ish if only a few people visited websites from mobile devices. But now, in late 2020, around 2/3 of all website visits are from mobile devices. Trend increasing.
We can’t ignore mobile any longer.
Mobile-first indexing that totally excludes desktop-only websites
Google showed the path forward when they started indexing websites based on the mobile experience. However, if there was no mobile version they indexed the desktop version. Like before.
So you weren’t really penalized in search rankings if your website didn’t show up at all on mobile devices. And which version of your site did Google really count if there were differences between what showed up on mobile devices and what showed up on desktop screens?
Now the next phase is about to kick in: Google has scheduled the full mobile-first index for March 2021. After that date, all that will matter is what’s on the mobile website.
That’s right. Google will index only content it finds on the mobile version of any website. Any content that’s only on the desktop version will ignored.
Let’s make that perfectly clear: Google will crawl websites and index them only from a mobile user experience standpoint. Doesn’t matter if the site is super responsive and has awesome content that it automatically displays once shown on a larger screen. Google’s bots will ignore that awesomeness.
This means that all content must be reachable/seeable by a phone. Including comments, structured data, images, videos, audio and so on. Anything you would want indexed.
Let that sink in.
What’s the state of your website?
This is a seismic shift that will affect how we approach web design from here on.
Depending on the state of your website:
- It could totally disappear from search engine results. Anyone searching for you will no longer find you. You cease to exist.
- Only a portion of the content on your website will show up in the search engine index. Making it harder for people to find you.
- If your website is already designed for mobile first display and indexing, then the change in how search engines index your site makes no difference. You’ll continue to show up in search results, just like before.
Is my website ready for mobile-first indexing?
The $64,000 question is “How do I know if my website is ready for mobile only indexing?”
The age of your website is a good predictor:
- If your website is so old that it’s not responsive (designed for desktop only), then it needs a complete redesign to make it responsive and designed for mobile first.
- If you have a separate mobile website in addition to your desktop website, Google may end up sending all your visitors to the mobile version. Even from the desktop. Pretty certain you don’t want that.
- If the website is older than 4-5 years, it likely it will need at least some work to play nice with mobile indexing.
- If it was built in the last few years and designed for mobile first, chances are good you’ll be okay.
A quick self-test is to open your website on a phone and on a desktop computer so you can compare. Go through ALL the pages. If you can’t see ALL the same content on both desktop and phone, then the website is NOT ready for mobile-first indexing.
Same thing if you have to pinch and zoom pages to see the full content on a mobile phone. Not ready.
The time is now…
The good news is that there’s still time to get your website up to speed for mobile-first indexing. But not much. Because creating a new website takes time. Not something to start come mid-February.
If you’re tempted to just wait for March to roll around and see what really happens to your website: Not a good idea.
After all, once you fall off from Google’s index, there’s no telling how long it will be before they re-index your website, once fixed or redesigned. And that’s lost search engine history that you’ll never get back.
Better then to fix that website or redesign now, while Google still includes the old website in search results. And people still can find you.
Because at the end of the day, this is all about our customers being able to easily find us online, no matter what device they’re using to browse the web.
For more about Google mobile-first indexing, check out these resources: