Your website and Google’s mobile-first indexing

Surprised woman looking at website on her phone

How is mobile-first indexing affecting your website?

That’s is an important question, because we all want to (need to) be found when someone searches for us.

In 2020 Google announced that they would transition their web indexing to be mobile-first by March of 2021. 

March has now come and gone. So what actually happened?

Unfortunately, Google hasn’t said much. But that doesn’t mean things didn’t change. They’re just on to the next big thing, Core Web Vitals (more about that further down).

So we might be forgiven for thinking that maybe mobile-first indexing didn’t really change the world as drastically as we thought it would. 

What is mobile-first indexing?

Mobile-first indexing is really pretty simple. It says all that matters is how websites show up on mobile devices. Doesn’t matter if there’s a desktop version of the site that has much more information and is much cooler. It won’t be indexed. So search results will ignore it.

Here’s what I wrote in late 2020: Will Google block your website in 2021?

Google made it quite clear: Their end goal is that websites that are not fully mobile friendly will eventually totally disappear from the search indexes.

And they did warn us that this was coming: Prepare for mobile-first indexing (with a little extra time)

The internet didn’t blow up, but…

Now March 2021 has come and gone. The internet didn’t blow up. 

At first glance, it even seems like nothing much changed.

If you own a website that isn’t mobile friendly (as in it exists in a desktop version only), your website didn’t suddenly self-implode or spectacularly blow up. In fact, it looks just the same as before.

If you enter your business name (and maybe location) in Google, your website will likely show up as one of the first search results.

So it would be tempting to think that it was all a false alarm. Much ado about nothing.

Except not so fast. Because how Google indexes the web has fundamentally changed. It’s been changing for a while. This latest push was to switch to catalog all websites based on how they appear to mobile devices first and foremost. And content that only exists on desktop-versions of the website is being ignored. Or at the least will be very soon.

That’s not good news if your website is designed only for desktop computers.

Why is this important?

Today, over 2/3 of all web traffic is from mobile devices. Trend growing. Phones of all screen sizes. Tablets. We can’t ignore that any longer.

Therefore, someone visiting my website from a mobile device must have as good a user experience as someone visiting from their laptop computer or even a desktop computer with a giant panorama screen.

It didn’t use to be that way.

There was a time when mobile phones barely could load a website. So having a bare-bones mobile website was helpful. If someone wanted the whole story, we could tell them to visit the full website (aka desktop version).

The web became a 2-tiered world: Full information and experience on large screens only and something much slimmed down on those mobile devices. It wasn’t a good experience back in 2007 and it definitely isn’t in 2021.

Google wants to put an end to that.

Our current state of semi-confusion

Your desktop-only website didn’t not self-destruct. It will be there for as long as you keep it alive. People can go to it if they know the URL. Those viewing it on mobile devices will just not have the experience you intended for visitors.

If you search for your business name (and city), your desktop-only site will likely still show up as one of the first results. 

But what if someone doesn’t know your business name and are looking using more general terms, like “Little Rock dentist” or “plumber near me”? 

Desktop-only websites will no longer show up well in those searches. Eventually they won’t show up at all.

The thing is, you will not receive a notice from Google saying that they dropped your desktop entirely from the search index. People just won’t find you. Meaning lost business. 

The future is mobile and it’s here now

Search engine indexing is now mobile-first. That won’t change. 

Desktop-only sites are on the way out in search results. But it can be difficult to determine just how fast for a particular site.

Once you run a certain search, Google of course remembers that. To help you find it again. So for the owner of a website it can be really hard to know how well (or poorly) that site shows up in the same search done by someone who has never looked for those terms before.

That said, it appears to me that desktop-only sites are sliding downward in search rankings. Because a truly mobile friendly website that has comparable content, will rank higher. 

So desktop-only websites will keep dropping further and further behind. Seriously, once you’re on page 5, 7, or, heaven forbid, 11 of the search results, you might as well not be there. Nobody scrolls that far. Effectively, that desktop-only website ceased to exist.

What do I do now?

If your website is:

Desktop-only, with no mobile version — Do not pass “Go”, do not collect $200. Instead, get your website redesigned and rebuilt to meet current and coming web standards for a great user experience on all devices.

Desktop website, with a separate mobile version — Time for the honest truth: Is the user experience truly the same on both? Will I always see the same content on any given page, regardless of if I view it on desktop or mobile? 

If ‘yes’, you may be okay, depending on how Core Web Vitals ultimately judge the user experience. 

If ‘no’, the website needs to be rebuilt to provide the same, consistent content and user experience for all visitors, on all devices.

Responsive website that adjusts to the device it’s viewed on — again, does the site truly display all the same content on all devices? If it does, then you should be fine. If not, the site will need to be updated to provide the consistent experience visitors (and Google) expect. 

Note that some older responsive websites were not built with mobile-first in mind. They were created to (mostly) seamlessly scale to display on different devices. So content and user experience may still not be equivalent when viewed on mobile and desktop.

The key is the focus on Mobile-first indexing — giving absolute priority to websites designed and built to perform well and provide a great user experience on mobile devices. 

Desktop-only content will not be indexed at all. Eventually entirely forgotten.

One more thing, Mr. Columbo:

There’s a new kid on Google’s block: Core Web Vitals. Which is a fancy way to say that Google will now look at the website visitor’s experience on a web page. Several new metrics are being rolled out in 2021 to quantify that experience and include it in how a page and site ranks. Count on mobile-first websites having a leg up in that measurement.

I’ll have much more about Core Web Vitals as the picture gets clearer about what it truly means for page design, display and loading times.

Show up where our visitors are

It all comes down to this: 2/3 of web searches are from mobile devices. User experience matters. If you don’t show up well, people won’t even find your site. Or if they manage to get there, they’ll leave as quick as they can.

What makes for a good website keeps evolving and our websites must adapt. Or be lost to those who are looking for us.

Unless we do the work.

Because at the end of the day, we all want for the right people to be able to easily find our websites and have a great experience once they get there.

African-Americas woman looking at website on her phone

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