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Mobile-First Indexing: What Google’s Latest Obsession Means For Your Rankings

Connor Wilkins
Connor Wilkins

CMO, Direction.com

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What is Mobile-First Indexing

Mobile-first indexing. On the surface, it sounds relatively straightforward. But behind this simple term lies one of the most monumental shifts in Google’s search algorithms in recent years. Understanding what mobile-first indexing entails and why it matters provides invaluable insight into the future of search engine optimization.

At its core, mobile-first indexing refers to Google using the mobile version of a website’s pages to index and rank pages in search results. Rather than relying primarily on the desktop version of pages like they have for years, Googlebot now indexes the mobile HTML first.

This small change may seem minor, but its implications are far-reaching. Google switched to mobile-first indexing for one simple reason – the meteoric rise of mobile device usage. Over 60% of all Google searches now originate on smartphones and tablets. Google realized that indexing the mobile version better serves what most searchers experience.

For those of us in the SEO profession, the move to mobile-first indexing dramatically impacted our work. Websites must now optimize fully for mobile to achieve visibility. Mobile speed, user experience, and responsiveness are integral. It firmly established mobile optimization as one of the most significant ranking factors going forward.

Like many profound changes, mobile-first indexing succeeded because it aligned directly with user behavior. Google evolved its algorithm to match the predominance of mobile search. Once again, understanding the consumer won out.

How Has Mobile-First Indexing Impacted SEO?

At its core, mobile-first indexing firmly establishes mobile optimization as mandatory for succeeding with organic search. While obvious in hindsight, this ushered in profound changes in our SEO work.

Specific site elements we historically optimized mainly for the desktop experience required a mobile-focused overhaul. Elements like page speed, tap targets for touchscreens, and elimination of pinching or zooming took priority.

Responsive web design became essential, with fluid layouts that adapted to any screen size. Separate mobile sites were no longer optional for larger sites. Creating fast, flawless, and frustration-free mobile user experiences was pivotal.

We also found that with mobile pages being indexed and ranked, having the optimal content for small screens grew in importance. Content needed to be concise, scroll-friendly and focused on mobile intent.

Even factors like site architecture, internal linking, and flow saw reorientation towards mobile users’ needs. Every aspect suddenly revolved around life on the smaller screen.

The move certainly prompted concern and apprehension initially. But mobile-first indexing ultimately improved search for users. By optimizing for this new paradigm, we strengthened sites holistically. What it required was adopting the mobile mindset that now dominates modern search.

In the end, the effort to excel at mobile indexing elevated our discipline. But reaching this point would not have been possible without first enduring some growing pains. All monumental changes bring their share of struggles. Mobile-first indexing provided growing opportunity through growing responsibility.

Mobile-First Indexing Explained: 7 Critical Details to Know

1. You Can Verify Your Site's Mobile-First Indexing Status

Verifying your site’s mobile-first indexing status is crucial, yet easy to overlook. Proper confirmation provides awareness that begets action. Follow these simple steps:

First, sign into Google Search Console. This free platform is indispensable for site visibility. Once in your account, click “Index” in the left navigation.

Next locate the “Index Coverage” report. Scan until you see the “Mobile-first indexing enabled” section. If enabled, it will explicitly state “Enabled for entire site”.

Selecting the link provides more details. You can view which URL versions Googlebot is indexing – mobile, desktop, or both. Remember, mobile-first means only crawling the mobile pages.

Search Console may also show notifications if your site needs additional preparation for a full switch. Heed this feedback and take necessary steps.

Finally, re-check this report regularly. Google can toggle indexing methods without notice. So continue monitoring to ensure your vital mobile pages are being indexed.

Confirming your mobile-first status takes little effort for considerable awareness. With knowledge comes the need for action.

Checking, then optimizing, will transform uncertainty into opportunity. 

2. Opting Out of Mobile-First Indexing is Impossible

Mobile-first indexing is here to say and there’s no way to opt out. Like a rising tide, Google’s switch cannot be evaded. Here is why abandoning the switch is impossible:

First, there is no opt-out mechanism within Google. They provide no settings for toggling between indexing methods. And manually switching proves problematic.

You see, the algorithms choose what works best for users. With over 60% on mobile, the path is carved. Google will index accordingly, whether sites embrace mobile optimization or not.

Resisting mobile-first indexing is futile. Complacency ensures plummeting rankings as competitors optimize mobile sites. With no opt-out possible, action remains the sole wise path.

Understandably, mobile-first prompted growing pains. Transition brings discomfort. But adaption and commitment conquer adversity.

Progress provides potential, requiring only openness of mind. Do not vainly attempt circumventing mobile-first. Flow with the rising tide, and watch opportunity emerge.

Take the opportunity now to inspect your site’s mobile readiness. Identify areas needing enhancement. Chart a course correcting deficiencies while building on strengths.

The trail ahead leads to mobile. Blaze forward knowing opting out is not an option. Enable your site and reap the rewards now ripe for the taking. Then help others see the light through your own progress.

3. There's One Index To Rule Them All

Mobile-first indexing brought assumptions now needing dispelling. Primarily, many believe Google maintains separate mobile and desktop indexes. A reasonable theory, but incorrect nonetheless.

In truth, Google has only one unified index. Mobile-first indexing refers not to the index, but rather to how Googlebot crawls and evaluates pages. Historically, the desktop version was primary. Now, Googlebot focuses on mobile first.

This causes no issues for sites with equivalent mobile and desktop content. Differences arise when unique mobile pages exist. Those become indexed and displayed prominently on search results, given mobile’s dominance.

Yet a sole unified index remains, comprising both mobile and desktop pages. Google simply changed the preferred version for crawling and ranking signals. There is no parallel mobile index being created or maintained separately.

Clarifying this distinction provides proper perspective on mobile-first indexing. Accepting outdated assumptions leaves one anchored in the past, unable to capitalize on present potential. A mindset shift enables forward progress.

4. You Can Test Your Site's Mobile Usability Rating

Transitioning to mobile-first indexing demands ensuring your website offers an optimal mobile experience. But how exactly should you evaluate mobile-friendliness? A simple test provides clarity.

Navigate to Google Search Console, an essential free platform for monitoring site performance. Click the “Mobile Usability” report under the “Enhancements” section.

Here Google checks elements like tap targets, text size, and viewport configuration. You’ll see summarized mobile-friendliness issues to address or a reassuring “No issues detected”.

For further validation, Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test analyzes a URL. Enter a site page and it will assess mobile load speeds, sizing, and more, rating either “Mobile-Friendly” or “Not Mobile-Friendly”.

Leverage these free tools to audit mobile user experience, uncovering tangible areas for enhancement.

5. Mobile and Desktop Versions of Your Site Should Function the Same

As mobile commanding attention, maintaining a consistent user experience across devices grew in importance. What satisfied on desktop now frustrated on phones. This divergence required resolution.

Ideally, visitors should perceive seamlessness when transitioning from mobile to desktop or vice versa. The interface and content should feel familiar regardless of device.

Responsive web design dynamically resizes and reflows page elements to optimize for the screen real estate. Or separate mobile pages can provide tailored experiences aligned to each form factor.

But neither responsiveness nor standalone mobile sites exempt us from ensuring the core essence feels cohesive. Navigation, branding, messaging, functionality — foundational elements enabling users to engage as intended.

Deliver device agnosticism through responsive frameworks, yet craft the experience holistically. Seek usability and intuitiveness whether on five-inch phones or 25-inch monitors. Test rigorously to identify inconsistencies or gaps.

6. Mobile-First Indexing and Mobile Usability Are Not the Same Thing

With understanding comes proper application; without it misuse and confusion. This is the case with mobile-first indexing and mobile usability.

Though related, the terms address distinct site aspects. Mobile-first indexing describes Google prioritizing mobile pages for crawling and ranking evaluation. Usability encompasses site interactions optimized for mobile devices.

Indexing focuses on behind-the-scenes signals like code, speed, and metadata. Usability spotlights visual front-end elements and touch-driven interactivity.

Strong mobile usability boosts user experience yet is not required for mobile indexing per se. However, poor usability ultimately hurts conversions, engagement and rankings over time.

Therefore, while distinct, usability and indexing are interdependent. Excel at both, but do not mistake one for the other. Clarifying the nuances prevents misguided efforts.

7. Page Speed Matters

Page speed always held significance, yet mobile-first indexing made it indisputable. With smaller screens came lower patience for lagging load times. 

On smaller devices, even an additional second feels like an eternity. Mobile visitors demand information instantaneously. When forced to wait, many simply walk away.

Google recognized this shift and adapted algorithms accordingly. Slow mobile load times are now reliability signals warning of subpar experiences. 

There are tangible techniques we can implement to accelerate speed like compression, caching, superior hosting and more. 

But the human factor cannot be overlooked either.

However, note that fast does not always mean quality. Speed should not sabotage core content. Find balance between velocity and substance.

Must-Use Tools In Your Mobile-First Seo Strategy

GTMetrix offers a quick way to check the speed of your website and gives you a list of things to fix to improve it.

PageSpeed Insights is the web dev testing tool that Google offers you to check for mobile and desktop site speed issues. As we wrote above, site speed is an essential ranking factor you need to take seriously. Forward any issues you find to your web developers, and if they shrug them off – find new web developers.

Lighthouse is an automated tool, part of Chrome Development Tools. Most probably your web developer is well aware of it, but it’s still a great tool to benchmark your mobile site’s load speed.

Direction Local is our exclusive software that lets you create & manage listings online. We’ve built it based on years of practice & having grown hundreds of businesses online.

Google Search Console is the ultimate tech SEO analytics platform to point out all the issues your mobile website has. The mobile usability section will help you avoid mistakes in both web dev and SEO.

Mobile-Native Tricks That Work Well With Generic SEO

Apart from all the basic SEO techniques outlined above, you need to add several mobile-native tactics to your SEO strategy to make sure you are truly leveraging the mobile-first indexing rules.

These are not SEO techniques per se, but they work extremely well with SEO and make your overall promo strategy way more effective.

Be Accessible, Searchable, And Recognizable On Social Media

More and more consumers start to equate social media websites with the rest of the internet.

YouTube is the second highest traffic website in the world, Instagram is used for shopping and finding local services, and Twitter is where most of the fitness and nutrition content is brewing.

As a business, you have to be where your audience is, and so does Google. Once Googlebot sees your site’s URLs more and more present in social media discussions — you will be rewarded.

Depending on where you are and the local trends, some social media sites may be more popular than others. You may even need to consider enhancing your presence in messenger groups, e.g. Telegram for some niches and regions — traffic from messengers is “visible” to Google via Google Analytics and it’s a great authority signal and a behavioral ranking factor.

Make sure you have a uniform branded presence on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other major sites. Indicate your location and service area, indicate a way to contact you. Showcase your reviews and selling points in a clearly visible way.

Have A Strong And Optimized Presence On Google Maps

86% of consumers look up business locations on Google Maps before visiting them, and in 2023 that sounds like a very conservative number. In any case you absolutely need to maximize your Google Maps listing with all the techniques possible.

A non-obvious perk of being visible on Google Maps is that you can “hijack” some of the customers of your local competitors by standing out with your listing compared to them. Since your businesses are so close they are probably sharing the same screen of a mobile phone. 

Study Google Maps of your area on a mobile device and see what competitors are listed nearby there. Stand out by getting more Google Reviews, having more details on your Maps listing, better images, clear opening hours, and so on.

Mobile Web Design Best Practices For Seo

There are certain best practices that make your mobile-first SEO a lot easier. Some instructions come from Google, other tips are practice-based.

Google has been clear about the recommended best practices for mobile design. Since Google is producing most of the search traffic in the world, lesting to their recommendations is a matter of survival.

Let’s start with Google’s suggestions for mobile-first optimization:

Have a working mobile version of the site

Duh – but you’d be surprised at how many businesses are losing money because they created a desktop-only website 10 years ago.

With modern website builders and themes this one is pretty easy – no matter what site builder you use, you will get a mobile-friendly page as a result.

Most of the time responsive design is used, i.e. there is just one page that shifts the way it looks depending on the screen size and resolution of the visitor.

Responsive format of your pages is probably the best way to avoid issues with content synchronization, since you have one and the same page both for desktop and mobile audiences.

No Usability Issues, Same Meta Tags

Use the same structured data on your mobile and desktop pages – again, this is a non-issue for responsive websites.

Double-check all your ads placements, navigation elements, and page segments on all screen sizes.

In other words, both the content and the user experience need to be the same on mobile and desktop versions of your site.

Keep Conversions In Mind

This is the final tip for you — it is practical and coming from us. We’ve seen too many businesses either completely neglect mobile SEO, or obsessively overdo it.

Instead, put your business interests first and don’t forget why you have a website in the first place.

Test your business website on mobile thoroughly, and pay attention to the conversion elements and flow.

Wrapping Up

Mobile-first indexing cemented mobile optimization as indispensable in modern search. By elevating the mobile HTML, Google explicitly declared the standards for succeeding today.

Some companies still cling to the desktop heyday, either unaware or unwilling to adapt. Meanwhile, competitors embrace mobile-first indexing and flourish in the new paradigm.

The choice is yours – resist progress or optimize boldly. Google provides the tools and insights necessary for mobile excellence. Commit to mastering mobile’s nuances through testing and improvement.

Remember, annual algorithm updates will grow only more mobile-centric over time. Establish your technical SEO and usability foundations now before the tides rise further.

Mobile mastery certainly takes work. But those persevering forge capabilities elevating user experience across devices. Lean into the challenge; let it sharpen your focus and abilities.

When attention pivots, new opportunities emerge by serving the neglected channels. Transition your perspective, then optimize diligently. Soon you will reap the fruits of your mobile labor.

Of course, the journey never truly ends. As Google evolves, so must we. But maintaining an open, adaptable mindset positions us to capitalize on constant change. Our rankings depend on it.

If you need assistance with your mobile setup, or want to explore these optimization during a free strategy call, get in touch.

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