Mobile First Index – What you need to know

Before going head long into this, I thought we’d take a little walk down memory lane, a time before website owners and possibly even Google gave much thought to ‘Mobile First Index’ and the impact it would have.

Do you remember a time when things were much simpler, when using the Internet meant simply meant getting access to the phone line for a few hours so you could do your homework, stopping your Aunty Maureen from calling your mum as the line was engaged.

Ah… Simpler times indeed, although it did mean we could only use the Internet when we were at home, at a mate’s house or near an Internet Café. For those too young to remember, you didn’t go to an Internet Café to drink coffee and borrow the Wi-Fi… Look it up!

So yeah, much simpler times indeed and yet here we are today with the Internet in our pockets. Anywhere you want to use it, when you want to use it without the need for a bulky desktop or laptop. Yes of course I’m talking about the humble Mobile Phone, how times have changed!

You see as business owners, as marketers and as web designers, we grab our phones without a second thought and check the Football Scores, or Celebrity News, see what our friends are up to on Facebook, share random photos on Instagram and of course, Tweet to the World that we’re still here, somewhere, far from home and yet still connected to the World Wide Web…

But one thing I and I’m sure many of you will remember, are those god awful websites that were clearly designed to look OK on larger screens such as Desktops and Laptops. But once they were squeezed and poked to fit into a tiny Smartphone screen, things got altogether worse, with endless pinch zooming, scrolling up and down, left and right. What was I saying about simpler times? The Internet on Smartphones was generally a nightmare, lets face it! And to think Google nearly gave half the Internet left on these old, unloved websites a heart attack when they announced changes to their Mobile Algorithm…

From Mobile Friendly to Mobile First Index

The fact is, for many years since the rise of Mobile Internet, we knew the time would come when Mobile Internet usage would overtake that of Desktop and Laptop Internet usage. Possibly the first instance of this happening, came about in China, as reported by the BBC. So, we knew it wouldn’t take too much longer, before Western Countries, and the rest of the World caught up. In fact, by April 2015, ComScore were reporting it had happened, quickly followed by an official comment by Google in May 2015, as reported by Search Engine Land.

So it was quite apt that Google would roll out its ‘Mobile Friendly Update’, often more widely known as ‘Mobilegeddon’ on the 21st April, 2015, some 2 weeks before acknowledging that Mobile was becoming a force to be reckoned with.

After “Mobilegeddon”, do you need to worry about the Mobile First Index

If you remember the mass hysteria over what Google had planned when they released their Mobile Friendly Update. You’ll remember how much panic this placed on everybody to update old websites and ensure that their new websites were all going to work on Mobile and pass Google’s own Mobile Friendly Tool.

Now more than two years on, Google is once again pushing businesses to once again consider the Mobile Experience for visitors to their websites. Unlike with ‘Mobilegeddon’, where website owners knew exactly what was required of them, for those now trying to learn and understand more about this “Mobile First Index”, it’s a little less obvious and could be why Google’s Gary Illyes said Google will “communicate a lot” before they begin rolling out the Mobile First Index, as reported by Search Engine Land at the time.

He even went as far to say that they’re behind with their planned launch, which has pushed it back until 2018. Although, chances are it could be even longer than that before many websites begin to notice the changes they have planned, as Gary Illyes, as reported by Search Engine Land went on to say;

“We’re thinking about how we can make sure we only include in the mobile-first index sites that won’t be hurt by the mobile-first index. The longer time frame can be several years – maybe five years – before we reach an index that is only mobile-first,”.

Barry Schwartz goes further, noting that it could be some time, as Google want to be sure that the this doesn’t have an impact on the Quality of the Search Results, in order to ensure that the Mobile First Index results are “Quality Neutral”.

So, although we know that it’s not going to happen for some time yet and Google will most likely begin to give us more details and a rollout date as they did with the Mobile Friendly Update. It’s still worth brushing up on all things Mobile First Index to ensure you’re prepared and ready for whatever we can expect to happen.

What is meant by “Index” in Mobile First Index

In order to better understand what is meant by the Desktop Index and the Mobile Index, lets first consider how Google works:

When you go to Google or type in the address bar of your web browser, something you would like information on (known as a search query). What people often thought Google was doing was going out on the Internet and looking for information related to your search query.

If this were the case, no matter how many servers had and how quickly their networks ran. You’d be waiting hours, or more likely days or even weeks for each set of search results to appear. So clearly, this would not be a very efficient way to do a web search,

Fortunately, Google’s engineers realised that a better way of doing this, would be to be proactive and have their web crawlers “crawl” the internet and visit as many websites as they could find, and then begin saving these web pages to their vast array of databases. In turn, this is known as an index, and what Google will use to search from in order to provide links to the live version of these websites.

So, the idea being, when somebody searches for, for example, “funny cat gifs” (hey, it’s been a long day) in the Google search box, Google then begins the much more efficient method, of scanning through the pages it has saved within its own database (the index), to find the best results for that search query, rather than going out and trying to find an answer to the search query on a live basis.

What else do you we know about the Mobile First Index

Well we know that Google plan to change how they currently index your website. Historically, they have always index the Desktop version of your website including the content on this version of the website. Of course, the issue is, for many websites after and indeed many before, would often serve a different ‘dumbed down’ version of the main website that would give a better mobile experience to visitors.

On a responsive website, this would mainly just mean the elements on the page being elastic and resizing to fit the smaller screen size and width. But for a dedicated mobile only version, using a m. or /mobile/, this would often mean that the overall experience, as well as the content on the desktop site would often be removed.

So, by crawling and indexing two versions of the website, the Desktop version and the Mobile version. This should ensure that when a visitor enters a slimmed down version of a website on a Mobile device. They won’t be confused if they find that content they thought was indexed, and therefore available on Mobile, isn’t actually anywhere to be seen on their Mobile device.

So, in theory, when the changes happen occur, so long as your website provides exactly the same information regardless of what device somebody visits your webpages from, you can probably expect there to be no impact.

Get ready and prepare your Website Now for the Mobile First Index

It’s time to get out your Tin Foil Hat and prepare yourself for any eventuality that comes our way in the coming Months (Years?).

As I’ve previously noted above, Google not going to turn the Internet on its head again. They don’t want another Penguin situation, and clearly hope to not cause the sort of panic that Mobilegeddon caused many site owners. So, they’re very keen to keep things as close to how they are now without rocking the boat too much which is great for the majority of site owners.

However, for those who maybe still have an independent Mobile version of their websites, now would be a great time to re-evaluate this tactic and consider implementing a Mobile Responsive website instead. In fact, Google’s own advice is to use a Mobile Responsive Website, so it’s clear that they would rather a more fluid approach to presenting content to visitors. Ensuring that no matter which device they’re using, they will get a very similar experience, with the same content.

Below are the key reasons why Google believe you should be using a Responsive Website:

  • Makes it easier for users to share and link to your content with a single URL.
  • Helps Google’s algorithms accurately assign indexing properties to the page rather than needing to signal the existence of corresponding desktop/mobile pages.
  • Requires less engineering time to maintain multiple pages for the same content.
  • Reduces the possibility of the common mistakes that affect mobile
  • Requires no redirection for users to have a device-optimized view, which reduces load time. Also, user agent-based redirection is error-prone and can degrade your site’s user experience.
  • Saves resources when Googlebot crawls your site. For responsive web design pages, a single Googlebot user agent only needs to crawl your page once, rather than crawling multiple times with different Googlebot user agents to retrieve all versions of the content. This improvement in crawling efficiency can indirectly help Google index more of your site’s content and keep it appropriately fresh.

Similarly, some issues with a Dedicated Mobile Website:

  • There is extra work involved I having to maintain two sets of websites, both from a development perspective, as well from a content perspective.
  • Depending on how you set this dedicated mobile website up, you could run the risk of causing duplicate content issues. Mobile Responsive websites share urls, but resize the content. A Dedicated website will likely have its own content url structure to think about.
  • Similar to the content issue, you have two sets of urls. So depending on how you setup your mobile website (nothing, canonicals to desktop, noindex, etc). There is the very real possibility that some of the Link Juice flowing into the site through the Mobile version could be lost. Of course, this isn’t the case with the Responsive version, as there is only one url for each page.
  • Long before Mobilegeddon, there would often be times when the Mobile version of a website would be indexed over the Desktop version. The reason was clearly because Google considered them to be two different and competing ‘sites’ ( Great when you’re Mobile, not so good on Desktop if the site doesn’t detect the use of a Desktop browser.


Further related reading on the Mobile First Index

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