With mobile-first indexing, Google shows the mobile versions of webpages in its SERPs automatically, or by default. Up until recently, Google’s crawling, indexing and ranking systems looked at and used the desktop versions of a site’s content. However, with mobile content far in the ascendant now, this outdated default position can cause problems for mobile users and mobile versions of sites.

Google decided to prioritise mobile indexing a few years ago and started to roll it out in March 2018. Not all sites have been changed yet, as the internet giant is taking its time so that it’s all done properly (and also so that it retains its mystery…). Your site may have been changed over to mobile-indexing already, or you might be waiting; either way, you need to know how it’ll affect your SEO and your search rankings.

Will mobile-first indexing destroy my site’s SEO?

You might be worrying about another mobilegeddon taking out your rankings, but for most site owners and businesses, there’ll be hardly any change, so chill!

It is important to find out if you will be in the minority of site owners who will be affected, though, as well as find out what you can do to minimise disruption or even optimise the change-over for you and your site.

What about my SEO and rankings?

How the mobile-first indexing will affect your SEO and rankings depends on how well (or not) your site and content is optimised for mobile devices. If your site is responsive – if it detects the device it’s rendering on and adapts for either mobile or desktop – then the change-over won’t affect you at all. All that will happen is that your site will appear differently depending on where it’s “going”, which is exactly what you wanted it to do anyway.

If, on the other hand, you offer separate pages for mobile and desktop, you’ll probably see some effects. Your mobile version will be crawled first and this could affect your ranking if:

  • You have different content on the two different versions;
  • Your mobile pages aren’t as structured or navigable as your desktop version;
  • The mobile pages don’t have the necessary metadata;
  • The mobile pages aren’t verified in Search Console;
  • Your mobile pages are poorly optimised for mobile devices (which defeats the object somewhat), and
  • The links directing towards your mobile pages are weaker or less highly ranked than those leading to your desktop version.

It pays to optimise

As you can see, most of the problems stem from a lack of, or poor, mobile optimisation. Make sure you’ve followed all the right guidelines and practices, or get an SEO professional in to review your work. There are still some SEO issues that could undermine your good work though, so look out for:

  • Your Search Console verification, as both desktop and mobile pages will need to be okayed here, and
  • Differences between the link profiles for mobile and desktop pages; ideally, they should be the same, but if your mobile one is weaker, it needs to be improved.

How can I tell if my site has been moved over?

If you’ve been moved over to mobile-first, you’ll have received an email from Google with the subject “Mobile-first indexing enabled for <your domain>” for each website you own or run.

If you haven’t received (or can’t remember) this email, then you can see whether your site has been changed over with the URL Inspection Tool in Search Console. You can also look at any URL within your site to see how Google last crawled and indexed it. There’ll only be a difference in the inspection tool if you’re using separate mobile versions of your pages. If your site is responsive, then the mobile-first indexing won’t have any real impact.

Of course, you may find that you’re still waiting for Google to switch you over. If you’ve done everything you think you should, then have a check anyway. If there’s still some improvements you could make to your mobile site, then now’s the time to either bring a professional in or make a few tweaks yourself.

Once you’ve made the move

You should soon see a rise in the crawl rate from Google’s mobile bot and then see your mobile pages appearing more in search results. If you’re responsive or desktop-only (if you are desktop-only, you should think about changing), you shouldn’t see any real difference apart from the crawl rate.

If you registered your domain after July 1 2019…

…then you’ll be mobile-first by default, so you probably don’t need to do anything bar offer users a great mobile experience. Which you are, right?

Can I jump the queue for switch-over?

No, in a word. Google is working to a set of priorities and is trying to change sites over in a way that affects them as little as possible. It did start off by moving over sites that followed the best mobile practices, but by now it’s working through every site as each site becomes more ready. If you improve your practices then you may be picked earlier than you would be if you didn’t, but you can’t ask to be bumped up the list (not even if you bake Google a nice cake).

Getting ready for mobile-first indexing

Google has given instructions on becoming switch-ready if you’re dual desktop and mobile or responsive, so you can make your life – and Google’s…ehhh, existence… easier by making sure that:

  • Your desktop and mobile pages have the same content;
  • Both versions have the same necessary structured data;
  • They both have the right metadata;
  • Are both verified in the Search Console;
  • Your rel=hreflang tags for internationalisation all have separate links for desktop and mobile URLs;
  • Your servers can manage the increase in mobile version crawl rate;
  • Both mobile and desktop robot.txt directives are optimised and the same, and
  • You’re using the right rel=canonical and rel=alternate link elements between desktop and mobile sites.

Everything you wanted to know about mobile-first indexing but were not nerdy enough to ask

So, you know the basics about finding out your mobile-first status and how to get ready for the change-over, it’s time to delve a bit deeper into this sea-change.

What actually is mobile-first indexing?

Google described mobile-first indexing as a way to help its users, who now use mainly mobile devices to access and search the internet, to find what they’re looking for and have a better experience while they’re doing so.

This is a good way of putting it, because most Google searches are now performed on mobile devices, but up until recently the results were collected and presented by a system that relied on – and also ranked – desktop pages first.

As most mobile websites differed from their desktop versions, this caused problems with rendering and accessibility, as well as sometimes the content itself if the site owner used separate desktop and mobile sites.

Mobile-first indexing simply means that the Google bot will now head to mobile versions first, as this is the version most of its users will want to see, as they’re mostly using (you guessed it) mobile devices.

Does mobile-first mean no desktop indexing?

Mobile-first means mobile-first. Or, less succinctly, that the Google bot will try to look for a mobile page first and then head to a desktop version if no mobile page exists. There isn’t a separate index for desktop and mobile; it’s just that Google is prioritising mobile pages over desktop.

How does it all work?

If your site is desktop-only, you’ll still be included in the index, but the fact that you don’t have a responsive or mobile-optimised site could dampen down your ranking. Sites that offer good or great mobile experiences could get a rankings boost, even if someone’s looking for it from a desktop.

Mobile-first indexing quite simply means that the Google bot tries out your mobile version first when it’s crawling. If there isn’t one, it’ll just go to your desktop page and work out its ranking as it would do normally.

What does the “mobile-first indexing enabled” email actually mean?

When you receive your switch-over email and the notification in the Search console, it means that Google has used its crawling, indexing and ranking systems on your mobile pages and it’s “happy” with what it’s found. Once these tests have been passed, the systems are able to perform the function of switching your site over to mobile-first indexing.

To sum up

The main thing to realise after reading about mobile-first indexing is that it’s probably not a big deal for you and your site as long as you’re offering a well-optimised (or even a mobile-only) experience for visitors to your mobile pages.

If your optimisation needs to be updated, or if you need to start it, then now’s the time to do it, as Google is constantly looking for sites to switch over and you want to make the most of it. Even if you’re sure you’ve done everything right, you should have an audit with an SEO expert before you make the move and also afterwards, to make sure that you’re ready to switch and also that the change-over is working well for you.