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Google’s Mobile-First Index: What It Is & How You Can Prepare

The move to Google's mobile-first index is inevitable. These five tips will help ensure that your site will easily survive the switch. 

Google’s Mobile-First Index: What It Is & How You Can Prepare

For close to a year, Google has been discussing the imminent transition to mobile-first index.

According to a study released by Stone Temple Consulting earlier this year, over 55 percent of all traffic is coming from a mobile device, and that will continue to grow year on year.

While this doesn’t mean that the death of desktop is upon us (~44 percent of traffic is nothing to sneeze at), what this change has done is present Google with a question that demands an answer:

If users are migrating more and more toward mobile devices each year, should we be looking at the mobile experience over the desktop at this point?

desktop vs mobile website visits

The short answer is yes, they should, and they are currently testing this approach and will be rolling it out in the near future, which poses the following question to the general public:

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“Is my site ready for the switch to mobile-first index, and if not, how should I prepare?”

Before we help you answer that question, let’s take a step back and go into a little more detail on how your site is currently indexed, what the change involves and the current timeline.

How Does Google Currently Index Your Site?

Historically, Google has indexed your site based on your desktop experience and the content that exists upon it.

What happens when Google visits your site


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What Is Changing?

Simply put, Google will begin to index and rank your site based on the content on your mobile experience, and not your desktop experience as it has done historically.

As an example, below are both the desktop and mobile experience for the same page and how the content appears on both:

Example of a responsive site where the desktop and mobile content are the same

In this situation, you can see that both versions of the site have the same content on it, therefore when the switch to mobile-first index occurs this page will see no impact – Google will essentially see the same thing because the site is built in responsive design.

To show the opposing situation, here a site that is not responsive (they have a /mobi/ setup) and doesn’t have the same content on their desktop and mobile experience:

example of a site with different desktop and mobile content

When the switch to mobile-first index occurs, this site will more than likely see a negative impact because Google will be using the mobile experience on the right for indexing and ranking purposes which, as you can see, is void of the content on the left.

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When Is This Change Happening?

That’s a loaded question, and there is an answer, but you’re not going to like it.

At the SMX West conference in March, Google’s Gary Illyes said that they will launch the mobile-first index when results are “quality neutral.”

Barry Schwartz elaborated on Illyes’s SMX West statement in an article and explained,

“…when they flip the switch to be a mobile-first index, they don’t want the search results to change much. They want the quality of the search results to pretty much be at the same level or a bit better. If they do not see a “quality neutral” data set, they will not launch.”

Illyes continued on saying, “Getting to ‘quality neutral’ is not easy and it is tricky.

When will that be exactly? In June, at the SMX Advanced conference, Illyes also said:

“We don’t have a timeline for the launch yet. We have some ideas for when this will launch, but it’s probably many quarters away. Our engineers’ timeline was initially end of 2017. Right now, we think more 2018.”

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Further to that, in a recent Search Engine Nerds podcast interview, Illyes reiterated that launching the shift “early next year” is a “more realistic” timeline.

It is also worth noting that John Mueller has said that Google might roll out their mobile-first index in batches and not all at once as previously discussed.

In a Google Hangout, he said:

“My guess is what will happen is, we will provide you with more information about the type of issues that we’ve run across so far in our tests. And based on that we’ll give you more guidance on when we expect some things to happen.

It’s also possible that we’ll say well this batch of sites works perfectly fine on mobile first indexing so we’ll just switch that over and wait with the next batch until we’re certain that they’ve been able to solve the these problems.

But that’s something where we’ll have more information kind of as time goes by.”

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Don’t Freak Out’ – Can We Not?

For anyone reading that might think this is just Google being Google and making your life more difficult, this is actually a good thing, because it means that they are taking the proper amount of time to ensure they don’t break the internet when they switch over to the new indexing method. That would truly make your life more difficult.

Illyes actually told us not to “freak out” about the switch over because they want to roll this out in a way that doesn’t hurt non-mobile friendly sites, which is a really odd statement.

While this is nice of them to try to do, I can’t imagine a non-mobile friendly site will fare well in a mobile-first world, so you might want to freak out a little if you don’t have one.

Also, it’s 2017, if your site isn’t mobile-friendly, you should be freaking out. 

5 Tips To Help You Prepare for a Mobile-First Index

While some of the below may involve investment both from a financial and human capital perspective, the following actions will ensure that your site will easily weather the storm. 

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1. Read Through Google’s Webmaster Blog Post

You can never have too much information on a subject and I suggest that you read through the post that Google released to get some information straight from the source. Google has been open about this change and it’s a great starting point (and a quick read) to determine how much you need to do, if anything at all.

Here are the two most important points to know:

  • If you have a responsive site or a dynamic serving site where the primary content and markup is equivalent across mobile and desktop, you shouldn’t have to change anything.
  • If you have a site configuration where the primary content and markup is different across mobile and desktop, you should consider making some changes to your site.

The two points above boil it down to its simplest form, if you have a responsive/adaptive site you don’t have to do anything, and if you have a separate mobile site, such as an m. or /mobi/, and the two aren’t identical, you will probably have some issues.  This leads to the second tip.

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2. Go Responsive Yesterday

While this will involve additional investment, it is time to move your site to responsive design. Having one URL that adapts to all devices is best for both your users, search engines, and the folks who are maintaining your site.

Though having a separate mobile site is still acceptable, it is an aging trend, and it begs the question “how long before Google is going to make sites go responsive?”

They did it for non-mobile friendly sites and they are very close to making folks go secure, and it looks like it is only a matter of time before it becomes a flag against your site to not have a responsive site. Make sure to start getting this on your roadmap now.

3. If Your Site Isn’t Responsive, Make Sure Your Primary Content Is on Your Mobile Site

To reiterate an earlier point, when Google switches over to mobile-first index, it will be looking at your mobile site as the primary source of content.

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If you have a responsive site, you will have no issues here as your site will adapt to any device a user is on, and you are only dealing with one URL. So when the switch happens, you should see no fluctuations in rankings.

If you don’t have a responsive site, then you have to make sure that your primary content exists on your mobile site, or you will risk a negative impact, regardless of Google’s above statement, they are putting out guidelines for the change, which you should always adhere to.

4. Content That Exists Within Tabs & Accordion Menus No Longer Being Discounted

In a mobile-first world, there are many things that you will have to worry about, but one of them won’t be Google penalizing you because you have content behind accordions or tabs.

It has widely been known that Google doesn’t like you to hide content, so much so that for years they have said that content that is “hidden” in tabs or accordions is not given full weight and may be ignored for ranking purposes.

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With the impending switch to mobile-first index, Google has been forced to backtrack on this decision because there simply isn’t enough space.

John Mueller confirmed this:

“So the mobile-first indexing will index the mobile version of the page. And on the mobile version of the page it can be that you have these kind of tabs and folders and things like that, which we will still treat as normal content on the page even. Even if it is hidden on the initial view.”

This is good news as it provides you with more options from a design and UX standpoint on mobile as tabs and accordions help organize larger pieces of content.

5. If You Don’t Have a Mobile-Friendly Site, What Is Happening?!?

You should be ashamed of yourself if you run a site that isn’t mobile friendly in the year 2017.  Not only will you more than likely feel a negative impact when this switch occurs, but you have also been actively ignoring over 55 percent of web users.

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It is time, make your site mobile-friendly, preferably responsive, and avoid taking a very brisk walk down a perilous road.

Image Credits
Screenshot taken by author, August 2017.
In-Post Images created by author, August 2017.


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Patrick Reinhart

VP, Digital Strategies at Conductor

Patrick currently leads digital strategy for Conductor’s Professional Service team and brings over 15 years of organic search & digital ... [Read full bio]

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