Not so long ago, Google announced a major move that many web designers had seen coming for quite some time: the advent of mobile-first indexing. For those in the digital marketing community, especially those who specialize in search engine optimization, this was a major development, one that caused a massive shake-up in how marketers and designers approached SEO and web development respectively.
You’re unlikely to have missed the boat when it comes to the news, but you also might not know exactly what such a sea change that mobile-first indexing brings to the digital marketing landscape. The move changed how Google categorizes your sites, their ranking, and the ability for consumers to find you and your products easily. If you’re wondering why optimizing your sites for mobile-first indexing is so important, here’s a handy guide as to what this new normal means and how to survive the post-mobile-first indexing internet.
Mobile-First: Not the Same as Mobile-Ready
Some of you may be rolling your eyes already. “We’ve already been optimizing for mobile devices,” you might say. “All our sites have mobile-ready versions that are easily accessible.” That’s great; having mobile-ready sites are ideal, considering how much web traffic comes from mobile devices in today’s connectivity-rich environment. But mobile-ready and mobile-first are not the same things.
Previously, the weight Google gave to mobile versions of a site was a welcome bonus. Desktop sites that also had a mobile version would benefit from a modest bump as a result. Now, though, it’s the opposite — the mobile version of a site gets top billing, while the desktop site, while not an afterthought, is no longer considered primary. Mobile-first, though, isn’t mobile-only. It’s absolutely true that Google is caching the mobile version of your site now, you’ll still benefit from having a fully-functional desktop site as well.
The Impetus Behind the Change
While the sky isn’t exactly about to fall when it comes to mobile sites versus desktop sites, there are plenty of things to be gleaned from Google’s decision. The impetus behind the change indicates a different philosophical approach for the company. Mobile technology, in Google’s view, has grown in popularity to the point where it’s reached a threshold that puts it in a position of primacy. As a result, the company’s core approach to search ranking has been changed to reflect this new normal.
It’s not a complete 180 from Google’s previous approach but it is a major detour. Before the mobile-first decision, desktop sites were the search industry standard when it came to crawling, caching, and evaluating for authority, backlinking, and so on — and this is where SEO and other digital marketing efforts were rightly focused. Web developers would tag mobile URLs as mobile, or reserve a specific subdomain for their mobile sites, and then spend the rest of the time on other, desktop-centric pursuits.
Now the roles have been reversed. All that TLC desktop sites were receiving from developers and SEO experts is no longer exclusive; you’ll need to split the difference, or perhaps tilt the scale a bit more towards your mobile web development, to ensure your digital marketing efforts are having the desired effect. It’s not exactly a paradigm shift, but it’s enough of a change to merit a moderate reevaluation.
Good news is that the mobile-first rollout has been slow and methodical. Google learns from its mistakes (Google Glass, anyone?) and mobile-first indexing was instituted first and foremost on sites that the company determined beforehand that won’t feel a negative impact. If your site is already mobile-responsive, or your desktop and mobile sites are functionally identical, you’ve likely transitioned without even noticing.
That being said, there are a few friction points to address. Page speed and load time should be checked to ensure your mobile site is responsive enough. Images and other dynamic site elements will need mobile reconfiguration where appropriate. Keep in mind that collapsed content, or content occluded behind tabs, is still considered visible content in mobile-first indexing. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean the crawler is ignoring it, so be thorough.
If you have completely different mobile and desktop sites, however, you may benefit from a more complete overhaul. Ensuring that content, metadata, and general data structures are all congruent. Sitemaps, app indexation, and search console verification should all be mobile-ready and congruent as well. Finally, ensure that you’ve got enough server capacity for your mobile site. Being served up first in SERPs could easily overwhelm a secondary host server, especially for sites with large desktop bandwidths.
There is a bit of good news if you’re wondering though. Some things, such as switchboard tags, won’t need fiddling with. That is, of course, only if you’ve implemented them in the first place! Either way, you won’t have to modify them in any way.
The Beginning of a New Age
At this point in time, several months into the advent of Google’s mobile-first transition, there’s no real use in trying to deny that mobile optimization is here to stay. With Google leading the way it’s only a matter of time before the smaller players adopt these new paradigms, and as the dominoes continue to fall there will be renewed need for SEO marketers and developers alike to adapt to the new normal.
Now is not the time to hesitate or adopt a “wait and see” approach. It’s best to dive in headfirst to the mobile-first optimization. All the hard work you’ve already done on your desktop optimization certainly won’t go to waste, and desktop browsing is unlikely to ever go away completely. It is, important, however, to make sure your own pages and web development projects are positioned advantageously for a mobile-first environment, and that means taking things seriously and doing your best to boldly go where no web developer has gone before.
Author: Benjamin Shepardson is a web development guru and founder of NoStop Content. As the company’s leader, Ben brings to the table an innate ability to help small businesses compete with larger competitors through content strategies and SEO. You can find Ben’s talents on Twitter