Mobile First Indexing: Definition and Best Practices

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Mobile search queries have consistently outpaced desktop searches since 2017, accounting for around 57% of all website traffic by August 2023. By this, Google’s adoption of mobile-first indexing comes as no surprise. 

With mobile-first indexing, Google signals site owners to pay attention to mobile friendliness. This ensures that users have the best experience while browsing the sites via their mobile devices.

As an SEO agency that adapts to the ever-changing Google updates, we realise that this change has a huge impact on the digital landscape. Those who want to maximise their SEO efforts must transform the way they design their websites and create their content.

Now that you’re here, we’ll break down how mobile-first indexing works and explain what it means for your SEO efforts. Let’s continue the discussion!

What Is Mobile-First Indexing?

Mobile-first indexing is a way that Google prioritises the mobile version of a site’s content for indexing, determining how it ranks in the search results. This algorithm update is carried out as a response to a peak in search queries coming from mobile devices.

Previously, Google relied heavily on desktop-first indexing, in which they evaluated desktop versions of content for indexing and ranking. Given that mobile phones were not as advanced as they are today, this algorithm is becoming obsolete and is gradually phased out as Google transitions to mobile-first indexing. 

Unfortunately, many websites nowadays only cater to desktop searches. It may be because the owners don’t care or don’t know how to adapt their site design for mobile-first indexing– either way, these types of sites may lose relevance for mobile users.

If you fall into this category, don’t be surprised if you have trouble ranking effectively despite your SEO efforts. With the current mobile-first indexing algorithm, keep in mind that the mobile version of your site should take precedence over everything else.

Mobile-First Indexing VS Mobile Usability: What’s The Difference?

Mobile-first indexing and mobile usability are two different but related concepts. They function similarly in website optimisation for mobile devices, yet address different aspects of mobile user experience, as explained below:

  • Mobile-first Indexing:

Mobile-first indexing is a way that Google prioritises the mobile versions of a site’s content for indexing and ranking. This algorithm entails smartphone Googlebot crawling the content’s mobile versions to determine its relevance and rank it in the search results.

With the implementation of mobile-first indexing, site owners are obligated to optimise their content’s mobile versions. If they neglect to do so, they’re at risk of experiencing a negative impact on their search engine rankings.

  • Mobile Usability:

Mobile usability refers to how user-friendly and functional a site is when accessed on mobile devices. Its main focus is to deliver a smooth and efficient experience for users while they navigate a site using mobile devices.

We can assume that mobile usability is a part of mobile-first indexing. With Google’s shift towards providing users with the most relevant and useful information, implementing mobile usability becomes an essential aspect of adapting to mobile-first indexing.

When Did Google Implement Mobile-First Indexing?

Google didn’t implement mobile-first indexing immediately. Instead, they took a gradual approach over the course of several years.The gradual shift assisted Google in solidifying their smartphone Googlebot while also allowing businesses to progressively adapt to the innovation and improve user experience.

The following is an overview of Google’s journey to implement mobile-first indexing over the past few years:

  • 2016 – The Initial Plan

Google first announced their initial plan to move towards mobile-first indexing back in November 2016. This plan was announced as a response to the fact that more and more people are browsing Google using their mobile devices.

Google predicted that continuing to rely on desktop-first indexing would be obsolete in the near future. People browsing Google on their smartphones will have a less pleasant experience if they rely on the desktop version of content for indexing and ranking.

Not only did Google announce that they would transition to mobile-first indexing, but they also planned to change their algorithms to prioritise the mobile version of a site’s content for ranking. They intended to do this over the next few years following the announcement.

  • 2019 – Mobile-First Indexing As a Default For New Sites

Years went by and Google continued to refine their smartphone Googlebot to support their initial plan of prioritising mobile-first index over the desktop-first index. In May 2019, Google finally took a big leap and announced that they were going to set mobile-first indexing as a default for new sites.

The plan of setting mobile-first indexing as a default for new sites was about to be implemented starting in July 2019. However, Google remained crawling and indexing desktop versions of content from older sites, as they improved their smartphone Googlebot.

  • 2020 – Mobile-First Indexing For All Domains (Postponed)

After making the algorithm mobile-first indexing as a default for new sites back in 2019, Google has finally decided to implement the algorithm for all sites in 2020. This decision was announced in March 2020 and will begin in September 2020.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic hit unexpectedly. Many businesses are struggling, and many have had to shut down due to the circumstances, leading Google to think that fully implementing mobile-first indexing will be counter-productive.

Due to unfavourable conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic, finally in July 2020 Google announced that they were postponing fully implementing mobile-first indexing until March 2021. Still, when they announced this, 70% of sites were already mobile-first indexed. 

  • 2021 – Full Switch To Mobile-First Indexing

In March 2021, Google finally decided that mobile-first indexing is a default algorithm for all sites. All domains will be assessed by Google for ranking in the search results based on their content’s mobile version.

This, in turn, requires all site owners to adapt to the mobile-first indexing algorithm to thrive their SEO. They need to ensure that the mobile version of their content is efficient so that Google can find out its relevance and help them achieve optimal ranking in search results.

Why Is Mobile-First Indexing Important?

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Amidst the ever-increasing use of mobile devices to browse the internet, mobile-first indexing becomes an important part that Google implements to ensure that users get the most relevant and accessible content.

That being said, the primary significance of this algorithm is to cater to the needs and preferences of mobile users, ensuring that their browsing experiences are seamless, engaging, and aligned with their search intent.

By centering content around mobile devices, sites can effectively deliver what users are seeking, right at their fingertips. Whether it’s informative articles, engaging infographics, or transactional services, this algorithm ensures that users can effortlessly find what they’re looking for.

Benefits of Mobile-First Indexing

As previously highlighted, mobile-first indexing guarantees users access to the most pertinent and easily accessible content, all with an enhanced overall browsing experience. Yet, how do these perks manifest in tangible outcomes?

Cross Device Experience

Websites that have been optimised for mobile-first indexing are typically accessible across multiple devices. The interface resolution will adjust seamlessly based on the device the user is using.

Faster Page Load Speed

With the implementation of mobile-first indexing, Google signals site owners to improve their page load speed as part of the best user experience parameter that influences rankings in the search results.

Better Local SEO

Mobile-first indexing has an inherent synergy with local SEO strategies, which is especially important for businesses looking to capture local markets. Sites that take a mobile-first approach seamlessly connect local users with relevant information, services, or establishments, encouraging physical engagement with businesses.

11 Common Mistakes To Avoid With Mobile-First Indexing Transition

mobile first indexing animation
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The mobile-first indexing implemented by Google has made many businesses start trying to adapt to this algorithm. Unfortunately, despite their best intentions, many do not understand the correct strategy and fall into making mistakes.

Don’t let you make the same mistake so that your SEO efforts are not in vain. In the following, we describe the common mistakes that often occur in businesses trying to adapt to the innovation made by Google:

  1. Neglecting Mobile Usability

The allure of technical complexities of technical intricacies in adapting to the recent algorithm can overshadow the importance of user experience. Unfortunately, neglecting mobile usability can result in frustrated users and lowered search results.

Therefore, mobile-first indexing and mobile usability must go hand-in-hand, ensuring that users can engage with your site’s content seamlessly. Afterall, they’re the most important part that helps your site thrive.

  1. Ignoring Content Equivalency

Equivalency between mobile and desktop versions of content is important to ensure users can still get relevant information when browsing for it in Google. In many cases, sites display less content on mobile devices than what is seen on desktop devices.

Given that mobile displays are narrower than desktop displays, showing less content on mobile devices is completely understandable. In this case, however, Google will be unable to index all of the content that determines its relevance for ranking in search results.

  1. Overlooking Page Load Speed

Page load speed is paramount for providing users with the best experience. Overlooking this particular part will only cause frustration in users, increasing the chances of them abandoning your site and impacting your search performance negatively.

  1. Poor Mobile Redirects

Mobile redirects help you to automatically mobile users to a mobile-optimised website or subdomain. Unfortunately, mishandling Mishandling mobile redirects can result in erroneous navigation and confused users.

  1. Blocking Resources

The issue that commonly affects the adaptation towards mobile-first indexing adoption is accidental resources blocking. Preventing this requires your essential resources like JavaScript and CSS to impede proper indexing and rendering, increasing user experience.

  1. Not Verifying Mobile Version In Search Console

Failure to verify your site’s mobile version in Google Search Console can result in missed insights and notifications. This oversight impedes effective monitoring and adjustment, limiting your ability to respond to potential issues promptly.

  1. Duplicate Content Issue

Duplicate content management issues can perplex search engines, making it difficult for them to determine preferred versions. Using canonical tags and hreflang annotations diligently assists search engines in directing them to the correct content, preserving search ranking integrity.

  1. Ignoring Mobile Analytics

Failing to pay attention to mobile-specific analytics deprives businesses of important insights for optimising user engagement and conversions on mobile devices. At the same time, data-driven decisions are essential for long-term success in mobile-first indexing.

  1. Inadequate Testing

Thorough testing of the mobile experience across a wide range of devices and scenarios is critical for identifying and correcting design flaws and functionality gaps. Comprehensive testing ensures that the user interface is smooth and responsive, increasing overall user satisfaction.

  1. Not Prioritising Mobile Content

Underestimating the importance of mobile content customization can lead to poor user experiences and decreased search visibility. Prioritising mobile content ensures that your site is effective across all devices.

  1. Lack of Mobile-First Mindset

If you approach the transition without adopting a mobile-first mindset, your efforts will be less effective. This is because a mobile-first mindset prioritises mobile users, guiding you to create successful strategies that adapt to mobile-first indexing.

Mobile-First Indexing Best Practices: What You Need To Know

FGD of SEO team

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Navigating the realm of mobile-first indexing demands a strategic approach that prioritises user experience, accessibility, and search engine optimisation. To ensure your transition is seamless and effective, consider the following essential best practices:

  1. Develop or Choose Responsive Design For Mobile Users

A responsive design that adapts seamlessly to different screen sizes is the foundation of mobile-first indexing success. Make sure your website is user-friendly and engaging across all devices.

  1. Ensure Google Can Access and Render Your Content

Close the gap between your content and search engine crawlers by ensuring unrestricted access and accurate rendering. Remove any barriers to optimal indexing, whether that means simplifying complex JavaScript or liberating resources that may have been accidentally blocked.

  1. Ensure Content Equivalency For Both Mobile And Desktop Versions

The compatibility of mobile and desktop content is essential. If you’re aiming for content equivalency, make sure to consider the following elements:

  • Structured Data: Implement structured data markup consistently across both versions to enhance search engine understanding of your content.
  • Metadata: Optimise meta tags (title, description) for mobile users to ensure relevance and click-through rates.
  • Robot.txt: Make sure your robots.txt file allows search engine crawlers to access mobile content.
  • Hreflang: Implement hreflang annotations to signal language and regional targeting for mobile versions.
  • Canonical: Use canonical tags to specify preferred versions and prevent duplicate content issues.
  1. Check Structured Data

The structured data that supports your content must be meticulously reviewed and validated in order to achieve resonance and visibility in search results. This step ensures that search engines understand the essence of your content with pinpoint accuracy.

  1. Assess Your Visual Content

Evaluate visual elements such as images, videos, and infographics for mobile compatibility and user engagement. Optimise visual content to fit various screen sizes without compromising quality.

  1. Enhance Mobile Page Speed

Prioritise mobile page speed by compressing images, leveraging browser caching, and minimising code. Swift load times enhance user satisfaction and search rankings.

  1. Monitor and Address Mobile Errors

You can quickly and easily address mobile-specific errors, such as usability or crawl issues, by regularly monitoring for them in Google Search Console. This way, you can maintain your site’s optimal mobile performance with fewer issues.

  1. Optimise Metadata and Social Sharing

Tailor metadata for mobile users to improve click-through rates and user engagement. Ensure that shared content appears appealing and accurately represented on social media platforms.

  1. Submit XML and Media Sitemaps for Mobile

Facilitate search engines’ discovery and indexing of your mobile content by submitting dedicated XML and media sitemaps for mobile versions.

  1. Verify Mobile Version in Search Console

Verify both desktop and mobile versions of your site in Google Search Console to access insights and notifications specific to each version.

  1. Consider App Indexation

If you have a mobile app, explore app indexation strategies to enhance visibility and engagement in search results and app stores.

  1. Assess Server Capacity

Ensure your server can handle increased crawl rates associated with mobile-first indexing. A robust server infrastructure supports efficient content delivery and indexing.

  1.  Manage Transition with Switchboard Tags

If you employ separate URLs for mobile and desktop content, use switchboard tags to facilitate smooth transitions and signal the primary content version.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, Google is doing the right thing by implementing mobile-first indexing in response to an increasing number of people browsing the internet via mobile devices. This algorithm will provide users with a seamless user experience while finding what they are looking for at their fingertips.

Now, improving your website to adapt to mobile-first indexing is completely in your hands. The benefits of adapting to this algorithm are obvious; your users can better engage with your content, increasing your rankings in the search results.

But, in any case that you need a helping hand, let us be the one to rely on. As an SEO agency, we have a team of experienced SEO experts ready to work on your website and improve its mobile-friendliness, adapting to the mobile-first indexing algorithm.

Shoot us a message and we’ll gladly work with you!

Frequently Asked Questions

What does mobile first indexing mean?

Mobile-first indexing is Google’s algorithm that prioritises a site’s mobile versions of content for indexing and ranking in the search results. Google does this as a response to more and more people browsing through the internet via mobile devices.

When did Google start mobile first indexing?

Google first started mobile-first indexing back in 2019 for new sites. As in March 2021, Google has set the algorithm for all sites.

What does mobile first mean for SEO?

Mobile-first indexing for SEO means that a site’s content relevance is determined on the mobile versions. The more efficient the site and content is seen in mobile device, the more likely for it to rank higher in the search results

Looking for a trusted SEO agency in Singapore? Schedule a consultation with us today.

About Roots Digital

Roots Digital is an award-winning digital marketing agency and SEO agency headquartered in Singapore, specialising in eCommerce Marketing and lead generation.

Some of our core digital marketing services include SEO servicesSEM services, Google Ads management servicesGoogle Analytics services and more.

Feel free to reach out if you’re interested in working with us. Connect with us via our service enquiry form. You may schedule a call for more information and to know more about our digital marketing services.

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Ian Ong
Marketing Director @ Roots Digital, a digital marketing agency in Singapore. Aka the guy responsible for growing the digital marketing agency.
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