what is mobile first indexing

As you probably know, SEO is always changing. We’re all just trying to keep up.

Due to the growing popularity of (and dependency on) mobile devices, the way we utilize the internet has evolved in recent years.

In fact, Google reports that over half of all web traffic now comes from mobile.

And as the chart from Statista shows below, 3.8 billion people were using smartphones worldwide in 2021.

Source: Statista

If they want to truly compete, businesses can’t ignore the importance of mobile accessibility.

Google knows just how important the mobile experience is to today’s web users. As a result, there have been a handful of adjustments made to ensure users are getting the most valuable results when they perform mobile searches.

Enter: mobile first indexing.

Although this concept isn’t exactly new, it’s one that continues to impact how websites are ranked in the eyes of search engines.

To maximize your clients’ chances of success, you’ll want to know the answer to “what is mobile first indexing?” and how it will impact any SEO strategy.

Let’s dive in.

What is Mobile First Indexing?

First, we need to answer the question: what does mobile first indexing mean?

You already know that Google changes its ranking algorithm based on user behavior and needs. We’ve written about the major Google algorithm updates before, but this one’s a little bit different.

Mobile first indexing signaled a change in the way that websites would be indexed, or cataloged, by Google. Prior to this shift, the desktop version of the website was crawled first – meaning that a site’s rankings were primarily based on the desktop experience.

But now, Google’s bots crawl the mobile site first. The mobile version of a given website is now the starting point for how the site is perceived. Here’s a helpful chart from Moz that explains the difference:

Source: Moz

This change was announced as far back as 2016, but it wasn’t until 2018 that we started to see the impact. By 2019, mobile first indexing became the default for all websites and in 2021, 100% of sites were reportedly indexed using the mobile first algorithm.

Clearly, it’s taken a few years for this rollout to take place. But why did this change occur?

Because mobile search has become more prevalent (and now outpaces desktop search), Google wants to make sure that the search results served to users are actually relevant and useful based on the queries they perform.

There was a time when desktop and mobile versions of the same website could differ significantly. Some site owners ignored the needs of mobile users altogether, choosing to focus primarily on the desktop experience.

This meant that users looking for information, products, and services might have had a tougher time finding what they needed simply due to the device they used to perform their web search.

Ultimately, this phenomenon would make search engines like Google a lot less useful to those mobile users. To maintain Google’s own relevance and reputation – and to better serve the needs of its increasingly tech-savvy users – the shift to mobile first indexing made sense.

It’s important to remember a couple of things about mobile first indexing. For one thing, this doesn’t equate to mobile only indexing. The desktop version of your site will still “count” in how your rankings are determined.

If you don’t have a mobile version of your website, for example, the desktop version will still be indexed. However, it’s crucial to note that a lack of mobile friendliness can hurt your rankings.

Is Mobile Friendliness the Same as Mobile First?

And speaking of "mobile friendliness," that concept isn’t interchangeable with “mobile first indexing.”

Both of these terms indicate the importance of a mobile accessible website, but mobile first indexing refers to the order of operations used by Google’s crawlers. Mobile friendliness, on the other hand, includes a number of factors that can improve the user experience for those who visit your site using a smartphone or tablet.

Even if your site isn’t technically mobile friendly, it will still be subject to mobile first indexing. In order for your site to benefit from this new way of indexing, you’ll want to make mobile friendliness a priority.

We’ll discuss how to actually do that a little later. For now, we’ll leave you with this takeaway:

It’s easy to view mobile first indexing as yet another pain in the neck. But if you’re able to change your POV and view it as an opportunity, you’ll have more luck.

Yes, this change forces you to consider the mobile experience when you design or optimize a website. When you realize just how many potential customers are using mobile to find what they need, however, those considerations suddenly seem a lot more worthwhile.

With that in mind, let’s discuss what mobile first indexing means for websites going forward and how this change affects SEO.

How Does Mobile First Indexing Impact SEO?

You now know the meaning of mobile first indexing. So why should you care about it?

The simplest answer is: because Google cares about it.

When Google prioritizes a ranking factor or makes an adjustment as part of its algorithm, it’s typically because it’s trying to find better ways to serve its users.

Web users want relevant results when they search on mobile. Google wants to deliver those results so web users will continue to use its services.

How Important is Mobile First Indexing For Search Rankings?

Okay, so what does this mean for your clients?

For starters, Google will usually highlight websites that provide a great mobile experience over sites that don’t.

Yep – mobile first indexing will often have an impact on search rankings.

It’s not always going to change a site’s rankings significantly, though. Say a client’s site provides the exact same experience on mobile as it does on desktop. Their site’s design is totally responsive, meaning it’s consistent no matter how it’s being viewed.

In that example, they probably wouldn’t have much to worry about with the shift to mobile first indexing. As long as they’re following other best practices for web design and user experience, they wouldn’t see big losses in rankings as a result of this particular change.

However, site owners with separate desktop and mobile versions may want to pay attention. If your client’s mobile site is missing information or is harder to navigate compared to their desktop site, it’s possible they could be adversely affected by the mobile first indexing change.

Considering that mobile first indexing is now completely rolled out, you’re probably not going to see a ton of ranking instability based solely on this change. But keep in mind that mobile friendliness (and related factors like site speed, security, layout shifts, etc.) are still used to determine where a site stands in SERPs.

If you haven’t yet addressed mobile issues on your site or the site of a client, there’s no time like the present. Their rankings won’t improve if you ignore the problem. Due to our ever-increased reliance on mobile devices, it’s likely their rankings will only fluctuate more over time.

Google doesn’t specifically penalize sites that aren’t deemed to be mobile friendly. But Google certainly does favor websites that provide an excellent mobile experience with help from responsive design, fast loading speeds, and other factors.

Mobile friendliness is now considered to be a ranking signal. Sites that aren’t mobile friendly will be perceived as less relevant and valuable in contrast.

To make a long story short, not having a mobile friendly site can certainly impact rankings. While mobile isn’t the only factor Google considers, it’s becoming increasingly important.

It isn’t solely about a site’s position in SERPs. With more customers using their mobile devices to look for urgent information and make purchasing decisions, your clients will leave money on the table if they dismiss the importance of mobile friendliness.

When Google’s priorities align with the customer’s, you have to take on those priorities yourself. Otherwise, you won’t outpace the competition and will likely fall behind.

What Should You Consider When Developing Your SEO Strategy For Mobile First Indexing?

Knowing the risks associated with poor mobile accessibility, it’s only natural that you’d want to help your clients appease the mobile first indexing bots.

Becoming the SEO hero will keep your clients happy. (Any white label SEO agency knows that!) And even if a client’s website hasn’t been redesigned in a while, there are still some ways to improve their results post-rollout.

The first thing to keep in mind is that you don’t have to do anything specific for mobile first indexing to take place. Any site that was launched after 2019 was automatically indexed in this manner, with all sites receiving this treatment starting in 2020.

In some cases, site owners may have received notification after this point that Google was finally ready to start mobile first indexing for them. By now, however, you can expect that 100% of all websites are now indexed mobile first.

Remember what we said earlier about non-responsive sites being subject to mobile first indexing? That can be an issue if your clients haven’t made any recommended updates for mobile by this point. It could mean that their site rankings aren’t where they’d like them to be.

But not all is lost! Whether they plan to launch a brand new site or they want to stick with their site design from a few years back, you can still make improvements to align with best practices for mobile first indexing.

Here are just 10 of them we’d encourage anyone in our SEO reseller program and their clients to consider.

SEO tips for mobile first indexing

10 Mobile First Indexing Tips to Improve Site Rankings

Opt For Responsive Design

Arguably, the best way to avoid the pitfalls of the desktop versus mobile site problem is to have one version of your website that automatically adjusts based on how it’s being viewed.

That’s the idea behind responsive web design. Sites with responsive design aren’t affected by mobile first indexing because they were already delivering the same experience for all users.

While responsive design doesn’t always mean that a site is 100% mobile friendly, it certainly cuts down on the chance that you’ll provide an inferior experience to mobile users. If it’s been years since your clients had their site redone and they’re still using a separate URL for the mobile version, make a business case for responsive design by showing them how it could improve their rankings.

Run a Mobile Friendly Test

Above, we mentioned that responsive design isn’t the only factor that impacts mobile friendliness. Site speed, navigation, and other considerations can also make a site more or less mobile friendly.

With that in mind, you’ll want to run a mobile friendliness test to see where improvements can be made. If your clients have never tried to access their site on anything but a laptop or desktop PC, they may be in for a shock.

Google has a free, easy-to-use mobile friendly test you can start with. Just enter the URL to find out what you might be missing.

Remember the Core Web Vitals

Google’s Core Web Vitals rolled out after mobile first indexing, but they tie in nicely to the mobile friendliness conversation.

The CWVs center around page experience and address issues like page loading speed, interactivity delays, and unexpected layout shifts.

In short, to make a site more mobile friendly, you’ll want to ensure every page loads quickly, that there are no delays that keep a visitor from clicking on a page element, and that the web pages don’t jumble or shift around during loading.

All three of these issues can disrupt the user experience for everyone (especially mobile visitors), so take a look at your Core Web Vitals report and learn where adjustments may benefit your clients’ SEO results.

Provide an Equivalent Experience

If a site is not responsive, you’ll need to ensure that the mobile and desktop versions of the site provide what’s known as an equivalent experience for all users.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the experiences have to be completely identical (though that’s sometimes ideal). The same content should be provided on both versions of a given page, for example. But when it comes to metadata, some mobile titles may need to be shortened while containing the same keywords and basic information.

Consistency is key. Your mobile site should provide the same amount of value as the desktop version. Keep in mind that removing content from the mobile site for the sake of speed can have negative consequences. You’ll need to find a way to keep the site speedy without sacrificing usefulness.

Create Content For Mobile Users

Now, not all content is created equal. While you shouldn’t eliminate content from your mobile site that exists on the desktop version, you should consider mobile users when developing your content marketing strategy.

We tend to highlight the value of long-form content, as it keeps visitors on the page and can solidify your perception as an industry expert. But sometimes, 2,000-word blog posts can look daunting on a tiny smartphone screen.

That’s why you’ll want to include some diversity in your content creation. Deep dives are great, but there’s also a place for 500- to 700-word articles, listicles, infographics, FAQs, and video content. Short-form content can be great for mobile users who want to get to the “meat” of a given topic.

That doesn’t mean you have to get rid of long-form content, however! Just make sure it’s structured in a way that mobile users can easily view. Break up long paragraphs so they’re easier to read and find ways to keep users scrolling.

Use Schema Markup

Structured data, known as schema markup, can help Google gain a clearer understanding of your website.

When you include schema markup in a page’s HTML, it basically creates an enhanced snippet of content that can sometimes improve search rankings visibility. Think of it as a way to provide additional context.

While microdata isn’t considered to be a ranking factor, it can make a site appear more readily in search results. This could theoretically help desktop sites, as well, but providing additional information to Google can allow your site to be seen as more valuable and relevant – and that’s a good way to appear in mobile search results.

Get Rid of Pop-Ups

We don’t see the same kinds of pop-ups that used to plague every website 20 years ago. But they can still be a problem for many site owners.

Certain pop-ups can be decent lead generation tools. They can convince visitors to hand over their email address in exchange for a discount or something else of value.

The issue occurs when pop-ups hurt the user experience. If they appear immediately or on every single new page, for example, visitors will quickly become frustrated. The same goes for whole-page pop-ups (known as interstitials) that make it nearly impossible for the user to navigate through the site.

Generally speaking, a single pop-up that appears halfway through a scrolling page and that’s easy to dismiss won’t hurt your mobile friendliness rating. But if your client is going hard with the pop-up ads, it’s time to reconsider.

Not only will they disrupt the user experience, but today’s customers don’t like the hard sell. In all likelihood, they’ll repel more than they will attract.

Use High-Quality Visuals

Sometimes, site owners will use lower quality images as a way to speed up a page. Since larger images take longer to load, it’s easy to understand why they might assume this is the best way to go.

But Google specifically says that images that are too small or that have too low of a resolution won’t help your mobile site. They can impede user experience and won’t really do any favors for your brand’s perception.

You’ll need to strike the right balance between image quality and loading speed. You may be able to reduce the image’s size significantly without hurting its quality. You can also make use of “lazy load” tags in some cases.

You should make sure that both images and videos are consistent for all users and that they exist in a supported format. Alt text and other structured data should be consistent for all visuals, regardless of how the site is being viewed.

Ask Google to Re-Index

If Google has already indexed your non-mobile friendly site, that isn't set in stone. You have an opportunity to request a redo.

Google has a specific page you can use to request a re-index of a site or page that’s undergone recent changes. It can take a few weeks for Google’s bots to crawl the improved page, but the wait may be worth it if you feel strongly about the adjustments you’ve made. You can also submit a sitemap that will help Google crawl your site’s pages more effectively.

Follow All Other Google Best Practices

Mobile friendliness and mobile first indexing can’t be summed up completely in 3,000 words.

Therefore, it’s in your best interest to familiarize yourself with all of Google’s best practices for mobile first indexing and make adjustments as needed. (If you’re part of our white label SEO reseller program and you’re having trouble deciphering any of these recommendations, we’re here to help.)

Fix Mobile First For Better Rankings

Mobile friendliness isn’t the only thing that matters when Google evaluates a website. While it could break the tie between two equivalent sites, there are thousands of other ranking signals to keep in mind.

Still, it’s hard to make the SEO progress your clients want to see without ensuring their website is mobile friendly. Google knows that web users want to use their smartphones to get answers and buy products. The brands that don’t recognize this growing need will often lose out in the end.

By understanding the importance of mobile first indexing and following our mobile friendly tips, you can help remove barriers for your clients and help them achieve their SEO ambitions.