Beginning as far back as 2015, Google started announcing major updates to how websites would be crawled, indexed and ultimately ranked in accordance with its ever-evolving algorithms. These modifications stemmed from the shift in users’ search habits over the years, as they drifted away from the once-traditional method of conducting the majority of searches on desktop devices and opted to use mobile devices to field queries. And thus, the march toward Google’s Mobile-First Indexing was born.
Google forewarned domain owners about this pending switch for over a year, without any concrete timeline for when the update would roll out; if a website did not have a solution that was deemed “friendly” to users viewing on mobile devices, that website’s spot in the organic rankings would slip in favor of websites that provided a superior mobile experience.
What is mobile-first indexing?
Over the past couple of months, Google has prioritized launching their Mobile-First Index, mostly based on specific industries. You might have even received the following message from Google Search Console if your website’s time was up for jumping to the mobile-first index:
Basically, mobile-first indexing means that the mobile version of your website will now be considered the primary version — regardless of whether you have a responsive design or separate mobile and desktop sites. If you have optimized your website for both mobile and desktop, you likely won’t see a significant impact in terms of performance. However, if your website isn’t optimized to be mobile-friendly (which can be tested using Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test) you could be penalized on keyword rankings, and ultimately miss out on organic traffic/leads.
A Cautionary Tale: How Google’s Update Spelled Trouble for One Website
Google’s Mobile-First Index has been expected for a while now, and the search engine has given websites ample time to prepare for the big change. Yet, there were still numerous websites that were not able to adapt in time. Here’s an example of a website that faced mobile-first indexing before they were able to provide a mobile-friendly solution:
The first sign of trouble was a decrease in mobile keyword rankings. Immediately after the site was subjected to the mobile-first indexing, the keyword rankings for mobile searches began to suffer. Following the decrease in mobile keyword rankings, the Performance report in Google Search Console told a similar story:
With mobile-first indexing, the website’s daily mobile impressions decreased drastically. Google’s algorithms simply did not want to show this website for mobile search results any longer. Naturally, as keyword rankings dropped and mobile impressions decreased, mobile traffic followed the same trend:
This website was moved to mobile-first indexing in April. Comparing the monthly average of mobile traffic prior to Google’s updates to the monthly average after the switch, the website saw a shocking 70 percent decrease in mobile traffic.
How to Protect Your Organic Traffic with Mobile-First Indexing
As the mobile-first index continues to roll out across the board, it’s extremely important to ensure you have a mobile-friendly website to avoid a significant impact in performance. If you already have a mobile-friendly website, you’ll want to make sure that it’s well-optimized. In addition to your everyday SEO items (structured data, page speed, etc.), the following should be kept in mind:
- Google Search Console: If the mobile site is on a subdomain or in a subfolder, a mobile-specific property should be created to best monitor performance.
- Metadata: Make sure that your keyword strategy has been properly implemented across the entire mobile website; this should mirror the strategy of your desktop site.
- XML Sitemaps & Alternate/Canonical Tags:If the mobile and desktop sites are separate and use different URL structures, an XML Sitemap specifically for the mobile pages should be created. Also, “rel=’alternate’” and “rel=’canonical’” tags should also be properly used to help map out the relationships between mobile and desktop content. This also goes for the Robots.txt file.