What Does Mobile-First Indexing Mean For Your Website?

Picture of mobile first indexing

20 Jun 2019



First announced in 2016 and trialed in 2017, mobile-first indexing (MFI) has become Google’s go-to algorithm for ranking search engine results. Throughout 2018, Google rolled out MFI to over half the pages currently on the web and, following its success, the search engine giant has announced that all new websites will be subject to mobile-first indexing by default.

Applicable from 1st July 2019, all new web domains will be subject to mobile-first indexing, but that doesn’t mean that existing sites can ignore the rise of MFI. As Google increasingly prioritises mobile-friendly content, even existing sites will need to modify their web presence to meet the search engine’s demands.

Whilst the latest announcement appears to confirm that mobile-first indexing is here to stay, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to business owners or site managers. The use of mobile devices has risen significantly in recent years, so Google’s switch to MFI is merely reflective of evolving user behaviour.

As mobile-first indexing becomes more engrained in the Google’s algorithms and approach, however, web design or development decisions must prioritise mobile-usability. Whereas many companies and site owners once viewed mobile-friendly options as added extras or an afterthought, Google’s continued commitment to MFI emphasises the importance of mobile-usability in web design and development.

How Does MFI Work?

Goggle wants to give its users the best experience possible, which means providing them with content that’s relevant to their search terms. However, Google isn’t just concerned with delivering relevant content, it also wants to make sure that users receive links to original content, verifiable data and secure websites. To achieve this, Google crawls webpages and ranks them in accordance with its algorithms. A secure site, which is regularly updated, well-structured and has numerous backlinks will rank more highly than a website without updated security measures, non‑functioning links and outdated content, for example.

This is where mobile-first indexing comes in. Google’s web crawler, known as Googlebot, mimics users in order to create an index Google can use to deliver reputable, reliable and relevant search results to users. In fact, Googlebot actually encompasses two web crawlers; one to mimic desktop users and one to simulate mobile users.

Traditionally, Google placed more weight on the experience of desktop users, so the results of this web crawl had more of an impact on where your website ranked within Google’s internal search index. With the introduction of mobile-first indexing, however, Googlebot’s simulation of mobile users will take precedence.

In essence, this means that mobile-usability will have a far greater impact on the position of your web pages within Google’s internal search index, and therefore where you appear on user searching rankings. Whilst Googlebot will still crawl web pages whilst simulating a desktop user, it’s imitation of a mobile user and subsequent results will be given priority.

If Content Is The Same, Why Does MFI Matter?

Let’s imagine you have one well-structured, secure, non-responsive website, filled with optimised content and regularly updated. Your content is the same however it’s viewed, so your ranking for mobile and desktop users should be the same, right? Wrong.

Even though the structure, content and security of your site may be the same, the user experience, or UX, varies. A non-responsive website won’t recognise what device a user is operating, so it won’t make any modifications to enhance their UX. Whilst your content will technically be the same, it will appear very differently depending on which device is being used.

If your site has been designed and developed with desktop users in mind, for example, you’ve probably assumed the users will be viewing your website on a screen of at least 15”-17”. When the same website is viewed on a mobile device, with screen sizes as small as 5”-6”, your content is going to look very, very different.

In addition to this, trying to use a desktop-based website on a mobile device can be extremely difficult. Your website may function well when it’s viewed on a larger screen and users are relying on a mouse or touchpad to navigate, but when the same user tries to find their way around your website on a much smaller touchscreen, it’s a whole different experience.

By giving priority to the experience of mobile users via MFI, Google is ensuring that business, companies and site owners cater to users who rely on mobile devices to browse the web. By using MFI as the default method of indexing for all new sites, the search engine is signifying a shift towards mobile-usability over ease-of-use on a desktop. Whilst UX on desktops and laptops is still important in terms of where your site will be indexed, its mobile-usability will have more of an effect on its position within Google’s internal index. As a result, site owners and operators will need to ensure that their sites offer a superior UX for mobile device users if they want to rank highly in Google’s own index and in subsequent user searches.

Is MFI The Latest Google Trend?

Not exactly. It’s true that Google modifies its algorithms fairly frequently, but this is done is response to changing user behaviour and in order to deliver more accurate results to its users. For website owners, the shift towards mobile-first indexing may seem like just another hoop to jump through in order to improve your search engine rankings, but there are many advantages of having a website which caters to mobile users.

The rationale behind the introduction of MFI was the change in user behaviour. Numerous studies highlighted the rise in mobile device users, with gains across all demographics. Furthermore, research has shown that most searches begin using a mobile device. Whilst some users may then switch to a desktop, laptop or larger screen, their initial search is carried out on a mobile device and heavily influenced by the results they get.

In addition to this, separate studies have highlighted user expectations in terms of functionality and page loading times. If a user isn’t able to view content within an estimated three seconds, they’ll leave your site and go directly to a competitor’s. Similarly, if mobile users can’t navigate a site easily because it’s optimised for desktop users and not mobile users, they’ll simply leave your site and be straight on to the next, thus losing you critical engagement and potential transactions.

Whilst MFI may appear to the be the latest modification to an ever-growing list of algorithms, it is clearly based on the evolution of user behaviour, and this is something companies, managers, site owners and operators should be acutely aware of.

Prioritising Mobile Users

If you’ve yet to embrace mobile-usability, Google’s switch to mobile-first indexing should be enough to persuade you. However, MFI isn’t the only reason to enhance the UX for mobile users. According to CIODive, 70% of web traffic in 2018 originated from a mobile device, whilst BrightEdge reports that 51% of customers claim to use mobile devices to discover new products and brands.

For businesses targeting customers in the UK, similar trends are reported. According to the Office of National Statistics, 78% of adults in the UK used mobile devices to access the internet in 2018. In every age group, apart from individuals aged 65 years or over, a mobile phone was the most popular way to access the web. However, users over the age of 65 years still rely predominantly on mobile devices, with 42% choosing to browse the web on a tablet, rather than a desktop or laptop.

With over 77% of adults in the UK using the internet on the go, it’s easy to see why mobile usage has shot up. The increase in WiFi availability, personal hotspots and the reduced cost of mobile data has made it far easier and more cost-effective for users to rely on their mobile devices.

It’s worth nothing that the statistics relating to mobile device usage have grown year-on-year for quite some time. Rather than being a sudden or short-lived trend, the increase in mobile usability has occurred over a number of years, which highlights a more long-term shift in user behaviour.

For businesses and site owners, this type of data should be at the root of your web design and development decisions. Creating data-driven websites can be the most effective way of reaching the relevant users and engaging with your target demographic, because it enables you to base your decisions on objective and verifiable data.

With all reputable sources reporting a significant increase in the rise of mobile users and all age groups relying predominantly on mobile devices, companies should be keenly aware of the effect this will have on their online presence. Ultimately, if you aren’t catering to mobile users, you’re missing out on crucial engagement opportunities, and your bottom line is likely to suffer as a result.

Whilst companies may find it tiresome to continually modify their online strategy in according with Google’s whims, businesses who ignore seismic changes in user behaviour do so at their peril.

Improving Mobile Usability

With the importance of mobile-usability well-established, the next question is how do you improve UX for mobile users? In the past, some companies have chosen to create a separate mobile site, optimised specifically for users who rely on devices such as smartphones or tablets. However, creating a separate mobile site isn’t the most cost-effective or efficient way of improving mobile UX.

Maintaining two separate websites, with one optimised for desktop usage and one for mobile usage, increases your costs automatically. Similarly, the workload for developers and designers also rises if you have two different sites in operation.

Furthermore, maintaining two sites won’t fulfil Google’s MFI algorithm in the way you want. Although Googlebot uses two different crawlers to simulate mobile and desktop users, it only has one internal search index. Whilst the experience of mobile device users is given priority, the results from Google’s desktop web crawler will still have an impact on your ranking on their internal indexing, albeit a secondary one. By operating two different sites, your desktop site will be lower down the rankings because it doesn’t have a high level of mobile usability and your mobile site won’t benefit from the work that goes into your desktop site either, meaning it will be ranked further down the index despite it’s focus on mobile users.

In addition to this, the wide range of mobile devices now available means there’s no standard ‘mobile device framework’ that caters to all mobile users. As new technology is introduced, such as Samsung’s folding smartphone or Apple’s rumoured tri-fold smartphone, the options available to mobile users will continue to rise, so companies can’t simply rely on a mobile website template to deliver a seamless UX to all mobile users.

Managing MFI With Responsive Web Design

Responsive web design is the ideal solution for businesses and site owners who want to cater to all types of users and meet Google’s MFI algorithm requirements at the same time. Increased flexibility ensures that a responsive website is modified depending on the device used. When a site is viewed on a smartphone, for example, the layout of the site will change so that it’s easier to navigate. Similarly, if users rely on a desktop or screen to browse the web, your site will be displayed differently so that they get the best UX possible.

Using responsive web design also reduces costs for website owners. Instead of trying to maintain different sites for mobile and desktop users, you can simply rely on one website to reach all types of users, regardless of what type of device or connection they’re currently utilising. This means that all the resources you put into your website will benefit your online presence as a whole, rather than having a limited and segmented effect.

Whilst Google’s move towards mobile-first indexing does place pressure on companies to modify their web presence, businesses should already be embracing mobile usability in order to reach their target audience. By switching to a responsive web design, site operators can successfully deliver content to their users, offer exceptional navigation and functionality across devices, improve UX experience and satisfy Google’s latest algorithm. As a result, businesses will benefit from streamlined processes, reduced costs, increased engagement and improved user retention.

To find out more about mobile-first indexing and what it means for your business, contact us at WYSI now.

Josh Tanner

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