Google moves to mobile-first for search results

In November, Google rolled out a new mobile-first index. What that means is Google will generate and rank its search listings based on content presented on the search engine’s mobile version that includes results shown to desktop users. Are you wondering how this works? Let us explain.

What changes with mobile-first indexing?

With more and more searches occurring on mobile, Google wants its indexing and results to represent the majority of its users — people who are now searching on mobile.

Google has begun to use its mobile version as its primary search engine. Prior to the change Google crawled the web from the desktop browser point-of-view, now Google is moving to change that, crawling the web from the perspective of a mobile browser.

What happens if I do not have a mobile website?

Do not panic, while Google wants you to move to having a mobile site, it will still crawl your desktop version. According to Google when it announced the change on November 4: “If you only have a desktop site, we’ll continue to index your desktop site just fine, even if we’re using a mobile user agent to view your site.” Full statement here.

If you do have a mobile site, you need to ensure your content and links on your mobile site are closely similar to your desktop version so Google can crawl it and rank it as well as it did from your desktop site.

Should I worry if my mobile site has less in terms of content than my desktop site?

Possibly the answer to that question is yes. Google says it will look at your site’s mobile version. If it has less content than the desktop version, it is likely Google will only see the less content-loaded mobile version.

It is for this reason Google recommends you take a responsive approach — make sure your content is the same page-by-page across both platforms.

What happens to expandable content on mobile?

When it comes to desktop sites, Google says content hidden in expandable boxes, tabs or by other methods will not carry as much weight. However, in the case of mobile, Google says content like this will be weighted higher if it is done for a user’s experience purpose. The thinking behind this is expandable content makes sense for mobile and less so for desktop.

How will this change Google rankings?

Google says this should not affect overall rankings and there should be a minimal change to rankings. The company also admits it is too soon to tell but it is not intended for this indexing shift to affect rankings too much.

When will the rollout be complete?

Google has begun testing this mobile-first index for some users. However, the full rollout is likely to still be months away. Google is non-committal on an end-date because the rollout is still in the testing phase – it will largely depend on how successful it is or not.

What Google will say is it will make it available to more and more users over time as it sees users becoming more confident using the mobile-first index.

Will this mean a boost to mobile-friendly rankings?

Google has stated previously content that is not considered to be mobile-friendly will not rank as well. That is still the case with the new index.

In the index, which most people will currently continue to get results from, Google indexes desktop content and uses it for displaying listings to both mobile and desktop users. Then a mobile-friendly ranking system is used to boost that type of content for Google mobile listings. Content deemed not to be mobile-friendly will not perform as well.

With the mobile-first index, which some internet users will get results from as it is rolled out, Google indexes mobile content and uses it for displaying listings to both mobile and desktop users. After that, the same as the current mobile-friendly ranking boost for mobile users is applied to mobile-friendly pages.

How can I know if Google sees mobile pages?

The most effective method is by using the Fetch and Render tool found in the Google Search Console. Select mobile:smartphone user and view the preview after fetch and render has been completed. What you see in the Google rendered results is likely to be what Google sees and indexes from your mobile site. If there is content missing, you should look at how to fix the problem and then run the tool again.

Ranking signals will originate from your mobile, rather than your desktop version

Prior to the rollout, Google ranked mobile sites based on numerous signals gleaned from a desktop site. That is situation is going to flip meaning Google will now rank both mobile and desktop sites based on the signals it gets from crawling a site from a mobile point-of-view.

The page speeds of a mobile site will determine the Google ranking of both mobile sites and desktop sites. Google is also likely to pay attention to titles, H1s, other tags and content generated from mobile sites, and use them for the desktop versions.

Google knows the trend is continued growth in mobile and more and more searchers will use mobile over desktop to search.

Will Google feature different indexes for mobile and desktop?

In time, it is Google’s plan to feature only one index based on mobile content and this will serve listings for both desktop and mobile users. During the rollout period, the two will remain mobile-first and desktop-first. However, the majority of users will get results from the desktop-first index. Users are unlikely to know which index they are actually using. As Google’s confidence in its mobile-first index grows, eventually it will be the sole index used. However, if the new index does not prove useful Google may revert to desktop-first. Thus far, Google has referred to the mobile-first index as an “experiment.”

Will rankings and links change due to this?

There is concern mobile content has a tendency to feature fewer links than desktop content. It is a concern similar that of mobile content featuring less content than desktop. As it stands Google search results are highly dependent on content and links. So if both content and links are impacted, what will the impact on rankings? Google says the new system is being tested, so the outcome is not 100 percent clear.

Will you need to change canonicals?

Google says there is no need to change canonicals, keep the tags as they are, and follow Google’s recommendations.

Can I see changes and impact in the search results now?

According to Google you should not be able to see changes and impact from the mobile-first index rollout right now. In fact, the company hopes there is little to no impact after the full rollout.