What is the Mobile First Index & What Does It Mean To You?

Author Allison Smith
by Jen Kinney, Director of Search Marketing - Updated Jan. 20, 2017

In the world of SEO, mobile friendliness has been a hot top since the “Mobilegeddon” Google algorithm update of April 2015. This initial algorithm update served more as a warning to website owners to start considering mobile users in terms of design, content and experience and penalized websites’ rankings for mobile searches. It also led to domains having different rankings in Google when a user searches on a desktop verse searching on a mobile device.

However, that warning is about to get a little more bite with the new mobile first index being tested by Google. Announced in November of 2016, the mobile first index will be Google’s attempt to move away from having two separate indexes for desktop and mobile searches and move to one consolidated Google search index. Currently labeled as an “experiment”, Google’s plan is to start crawling and using your mobile site first for ranking signals and fall back on your desktop content only when a mobile site is not available.

So, what does this mean to webmasters in 2017? In terms of SEO, it could mean a lot.


The Mobile First Index vs. Your Mobile Website


If you currently host two versions of your site, one for desktop and one for mobile, this update could have considerable implications on your rankings. It is not uncommon for webmasters to serve up thinner content and a stripped down experience on a mobile site and maintain the full user experience and content on the desktop version of the site. The biggest problem these websites will face is that instead of crawling your full site and considering that content for its ranking signals, Google will now crawl your mobile site first. Thinner content will always have a harder time ranking and will be considered of lesser quality and authority in the eyes of Google - and potentially your users. Webmasters will need to reconsider their content deployment plan on mobile sites if they wish for it to rank.


Despite the mobile first index update, serving up a separate mobile site will still make sense for many websites and shouldn’t be disregarded. However, there are some things that mobile sites should consider in 2017:

  • Make sure your mobile site has structured data. Google will not depend on your desktop version of the site for this information.
  • Do not block mobile sites from robots.txt file. Remember, the plan of this update is to crawl your mobile site, not hide it.
  • If you are using canonical tags on your mobile pages, Google is saying there is no need to change those at this moment.
  • If you have separate sites, you should verify the mobile site in Search Console as well as your desktop site.
  • Be mindful of your mobile page speed score. Your mobile page speed will now be the page speed ranking signal - not your desktop page speed.

Be mindful of your mobile page speed score. Your mobile page speed will now be the page speed ranking signal - not your desktop page speed.


If you have separate sites, you should also consider your backlink profile. Are all of your links pointing to your desktop content and not to your mobile content? While there has been no definitive answer as to how backlinks will play into the mobile-first index as it is fully rolled-out, this is definitely something to be concerned about and to start planning for if backlinks are a component of your SEO strategy.



The Mobile First Index & Mobile Responsive Design = SEO Love


Many websites have gone the route of a  mobile responsive website design in response to the changing trends of user behavior and technology. For those with a responsive design, the mobile first index only stands to potentially benefit your rankings.


For those with a mobile responsive site, no website or coding changes are needed as you are serving up the exact same content and site across all devices. However, the update could help improve the value of some of your on-page content. Expandable content on desktop sites (content housed in tabs, modules, or accordions) has always had less weight than standalone content on a page. With the mobile first approach, expandable content will have just as much value, as tabs, boxes and accordions are used in mobile sites for user experience.


What About Those Without a Mobile or Responsive Site?


No mobile site and not mobile friendly? The mobile first index experiment is not all doom, but you will miss out on the rankings boost projected for mobile friendly sites. The blunt truth is, if you do not currently have a mobile-friendly site - you have already been missing out. It is now reported that 60% of Google searches happen on a mobile device and that percentage is only expected to increase.  Mobile first index aside, website owners should really consider a responsive website design in order to provide a seamless and user friendly experience to all users. This could not only help make your site easier to use, but can help improve rankings and conversions as well!