- What is mobile-first indexing?
- Check visual content on mobile site
- Ensure metadata and linking elements are consistent with desktop site
- Can your server handle increased crawl rate?
Google has released advice about how users can be preparing for the mobile-first index. They have confirmed that while most websites are set to mobile-first indexing, there are still many that are not. This is a handy ‘all you need to know’ guide on how to make your mobile site shine.
What is “mobile-first indexing”?
Mobile-first indexing means that Google’s algorithms predominantly use the mobile version of your site for indexing and ranking. Before 2019, search engines such as Google would use the desktop version of web pages to determine the rank and relevancy of a user’s search query.
However, since most users now use their mobile devices to browse the web, Google crawlers primarily crawl the mobile version of web pages. According to a 2021 Statista report, mobile devices accounted for nearly 60% of global website traffic in the first quarter of the year.
Essentially, the mobile-first index continues the trend of Google favouring sites with optimised mobile versions; it will rank search listings explicitly based on the mobile version of the content, even for listings that are shown to desktop users.
If the mobile version of your site is following best practices, you should notice your crawl rate significantly improve. You’ll also find that the snippets in the results and Google cached pages show the mobile version of your site rather than the desktop version.
If you don’t have a mobile version, don’t worry, as Google has stated that they will still crawl the desktop version of your website instead. However, you should bear in mind the continuing trend of users turning to mobile searches over desktops and ensure that your website allows for a good user experience across all devices. For instance, more than 50% of internet shopping traffic is carried out on mobile in 2021.
Google said, “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.”
Here are some of Google’s tips outlining how users can be ready for the mobile-first index:
Check visual content
Ensure the mobile version of your website contains high-quality content that includes text, images and video. You also need to ensure that they are in crawlable and indexable formats such as JPEG, PNG and MPEG4.
While Google supports other image formats such as SVG, it won’t index a .jpg image in the tag inside the SVG markup for the page.
For the user experience and crawl-ability, don’t have your images load on a new URL each time you click. Google will struggle to process and index your assets properly if the web address constantly changes.
You also want to ensure that you include high-quality images on your site. Don’t upload small or low-resolution images, and make sure they are responsive, meaning they scale and adjust to the device’s size.
Finally, ensure that your images have SEO-friendly ALT text, as search engines can’t read photos without ALT attributes. The alt text for images should be the same on mobile and desktop; that also goes for image titles, descriptions, captions and filenames. Also, don’t be afraid to get descriptive; even Google has addressed the value of ALT tags, which should describe the contents of an image file.
Ensure structured data is consistent
Structured data makes it easier for crawl bots to understand and, therefore, index your web pages by classifying the content and serving that information in data format to search engines.
If you’re using structured data, ensure that it’s present on both versions of your site and that the snippet of information served to the user is the same on desktop and mobile.
Have you used the correct URLs for both versions of your site? Have you checked whether there are any extraction errors? Several tools are available to help you identify mistakes and teach Google about the pattern of structured data on your website, such as Data Highlighter.
Structured data also helps with findability as the snippet enables you to stand out in search engine result pages (SERPs), which could drive engagement levels with your brand.
The mobile version of your website needs to have the same metadata as the desktop site so that the same information is being served to search engines and users.
Make sure you use the same meta tags, too else Google could fail to crawl and index your web pages if “nofollow” or “noindex” tags are in place on the mobile version of your site.
Check linking elements
Double-check your linking structure to ensure that the correct rel=canonical and rel=alternate link elements are set up between your mobile and desktop sites.
No changes are necessary for interlinking with separate mobile URLs (m.-dot sites). However, for sites using individual mobile URLs, keep the existing link rel=canonical and link rel=alternate elements between these versions.
Also, check href attribute links – short for Hypertext REFerence – on separate mobile URLs.
Href links demonstrate the relationship between search engines and web pages and contain two components:
- The URL
- and the clickable text, also known as anchor text
When using rel=hreflang elements for internationalisation, the link between the mobile and desktop URLs should be separate. Your mobile URLs’ hreflang should point to the other language/region versions on different mobile URLs and similarly link desktop with other desktop URLs using hreflang link elements there.
If you want Google to index the mobile version of your site, you need to find out whether your hosting server can handle your increased crawl rate.
Note that this doesn’t apply to responsive websites that use dynamic serving but sites that host the mobile version on a separate host, for example, an m.domain.com or m.example.co.uk.
To make sure that your users have the best experience, here are some other best practices web developers and administrators should consider:
- Have a uniform error status on mobile and desktop sites
- Avoid using fragment URLs on the mobile version of your website
- Ensure that the mobile site has the equivalent number of pages to the desktop version
- Verify both versions of your website in Google Search Console (GSC)
- Ensure that the robot.txt directives are the same on both versions of your site
- Check whether there are any missing or blocked images
- Make sure Google can identify lazy-load content
- Ensure quality by using optimised ads and the exact same content that features on the desktop version of your site
- Make sure there are no duplicate mobile page targets
FAQs: Mobile-first Index
If your site isn’t enabled for mobile-first indexing or your rankings took a battering after you created a mobile-friendly site, here are some of the most frequently asked questions about mobile-first indexing, which might put you at ease.
What if I don’t have a mobile version of my site?
Although Google bots now crawl and index pages with the smartphone agent, your content will still be indexed if you don’t have a mobile version of your site or your desktop version is not mobile-friendly.
However, you might rank poorly compared to competitors with mobile-friendly websites as crawlers will perceive your website to be less user friendly since Googlebot is now operating a mobile-first process.
Will Google only use the mobile version of my site to determine rankings?
Google is operating a mobile-first, not a mobile-only ranking system, so there will be times when the desktop version of your site will be considered for rankings, for example, if you don’t have a mobile version of your website.
However, remember that the mobile version will be considered the most relevant version when determining rankings so you can see some variations in ranking results between mobile search and desktop search.
Although Google still uses the desktop site to determine rankings, it could differ if users searched for a query via their mobile device. As a result, search engines may deliver more mobile-friendly results.
Can I test whether my website is mobile friendly?
Yes, you can!
Google has a mobile-friendly website checker tool that you can use to identify whether the pages on your website have any mobile-usability issues.
All you have to do is enter the URL or Code into the blank field, and it will deliver results about your site. For example, suppose that your website passes as mobile-friendly, but some issues are flagged, such as “text too small to read” or “clickable elements to close together” you can then investigate and correct those issues.
If you wish to test the speed of your website on mobile, you can use Soar’s handy mobile speed checker tool to see if your website is up to Google’s standards. Google recommends a mobile site load no slower than 2.5 seconds. Page loading speed is incredibly important to user experience. Would you hang around for a website to load if it was taking too long? Probably not. Try the tool out, see if your website currently passes the test.
When does Google use the desktop site to determine rankings?
Google tends to only use the desktop site to determine rankings if there is no mobile version available.
In some cases, crawlers might also rank the desktop version higher in SERPs if it has additional ranking information such as a great backlink profile, given the importance of link building following the latest Google algorithm update.
Still, there is no guarantee that they will crawl or index the desktop version of your web pages after seeing mobile-friendly websites. Therefore, we recommend building a mobile version of your website or having a placeholder in place rather than only having a desktop site.