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Google’s mobile-first indexing directive has been a hot topic since it was first announced back in 2016.
Mobile-first indexing went into use in early 2018.
And, while it is difficult to know exactly how extensively it is being used, the plan is for it to eventually be the primary search process.
Many are unsure of exactly what it entails and how it will potentially affect their SEO and site rankings.
Conflicting information on the topic has created confusion among those with dual version sites, as well as those who continue to maintain only a desktop version.
It is crucial to understand just how mobile-first indexing works, what it will affect, and how to optimize your site to make the most of the changes.
What is Mobile-First Indexing?
Based on usage statistics, Google has opted to focus their search results on sites optimized for mobile devices.
Mobile versions of websites will be used first as the search engine crawls for related content. It will also be the version cached for future searches.
In all aspects, any accessible mobile version will be considered the primary version with regard to web searches.
Also, while it will be mainly the mobile content that will be indexed, searches will still return the URL relevant to the search device, whether mobile or desktop.
Up until now, many sites have focused on their desktop version and provided a lighter mobile version that does not include all the same content.
Since the previous Google algorithm primarily searched the desktop versions, it was possible to return search results that would not appear if the person was to click on the mobile link instead of the desktop.
Making the mobile version the main search location should eliminate this problem.
Desktop-only sites will still be included in the index but may produce weaker results, although to what extent remains uncertain.
However, those sites with a responsive design that adjusts to the device, or those that offer both desktop and mobile versions with identical content, will theoretically experience minimal differences in results.
Things That Won’t Change
Mobile-first only applies to the indexing of sites and their contents, not the ranking process.
So, this does not mean mobile sites will be ranked higher than desktop sites.
It means that, when available, mobile sites will be the primary search destination.
Desktop-only, responsive and canonical sites
Desktop-only sites have no mobile version to search so nothing changes for them.
Responsive sites that optimize for screen size will also theoretically remain unaffected.
The same applies to canonical sites that are entirely created in AMP HTML.
Still only one index
These changes do not mean there will be separate search indexes for mobile and desktop sites; only that if the site exists in both versions the system will always search the mobile version.
The Google speed update that took place this summer is designed to use site speed as one of the ranking criteria.
However, they claim that only the very slowest sites will have their rankings lowered, a relatively small percentage.
The only way mobile-first indexing applies to this is if the mobile version is notably slower than the desktop version.
Otherwise, the issue (or non-issue, in most cases) will not be a factor.
5 Ways it Will Affect SEO
Mobile sites become the primary version
Remember, however, this is mobile-FIRST indexing, not mobile-ONLY.
Therefore, well-indexed desktop sites will not automatically give ground to mobile sites.
However, because the search process is now different, there will inevitably be changes in results and rankings.
If there happen to be a number of mobile sites providing better information than desktop versions in that area, previous SEO frontrunners could see their status drop.
Symmetry is key
Mobile-first indexing considerably reduces the effectiveness of lighter mobile sites.
These sites have typically been chosen for two main reasons; simplifying web design and streamlining the user experience.
Optimizing an extensive website to provide all the same information in a similar format on any type of device can be difficult.
Using a less complex mobile version reduced this issue.
Also, many sites preferred a simpler mobile version to allow for the surfing limitations of mobile devices.
The fact that the mobile version will now be the primary search location means the extra data available on desktop versions may not get indexed or will be organized in a less beneficial way.
This means it pays to make the data identical on both sites.
Less reliance on URLs
Historically, Google has leaned heavily on URLs to index web content, which is one reason a common SEO practice was to use a unique URL for each piece of content.
A variety of innovations have reduced the clarity of URLs. However, such as native apps, web apps and AMP content that relies on URLs produced by Google itself.
In part, because of these changes, one element of the mobile-first indexing process will be to reduce emphasis on the use of URLs in the searching and indexing progression.
Schema and linked data
For some time, Google has used schema as part of its search criteria.
Because it is much easier to search than normal HTML code and provides straightforward crawling data, it has been an effective aspect of SEO recommendations.
Recent signs point to its influence growing with these search changes.
Technological improvements are making it more efficient to evaluate not just the URL of links within content, but also to follow the links from one piece of content to the next, and the next, and so on.
You can use the information found there to more accurately assess the relevance and importance of the initial site.
This will further reduce the impact of URLs in SEO but, theoretically, increase the importance of including links to quality content.
Many are suggesting that the entire mobile-first movement could be more accurately described as “cloud-first”.
Most of the recent changes have seemed designed to encourage websites to employ Google servers to host their sites.
Google already lauds the increased speed and guaranteed compatibility of native apps, and changes to the search algorithms will further incentivize these.
Google can search assets in their cloud much faster and more accurately than by crawling the web for content.
Also, because cloud content isn’t reliant on URL information, it is possible to more efficiently search for alternative formats such as video, images, or audio.
The final benefit: the added speed of using a server that is fully optimized to mesh with Google algorithms and compression methods, boosting a site’s chances of improving its ranking.
While Google’s long-awaited transition to mobile-first indexing has caused a real stir in the SEO community, its long-term effects are likely to be much less significant than many fear.
The changes will require some adaptation with regard to site structure, along with an overall move away from light mobile versions of websites in order to maintain search compatibility.
However, the end goal of this innovation is not to unduly reward mobile sites. But rather to ensure seamless search results across all platforms.
And while some of the other changes, such as cloud hosting, may divide opinion with regard to Google’s motivations, they do promise to greatly improve performance and accuracy of web search algorithms.
This clearly offers a long-term benefit for internet users.
The full effect of mobile-first indexing has yet to be truly felt.
But as sites continue to adjust their optimization techniques to fit this process, the overall user experience should continue to improve.