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SEO 20 min read
Written by Sarah Edwards
Content Writer @ Galactic Fed
Expert reviewed by Jigmit Gwari
SEO Product Director @ Galactic Fed
Published 05 Oct 2023
The appearance of your business’s website on mobile devices is much more significant than you may think. Not only do people regularly use their phones to shop for products and services, but even tech giants like Google are prioritizing the mobile version of website content through tactics like mobile-first indexing and ranking.
What is mobile-first indexing, though, and perhaps more importantly, what does mobile-first indexing mean for your business?
In the past, Google would use the desktop version of a website to determine its relevancy with regard to a user’s search query, but that’s since changed to mobile variants, as over 90% of people access the internet through their smartphones.
Concerning search engine optimization (SEO), mobile-first indexing won’t cause much of an issue, but if yours doesn’t already have a mobile-friendly website, you may see negative effects on your SEO.
That said, let’s break down how mobile-first indexing operates and how you can ensure your website gets to the top of the search results page. We’ll also review some common issues you may experience when optimizing your site for Google mobile-first indexing and how you can troubleshoot them.
Figuring out the inner workings of Google is near impossible, but there are still some things we know for sure about the conglomerate’s mobile-first indexing initiative and how it works. Google crawls your mobile site and its indexes and then ranks it, generally ignoring the desktop version. The goal is to deliver the same experience to users, whether they’re accessing your page on a mobile device or desktop computer.
Though, thankfully, Google is transparent about mobile-first indexing best practices, you should consider using its Mobile-Friendly Test Tool to see how mobile-friendly your site is before implementing these practices. The tool is an excellent place to start to see where your website stands, and if your website maintains a good mobile status— as most modern websites do — you won’t have to take any further action.
Staying in Google’s good graces may be easier said than done, but keeping your website mobile-friendly is well worth the effort, and the good news is that your website likely has some mobile-friendly features already in place.
In any case, some best practices to keep your SEO strong through mobile-first indexing include the following:
If your website isn’t mobile-friendly, now’s the time to make it so. According to Google, there are three different configurations you can pick from to ensure a mobile-friendly site: Responsive design, dynamic serving, and separate URLs.
A responsive design provides the same HTML code within the same URL, regardless of the user’s device. Google primarily recommends responsive design because it is the simplest design pattern to set up and maintain.
Dynamic serving similarly relies upon the same URL, regardless of device, but different HTML code is deployed depending on the device used. The method relies on HTTP response headers to provide a specific version of the HTML to various devices.
Lastly, separate URLs provide specific HTML code and give different URL configurations to every device. They rely on headers in HTTP to redirect users toward the correct version of the site, depending on the device they’re using.
You want to ensure that Googlebot can effectively crawl your website and to do so, you can make use of the Google Search Console. Click URL Prefix and input your URL to have the tool provide insight into your website’s crawlability. If your website is good to go, you can move on to the following steps.
You need your website content to be consistent across desktop and mobile devices. In the past, people would often make their mobile sites smaller in comparison to their desktop counterparts in order to help improve load times, but these days, mobile has caught up with the times, and that’s no longer as much of an issue.
With that being said, if you provide less content on the mobile version of your website than the desktop version, you’ll get a warning from Google that you may lose some of your rankings, which is why it’s essential to keep everything consistent. When in doubt, most issues can be solved by keeping things as consistent as possible between your mobile and desktop offerings.
The relevancy of your content with regard to the keywords you choose is vital to your website’s SEO mobile-first indexing. Your content should be completely original and optimized according to the latest SEO best practices.
External links to credible sources will improve your reliability and help your site rank higher, as will avoiding keyword stuffing. You want your mobile content to have a natural flow to stay in Google’s good graces.
Structured data is information organized on a webpage. A page featuring a recipe, for instance, will feature an organized, step-by-step guide on making the meal, including the necessary ingredients, cooking time, calories of the meal, and so on. That data is effectively interpreted by software and humans alike.
If you use structured data within your website, it should be consistent across mobile and desktop, as mentioned above. Make sure you use the right URLs in structured data, and use Data Highlighter to regularly check it for any errors. When it comes to the metadata of your site, ensure the title element and meta description are the same on both the mobile and desktop versions of your website as well.
It’s vital that you work to avoid letting your ad placements negatively impact your SEO and rankings. Remember, mobile screens are smaller than desktop screens, so if an ad is too large on mobile, it can cause a poor user experience and lower your rankings. Follow the Better Ads Standard to prevent such issues.
What users see on both your desktop and mobile pages matters, which means the images on both versions of your website should align with the following qualities:
If you feature any videos on your website, they should also be consistent and easy to find across the board. Google recommends placing video content toward the top of pages so users don’t have to scroll far to access it.
Google considers loading speed when indexing a mobile website, so keep that in mind as you optimize your pages. A snappy loading speed helps a mobile site rank higher and improves the user experience.
If your website has two distinct URLs for its mobile and desktop iterations, keep the following best practices in mind:
First, check the mobile and desktop versions of your pages for errors and ensure that any error page statuses are the same across your sites. If there’s an issue on one and not the other, the latter page will not be indexed.
The fragment section of a URL for mobile devices is the part that starts with “#,” and most of the time, these URLs cannot be indexed.
Use the Google Search Console to ensure you can access all of the data for both the mobile and desktop versions of your site.
Hreflang is an HTML attribute that specifies the language and geographical targeting of a specific page. Your URLs’ hreflangs have to point to the correct URL for the devices they are intended for.
Ensure that your mobile website has the appropriate capacity to handle any increase in crawl rates.
A robots.txt file informs search engine crawlers about the specific URLs they are able to access within your website. Ensure that the file works as intended on both versions of your site.
Rel=canonical and rel=alternate link elements should be correct. According to Google, the desktop URL is the authoritative version, and the mobile version is the alternative.
There are some common errors to be aware of that can prevent your website from being eligible for mobile-first indexing or that will stop your website from ranking at all, even after being enabled for mobile-first indexing.
These errors include the following:
The cause behind a structured data issue is that your website’s mobile pages don’t have the data markups your desktop pages do. To fix the issue, double-check that the structured data is available on both versions of your website, use the correct URLs, and check the Data Highlighter for errors. You can also use Google’s URL Inspection tool to make sure all of your content is visible.
The issue here is that one of your mobile pages is blocked from indexing due to a noindex tag, which Google advises against. You can fix the problem by using the same robot meta tags on both versions of your site.
Ensure your mobile pages feature photo content that is identical to what appears on your desktop site. Use the proper supported formats along with the right tags for images, and keep in mind that Google advises against lazy-load primary content.
To fix the issue of a page blockage due to robots.txt, verify that your robots.txt rules and meta tags are the same and work as intended for both versions of your site. The solution is simply to allow Googlebot to crawl your resources.
If images on your mobile site appear too small or blurry, switch them out for high-quality/resolution alternatives.
To fix the issue of missing alt text, ensure that the alt text for photos is identical across both forms of your website.
You can probably sense a pattern with these last few issues and solutions, but the key here is also to ensure that everything is identical across the board. When you provide consistency, you eliminate many common errors from wreaking havoc on your SEO opportunities.
If your mobile URL features an anchor fragment, Google won’t be able to index it. To fix that, Google recommends checking your mobile site to ensure there are no fragment URLs.
These include ad problems and missing content, titles, or descriptive elements for images. Fixing these issues involves reviewing the Better Ads standard mentioned above, using clear and meaningful headings on both sites, and, as always, using identical titles, captions, file names, and text to ensure that your mobile website contains the same content as its desktop equivalent,
Video issues on your mobile website may be triggered by the fact that your videos aren’t in a supported format, are placed in difficult-to-find locations, or are missing meta descriptions. Use a supported video format with proper tags, don’t lazy-load primary content, and put the videos in easy-to-find places, preferably toward the top of your pages.
According to Google, some hosts don’t have enough hostload. To address this issue, ensure that your mobile website has the capacity to handle potential increases in crawl rate.
If most of the pages on the desktop website redirect to a mobile homepage, ensure the desktop option has a corresponding mobile version. Google cautions that if different URLs are redirected to the homepage on a mobile device, those pages won’t show up from the index after your site migrates for mobile-first indexing.
There are many factors to double-check when ensuring your website is ready for mobile-first indexing. With that said, here are some additional questions you may want answered:
Google first introduced mobile-first indexing in 2016, and by the end of 2018, half of the collective total of sites that appeared in Google’s search results were from mobile-first indexing. However, it wasn’t until 2023 that the last batch of sites were moved over.
Once your website moves to mobile-first indexing, there is no going back, and you can’t opt out, given that mobile searching is more popular than ever. As such, it’s vital that you make your website as mobile-friendly and consistent as possible.
No. Your website can have issues with mobile usability yet still be switched over to mobile-first indexing.
According to Google’s John Mueller, “A site can or cannot be usable from a mobile point of view, but it can still contain all of the content that we need for mobile-first indexing.” Mueller then gave an example of a PDF file, explaining how, despite being difficult to navigate on mobile, Google could still index it because all of the text is still there.
If you’re putting a lot of work into making your website mobile-friendly, you’ll want to ensure you’re reaping as many benefits as possible. Fortunately, there are many benefits that come from mobile-first indexing, such as:
By optimizing your website for mobile-first indexing, you can expect higher conversion rates, leading to greater sales.
The simple answer is that more people than ever are using their mobile devices to browse the web, and a mobile-first website offers a better user experience on those devices. The goal of making your site mobile-friendly is to give users a positive experience with your website, regardless of the device they use to visit it.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here — you don’t have to worry about going exclusively mobile or transitioning to a mobile app from a traditional website. There will always be a place for both to shine, as they cover different user needs.
If Google isn’t indexing your pages, there could be a variety of issues in need of addressing, including:
In some cases, Google may not realize a page on your website exists, especially if it’s brand-new. It can take weeks for Google to crawl a new page, even when you submit a request. For example, it can take three-to-four weeks for websites with less than 500 pages, two-to-three months for websites with 500 to 25,000 pages, and up to a year for websites with more than 25,000 pages.
You can speed up the indexing process and improve your mobile website’s rankings by creating high-quality content and using social media and link-building tactics to increase your online visibility. When you follow SEO best practices, you can expect higher rankings from Google as well.
Absolutely, and the first step to doing so is to ensure your mobile website adheres to all mobile-first indexing guidelines. Then, you can manually request a recrawl via the Google Search Console. Inspect the URL and select “Request Indexing” to prompt Google to recrawl your website and index its pages.
There are various tools you can use to check if your website is mobile-friendly according to Google’s standards, such as:
You can even use your desktop browser to see if things will work well on a mobile device. Shrinking the window size is a quick way to check for mobile usability. Just grab a corner of your website’s window and pull it into a smaller shape. Online elements should shift accordingly if your site is responsive.
Having a responsive website is a great thing, as it adjusts to various screen sizes, like cell phones and tablets, and is thus adaptable to the various devices someone might use to browse your website.
Google completes three steps through its indexing process:
Googlebot crawls the web, looking for new or recently updated pages.
Google analyzes the crawled pages and stores them in a database.
Finally, the Google algorithm chooses the most relevant pages out of the batch to promote on search results.
There are seven fundamental principles of indexing that you should be aware of as a business owner shifting to a mobile-first website strategy:
Your website pages should thoroughly cover all significant terms and concepts.
Use precise and unambiguous terms.
There should be uniformity in your site’s indexing.
Avoid duplicate content at all costs.
Organize your index terms in a hierarchical structure.
All content should remain impartial and unbiased.
Your website’s design should be easy for users to navigate and access information quickly.
You can boost your SEO and give users a great experience while navigating your website by embracing Google-approved strategies that will make your site as mobile-friendly as possible.
If you need help with mobile-first indexing, you can always consult with a reputable marketing agency like Galactic Fed. Changing how your website operates can be intimidating, but you don’t have to face these new and exciting updates to Google’s algorithms alone.
People are using their mobile devices to browse the web now more than ever, so giving them the best experience while navigating your website can give you an edge over competitors that may still be focused on the desktop experience. Don’t be afraid to roll with the punches, embrace new strategies, and follow Google’s latest best practices on mobile-first indexing — the company will reward your business accordingly.
Content Writer @ Galactic Fed
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