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Let’s Dive In: Unpacking and Understanding Google’s “Mobile-First” Indexing Approach

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Anytime that Google announces a new update or a change in approach, businesses around the world begin to panic. How will this new update change the way that my company exists on the internet? How will I have to change my approach? These questions can plague business owners with anxiety until the update launches, and if they don’t leverage their time properly, that inaction can place them behind the proverbial eight ball. However these Google updates are not as scary as it would first appear. In fact, with the proper SEO strategy from one of the top digital marketing agencies in Philadelphia, you can use the lead time before the update rolls out to better position your brand for success!

What Is "Mobile-First" Indexing?

As Google goes about ranking websites for their relevance to specific keywords, adherence to best practices, and a whole slew of factors that only Google engineers know, people have wondered where they should start. With most users interacting with websites and businesses from the convenience of their smartphones, Google had to devise a way to rank all of these sites properly. Starting in 2016, Google began to shift towards prioritizing mobile responsiveness and experience over that of desktops. Thus, mobile-first indexing was born. 

When Google’s bots go through every single web page on the internet, they target specific things that help determine how well a particular website performs. Some of these factors include the biggest picture load times, consistency of content across mobile and desktop, and the accuracy of the metadata. As mobile-first indexing was iterated upon and Google’s engineers refined their approach, companies had to approach building their websites changed as well. To make the most of the mobile-first approach, you need to ensure that your overall user experience is up to par.

When Does the Mobile-First Indexing Begin?

The biggest question for business owners has become, when does this affect my site and my business? The answer varies, but for everyone, it’s sooner than you think. 

For websites created after July 1, 2019, mobile-first indexing has been the standard for ranking your website. However, for older sites, Google took a case-by-case basis to bring sites into the mobile-first fold based on their readiness. However, starting March 31, 2021, all websites will be subject to mobile-first indexing. Their smartphone Googlebot will crawl every mobile site and begin to base its rankings solely on the mobile experience. So if you haven’t focused on your mobile user experience, now is the time to start thinking about how you can improve in this regard.

Why User Experience Matters Above All Else

No matter the business, how customers experience and interact with your brand will dictate your ultimate success. Before, having a responsive website that loaded quickly, had all the functionality, and featured an elegant design was all it took for your site to rank well in Google’s search results. However, as more people have shifted towards getting their information and ultimately search for specific products and services via their mobile devices, the way these sites were built needed to change. If your webpage was slow to load, didn’t scale properly, or wasn’t as responsive on mobile devices, users wound up spending less time on your site, leading to skyrocketing bounce rates. 

Many websites were originally not designed to offer the same experience on mobile as on desktops. However, responsive web design allowed businesses to adapt to the changing landscape and provide similar, if not faster, and more intuitive mobile experiences for their users. Crafting a user experience for mobile users in mind ensures that they receive the same quality they would on a computer. In a world where mobile devices have taken over, employing a mobile-first approach to website design makes for good business. 1SEO provided a breakdown of Google’s May 2021 page experience update and how it will impact your business, and mobile-first indexing plays a crucial role in how your site ranks for a good user experience. 

How Do I Make My Website "Mobile-First" Friendly?

If you have neglected to make your website mobile-friendly for whatever reason, this shift towards “mobile-first” indexing appears to have you in a bind. With the move to mobile-first indexing at the end of March, you can begin making design changes to make your site more mobile-friendly. The quickest way to overhaul your website remains by embracing responsive web design. 

Through responsive web design, you allow your site to respond to the changing ways that people interact with your website in their daily lives. Are they on their laptop on the train ride into work? Responsive design principles have you covered. Are they scrolling through their phone waiting for their friend to meet them for coffee and stumble upon your site? You’re ready to deal with whatever size phone screen they have. 

Here are some additional factors that you should consider when you want to make your website more “mobile-first.”

Your needs to be on point in order to stand out from your competition. That means you need content that draws users in and gives them the information they need. With a diverse content marketing strategy from one of the top digital marketing agencies in Philadelphia, you can stand out from your competition. Additionally, you want to ensure the Googlebot can render and read your mobile content quickly and effectively. The best way to ensure that happens involves using the correct meta-robot tags across your mobile and desktop sites. These tags allow the Googlebot to see and render your content, and with both sets matching up properly, your ranking will improve.

In recent years, a particular website design choice has been to not have content load until a website the user scrolls over the area. (Think clicking, swiping, or scrolling to find a specific piece of content.) The Google bots will not interact with content like this and won’t take it into account when indexing your site.

Content remains king in the world of Google rankings. Consistent content across your mobile and desktop platforms will help improve your ranking. If there are inconsistencies across your sites, then your ranking may suffer. For example, if your desktop site contains all of your content, but your mobile site lacks either the current offerings or the backlog. Through mobile-first indexing, your ranking would be determined by the incomplete mobile offerings. Make an effort to keep both versions of your site up-to-date and with the same content across all channels. 

For mobile users, they expect their experience on their phones to be as seamless and efficient as they have on desktops. Tolerance for slow loading and low-quality images for the mobile experience is at all-time lows. Taking the time to ensure that all of your visual content on your mobile site remains consistent and of the highest quality helps when it comes to mobile-first indexing. Additionally, you’ll want the alt text of any images on your mobile site to be the same as your desktop site, and any discrepancies will lead to a negative impact on your rankings. 

Mobile layout design may be one of the last things you think about when it comes time to optimize your mobile site. You may emphasize getting everything to load faster, ensure the pictures are the highest quality, and that the links all go where they’re supposed to go, without thinking about where the photos and any video content can be found on your mobile site. The placement of your photos and videos on your mobile site impacts user experience more than you may realize. If your videos are not easy to find and play, or your visual pieces are haphazardly placed on the page, it can hurt the overall page experience and bring your ranking down. 

How Do I Tell If My Site Is Really "Mobile-First?"

If you’re slightly panicking that your mobile site won’t be ready for Google’s latest update, there’s no reason to panic. With the help of one of the top digital marketing agencies in Philadelphia, 1SEO’s creative services can help you understand the changes you need to make and how you can track them. When addressing user experience issues, Google has provided developers and business owners with tools that track performance and key indicators of both good and bad user experiences. With the Core Vitals Report, you have access to data and analytics designed to help better understand how visitors to your site interact with your content and their overall experiences. 

The core vitals report takes specific, measurable metrics from your site (think load speeds, interactivity, and the layout) and breaks down their performance into three categories: poor, needs improvement, and good. You’ll have the ability to see how each metric performs and, more importantly, how and where improvements can be made to make for a smoother user experience. We cover the core vitals report, among other things that will impact SEO performance in the coming year in our Back to Basics blog series.

How An Experienced Digital Marketing Agency Can Help

Going into this new update can be intimidating for business owners that aren’t well versed in responsive web design best practices. That’s perfectly ok! Handling these changes head-on by yourself would give anyone without a degree in web design pause. However, with the help of 1SEO and our extensive web design services, you can be better prepared for the shift to mobile-first indexing, no matter your industry. Our team has extensive experience working with clients across the home services, professional services, eCommerce, and other small businesses, ensuring that their user experience remains at its best! 

Contact our team for a free consultation and speak to some of the country’s best digital marketing experts today!

About the Author: 

Dan Matthews is your friendly neighborhood content writer at 1SEO. His secret dream is to go onto Guy’s Grocery Games, win, and parlay that into a recurring role as a judge. You can find him around town sampling the finest taco spots Philadelphia has to offer.

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