Among the countless updates that Google keeps rolling out throughout the year, very few of them are substantial or meaningful enough to affect the rankings of most websites. SEO experts must stay up-to-date all the time, and knowing which algorithm changes do really matter is of the utmost importance. The Mobile-first indexing is one of those major changes that Google applied to its algorithm in 2017 and a change that reflects a much broader change of our society. Mobile devices are not the future of digital technology – they are now our present since they’re used for everything, from renting our transports, to share our lives on social media, eating, and shopping.
The line has been crossed for the first time in October 2016, when more than 50 percent of internet usage occurred on mobile and tablet devices. Today people use their smartphones to browse the web and search stuff on Google, so the giant search engine decided to act accordingly and give these devices priority over desktop-based searches. And that’s where our story begins…
What is the Google Mobile-First Indexing
The story of the Google Mobile-First Indexing goes back to 2014 when the first “mobile-friendly” badge was published to signal the importance of making a website responsive. Google developers needed another two years before they announced in May 2016, that any site that was not mobile-friendly enough was going to be hit by a ranking penalty. Then, unsurprisingly, a few months later, in November 2016, they officially announced the Google Mobile-First Indexing, drawing a line on the importance of site responsiveness.
But what the Mobile-First Index is in practice? Since the introduction of this new algorithm, Google will rank all search listings based on the mobile version of a website rather than its desktop version. Even sites which have been originally developed for desktop users will be now crawled from a mobile browser point of view. So any website that is not responsive or, to put it bluntly, looks ugly on a smartphone, will be hit by a significant penalty.
What the Google Mobile-First Indexing means in practice
The extent of this change is huge, especially for sites that have an A version for desktop, and a B version for mobile. If the B version was just full of thin, short content, Google might penalize the website since it will look at the mobile version of its pages first. Google developers, in fact, suggested going for a responsive approach, i.e., sharing the same content for both versions, but changing the visuals to increase the pages’ responsiveness. It is still unclear how the backlink system is going to be affected by this change. However, many SEO experts now claim that links do not hold the same strength they had in the past, so the migration may be a wash.
Today, almost two full years later, we know that Google didn’t really migrate all sites to the new index. The rollout process was incredibly slow, and on March 26, 2018, the developers announced that just a few sites were, namely those who followed “the best practices for mobile-first indexing” were actually migrated. So how do you know if your site is among these? Google has sent an email notification to all those who have been migrated or warned them via messages in the Google Search Console. They explained that the search engine will now show the mobile version of their pages in the search results. Although a large scale migration was eventually expected, if you never received such message it probably means the rollout never reached your site (so you may sleep soundly, at least for now).