Google going mobile-first: what you need to know

In late 2016, Google announced that the index by which they display results on their search engine will soon be entirely mobile-first. But what does this actually mean and how does it affect businesses that haven’t yet switched to mobile-first?

People use their mobile devices to make Google searches more than they use desktop computers. The general modern culture of mobile devices has sparked the so-called ‘mobile-first movement’: the idea that you should design your website for mobiles first and work your way up to desktops. Having a responsive website that works on mobile and desktop has had a significant impact on a site’s SEO for some time, but now Google intends to cement the necessity for responsive sites and content-rich mobile websites.

What are Google Indexes?

When we refer to an ‘index’, we are referring to how Google collates its site information and orders it by best result. Google ranks its search engine results based on an index of data from both desktop and mobile sites. When making searches from a desktop device, the algorithms use the desktop data in the index to decide the search engine results, while searches from mobile devices reference the mobile data also stored in the index.

It can be a little confusing but consider the index like a page in a spreadsheet document. At the moment there is one spreadsheet with all the content data for desktop and mobile sites that help define a site’s SEO. Mobile and desktop sites for the same URL are stored as different entities on the spreadsheet.

That means if a business posts content to their desktop site but decide to neglect their mobile site, then the desktop page will have a better ranking than the mobile one. This is why changing anything about the Google index will have drastic effects on business strategy.

What’s happening to the indexes?

Google’s plan is to separate those spreadsheets, so data for mobile sites is stored in one, and desktop in another. As of January 2017, Google will be referencing only the mobile index for Google results, even when using a desktop for the search. The good news is that if you’ve been part of the mobile-first movement, you shouldn’t have much to worry about as the mobile index will contain up-to-date, rich content from your mobile site and thus maintain your ranking. The bad news is that if you have been neglecting your mobile site, then your SEO rating could be adversely affected as your ranking won’t be as great as your desktop index.

What can I do?

The very first thing you need to do is find out how you rank on BOTH the desktop index and the mobile index. There are online tools you can use to find this out, such as SEMrush. This will give you an idea of your current situation and what you need to work on. If your mobile index ranking is significantly lower than your desktop ranking, you’ll need to work on your mobile site with additional content. If your mobile index ranking is much higher, then that’s good news, but you shouldn’t neglect your desktop website as many users (especially in corporate environments) will still visit the website on this platform, which will be represented in the website statistics.

If you are in a position where you need to update your mobile site or if you are in the process of developing it, remember that a fixed desktop site will achieve better search results than a broken, live mobile one. Once your mobile site is finished, be sure you have verified it. If you don’t have a mobile site, Google has said they will continue to use the desktop index, but it’s doubtful you’ll be able to maintain a high ranking compared to sites that are mobile-first.

It goes without saying that if you’re already at number 1 for both desktop and mobile indexes then you can pretty much carry on as you are.


If you’ve found out you need to work on developing your mobile site’s SEO we’d be happy to help, by the way. Why not get in touch?