Google Gives Mobile Websites Priority Over the Desktop. How Mobile-First Indexing Impacts You.

In March 2020 Google announced that it is modifying its search algorithm to give mobile websites higher priority in search rankings over desktop websites.

As a result, search rankings and Google Ad fees for a website that isn't mobile-friendly are expected to be negatively impacted in 2021 as the mobile-first strategy is implemented.

Mobile-first indexing starts in March 2021. Now is the time for businesses to take a look at their websites and start making necessary changes.

Mobile-first indexing means that Google will primarily use the mobile version of a webpage to determine search rankings. Google has historically considered the desktop version the primary version.

If there are significant differences between your mobile and desktop websites, March 2021 is likely to bring about some fluctuations in your search rank. They will not be good changes if your mobile site isn’t as strong or fully developed as your desktop site.

Why is Google making the change? Most users now access Google search via mobile, most web traffic overall is also mobile, and both of those majorities seem likely to grow in coming years.

Google is effectively declaring that it’s mobile-first, which means everyone in the business community needs to be mobile-first as well.

Essent will be exploring Google’s change to mobile-first indexing in a periodic series that starts with this piece on understanding the changes and their scope, who is likely to be most affected, and questions you can ask yourself to begin assessing the state of your mobile site.

Is this Mobilegeddon 2?

Let’s be clear: the change to mobile-first indexing is significant.

The change definitely is cause to take action. But it is also definitely is not cause to panic.

In 2015, Google made a similarly significant change when it began giving mobile-friendly websites a boost in search rankings. The announcement flipped the web development world on its ear a bit, with people coining phrases like Mobilegeddon and Mobilepocalypse to connote the severity of the upcoming changes.

So what actually happened? As far as we know, the so-called Mobilegeddon didn’t put anybody out of business.

However -- and this is a big however -- businesses that didn’t heed the mobile-friendly canary lost ground in search rankings to competitors.

While that’s not doomsday, that is significant, which makes the change to mobile-first indexing significant.

What does mobile-first indexing really mean?

Mobile-first indexing means that Google will look at the mobile version of a page first to determine where it should rank. It does not mean that desktop is dead.

Google is in the business of showing its users the most relevant content. If the most relevant content is on a desktop page, then Google will serve up the desktop page.

Rather than think of it has a hard binary switch to mobile, think of mobile-first indexing more like a tweak – a significant tweak -- to the ranking formula where mobile friendliness plays a greater role (and a role that is likely only to grow greater).

As of now, Google crawls (evaluates) the desktop version of a website first. Then it asks, Does this page have a mobile version? And if the answer is Yes, then the page may get a rankings boost when searches occur on mobile.

Under mobile-first indexing, Google will instead crawl the mobile version first and then only crawl the desktop version if no mobile version is available, with a rankings demotion along the way.

Perhaps most importantly, Google is declaring that mobile comes first, which is likely to become a louder and clearer declaration in years to come.

What websites will be most affected?

Websites that have significant differences in between their mobile version and desktop versions, particularly differences in content, are likely to be the most affected.

If the content on mobile and desktop are a perfect 1:1 match, then there’s very little or no difference over which version Google crawls first or prioritizes. The two versions would effectively be the same site. (We must acknowledge, however, that if there are significant differences in some of the coding infrastructure like structured data, metadata, and sitemaps, then there likely would still be ranking differences.)

Businesses who are operating a single responsive site – meaning that the content is identical on mobile and desktop and re-sizes or moves around to fit the viewport (screen size) -- largely fall into this roughly 1:1 camp and should have the least to worry about come March 2021.

Likely to face a greater challenge are businesses that have treated desktop and mobile as two different sites. Businesses who have a desktop site and a separate mobile site or domain (the familiar m.website.com, for example) are more likely to have differences between the two.

Ideally the two versions have garnered equal consideration and resources over the years. But we also know that some companies have treated desktop as the master version with greater attention and resources, while mobile relegated to the "lite” version. These companies will face challenges to the degree that desktop was favored over mobile when suddenly a website version long treated as Robin will need to go out there and be Batman.

The businesses that arguably will face the greatest challenges are businesses that have no mobile-friendly website at all. These businesses will need to begin creating a mobile presence, ideally by making the desktop site responsive. (We say these companies "arguably” face the greatest challenge because in some cases it may actually be simpler to make the desktop site responsive than to make two website versions match.)

The bottom line is that the greater the difference between mobile and desktop, the greater difference it will make in March 2021 when Google starts looking primarily at one instead of the other. Businesses who have allowed a gap grow between mobile and desktop face the greatest challenges.

Questions to ask

  • Do I have a mobile-friendly website?
  • Do I have a technology services provider who both supports mobile-friendly and makes it easy?
  • How are we making the website mobile-friendly (responsive design, alternate domain, other)?
  • Are there significant differences in content (words, images, video) between the mobile and desktop sites?
  • Are there significant differences in coding (structured data, metadata, site maps, and more) between the mobile and desktop sites?
  • Who can advise me on the state of our mobile site and what to do?
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