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What Does Google's Mobile First Index Mean for You?

Google has processed more searches from mobile devices than desktop for a while now. However, its index and search results are based on sites' desktop versions. This can cause an issue for mobile users when a page's mobile version has less or different content; Google is evaluating a page that's not the same as the one it's actually recommending.

However, that is about to change: Google has started experimenting with indexing pages' mobile versions first.

From the search engine itself:

To make our results more useful, we've begun experiments to make our index mobile-first. Although our search index will continue to be a single index of websites and apps, our algorithms will eventually primarily use the mobile version of a site's content to rank pages from that site, to understand structured data, and to show snippets from those pages in our results. Of course, while our index will be built from mobile documents, we're going to continue to build a great search experience for all users, whether they come from mobile or desktop devices.

What Does That Mean?

It means Google is looking at mobile pages first and using that content to decide relevance and how to rank search results, regardless of the user's device. It also means no more mobile friendliness consideration. Or, rather, that it's baked into the index from the very beginning.

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What Does That Mean For Me?

How this change will impact you really depends on whether or not you serve the same content to users across all devices. If your page content and structured data markup is the same for desktop and mobile users, it doesn't really impact you all that much: Google is crawling and indexing the same page and links are pointed to the same URL regardless of user-agent.

However, if your site's mobile version uses different content, URLs and/or markup, you should make some changes to your site:

  • Use the same markup for your site's mobile and desktop versions. Use Google's Structured Data Testing Tool to see how Google views the structured data on each version. Compare the outputs for the two URLs. If they're different, update your pages so both URLs show your preferred output.
Google Structured Data Test Tool
  • Use the robots.txt testing tool to test your URL. Paste in your robots.txt file, enter the URL you want to check and then select Googlebot-Mobile from the user-agent drop down menu. If the URL is blocked, that means Google isn't crawling and indexing your site's mobile version. You should also verify that the mobile version of your page's aren't blocking Google with the meta robots tag either.
  • Use rel="canonical" tags to link your mobile and desktop versions. If you've already done this, you don't need to change your canonical URL, Google will figure out which version to serve to each user. If you haven't done this already, do it now - there's a chance you've got a duplicate content problem.
  • If you've verified only the desktop version of your site in Google Search Console, add and verify your mobile version as well.

Don't have a mobile version or your site? This news doesn't affect you much. Google's mobile user-agent can still access, crawl and index your site, and you'll still appear in desktop search results. You're missing out on the mobile friendliness boost for mobile search results, but that's besides the point for this index change.

Looking Forward

It's still early days, and Google is still in the testing phase for the new index. However, they've indicated that they plan to ramp this change after small-scale testing. If you're not currently serving the same content across devices already, get started making the changes discussed above. Or, if possible, consider implementing responsive design for your site's mobile version (and redirecting traffic from your old mobile pages).

Is your site ready for a mobile first index? Have you seen any changes to Google search results since they've come out with this change?

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