What Is the Mobile First Algorithm Update?

Officially rolled out on March 26, 2018, the mobile-first algorithm update reflects Google’s decision to crawl a mobile version of a web page for the purpose of indexing it before it crawls the desktop version—thus, the name “mobile-first.”

A Year and a Half in the Making

Google updates its algorithm hundreds of times per year, and some of these are so slight they go unnoticed. That’s not the case for the mobile-first update–this is a big one! According to Google, they’ve been testing mobile-first indexing for about a year and a half before finally rolling out the full update in March of 2018.

One Big “Mobile-First” Index

Prior to the update, Google primarily used the desktop version of a site for indexing. This Google algorithm update changed that. Now, Googlebot will crawl the mobile version first and then the desktop version for the purposes of indexing. Note that there is still just one big index—not separate indexes for mobile and desktop.

The Trend Toward Mobile and Why Google Rolled Out This Algorithm Update

Since the inception of the Smartphone, more and more users have been accessing the internet from mobile devices. Today, over 60% of all searches are mobile searches—that’s right, we’re quickly approaching total Smartphone saturation. Google has been following this trend towards mobile for a while, and this official update marks their commitment to offering a mobile-friendly experience for their users.

What Mobile-First Doesn’t Do

Although this algorithm update is a fairly major one, it’s not a total rehaul, and Google says there’s no reason to panic. There are plenty of things that will remain unchanged in spite of the mobile-first update:

No Ranking Advantage for Mobile-Indexed Sites

In terms of SEO, Google says mobile-first indexing isn’t about ranking at all: “content gathered by mobile-first indexing has no ranking advantage over mobile content that’s not yet gathered this way or desktop content.” Still, the search engine giant reminds web developers that sites are evaluated in terms of their “friendliness” toward mobile users, whether they’re mobile sites or desktops sites.

Content Still Reigns Supreme

Perhaps most importantly, the update doesn’t change the importance of high-quality, relevant content on your site. Google has always valued this kind of content above all else, and that remains their stance: “We may show content to users that’s not mobile-friendly or that is slow loading if our many other signals determine it is the most relevant content to show.”

Desktop-Only Sites Are Still Indexed

If you have a desktop-only site, you won’t be excluded from search results because of this new algorithm update. You won’t get the mobile-friendly boost, but you weren’t getting it anyway, so not much will change for you. Still worried? Here’s the confirmation straight from Google:

“If you only have a desktop site, we’ll continue to index your desktop site just fine, even if we’re using a mobile user agent to view your site.”

Responsive Design and AMP Pages Aren’t Affected

If you’ve already implemented responsive design on your site, or if all of your web pages are built using AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) HTML, then you’re good to go. The mobile-first update won’t affect you since you were already prepared for it—high five!

How Mobile-First Indexing Affects Your Website (And What to Do About It)

To understand how the mobile-first algorithm update will affect your website, you need to assess your site’s build. As we mentioned, if you’re already using responsive design or AMP, then you’re all set—the update won’t affect you.

On the other hand, if you use dynamic serving or have separate urls for mobile and desktop, then you’ll need to make some changes in order to help Google better index your site.

Consider Switching to Responsive Design

If you don’t already run responsive design on your website, now is a good time to start thinking about implementing it. With responsive design, the content on your site will automatically adjust to fit any screen, whether it be a Smartphone, tablet, or PC. Responsive design is your best option for making your site mobile-friendly, so if you can, make the switch to responsive.

AMP Up Your Website

Creating all of your web pages using AMP HTML is also a good option, especially if you’re building your site from the ground up. There are other advantages to AMP as well, including lightening fast loading for mobile users.

Serve Up Equivalent Content for Desktop and Mobile

If you’re still using separate urls for the desktop and mobile versions of your site and can’t update to responsive design or AMP right away, then there are still some steps you can take to optimize for this algorithm update. For instance, it’s important to ensure that your content is the same on both versions of your site. Many mobile urls have significantly less content that their desktop counterparts. If that describes your mobile site, then you’ll need to update it with the additional content from your desktop site. That includes not only text, but images and video content as well.

Making Your Site Mobile-Friendly

Mobile indexing happens separately from Google’s mobile-friendly assessment. Whereas Google says mobile-first doesn’t affect rankings, you will get a significant boost by making your site mobile-friendly.  It may seem like a pain now, but rest assured this investment will continue to reap benefits well into the future as Google’s algorithm continues to reflect the trend towards mobile.

You can use Google’s to dedicated tool to assess your site’s mobile-friendliness. Just enter your url and click “Test URL” for instant results and recommendations.

Moving Forward with Mobile

With this latest algorithm update, Google has made it clear that it’s prioritizing mobile search, so you can expect more of these types of changes in the future. Our advice? Take steps now to make your site as mobile-friendly as possible. That includes enhancing the user experience for your mobile visitors and making your site easily indexed by Google’s mobile crawlers.