What is Google’s Mobile First Index?

As of 2016, 62% of all searches originated from a mobile device. With so many of these devices in circulation, more and more of us are choosing to turn to search engines with the super computers in our pockets. These numbers are only set to rise and Google has a plan to make their product better for these users.

Their mobile first index is set to be one of the biggest changes to the world of search since Mobilegeddon, which stripped non responsive sites of their ranking position. So what is the mobile first index and what effects will it have?

What is Google’s Index?

Before we get right into what changes will be made to Google’s index, we first need to understand what an index is in this context. An index as it relates to a search engine is a compilation of information, sought out by their spiders.

These crawlers go out to sites, figure out what they’re about and cache that information. Then, when a user asks Google a question, they refer back to this information and pull up the relevant listings. These are displayed as the results and users can pick the one that answers their search query best.

Crawling these sites costs money, even for a large company like Google this represents a sizeable investment. With this investment in mind, they want to make sure that they are providing the most relevant information to their users.

Right now, whether you use a mobile device or desktop computer, the information held in the index is the same. It’s compiled based on the desktop version of the site, but to move with the times and the increase in mobile search, Google are now planning to put mobile sites first.

The Definition of the Mobile First Index

Now that we know how the index is compiled and referenced initially, let’s take a look at what changes will be made with the mobile first index. This will generally affect sites that have a mobile version and a desktop version, rather than a responsive design that moves across both.

Sites that start with the letter ‘m’ on mobile, like m.facebook.com, are the kinds that would be affected. Similarly, if you have an AMP version of a page, this would be crawled instead of the desktop version. This effectively means that if your content is poorer or the general experience of the mobile site is worse then you could see a drop in your rankings.

For sites with a responsive design, which uses the same data and design across all devices, there won’t be a massive effect. That doesn’t mean you should rest on your laurels however, as this is a clear indication that Google are now favouring mobile. The mobile version of your site shouldn’t be an afterthought or addition, you should view it as just as, if not more, important than the desktop version going forward.

When will this be Implemented?

Google is being pretty tight lipped over when this change will be coming, though they have promised to be communicative through the process. Google’s Gary Illyes initially stated that the mobile first index could be implemented later this year, but followed up in a subsequent interview that it would be more likely to be brought in early next year.

The initial information about the mobile first index was published in late 2016, so it has certainly been a long time coming. Google can’t afford to ignore the fact that mobile is more popular than ever and have to change their tactics to suit the state of search. It will be interesting to see how this changes as voice search becomes more popular, as this could lead to another large scale change to the crawling mechanism in future.

The world of search has always been fast paced, but Google are now changing their algorithm more frequently and with less information given to site owners. They’re no longer releasing patch notes on updates or being explicit about what they mean, which means your rankings can fluctuate without you really understanding the cause.

The fact that they’re giving so much information about the mobile first index means that they expect site owners to change in accordance with their new rules. This is a clear indication for web designers and SEO experts to follow the guidelines for the best chance of success. While Google won’t say this up front, this behaviour is very indicative of what they want to see from sites that they will rank well.

Stay tuned for part two of this series, in which we’ll be giving you tips to prepare your site and strategy for the mobile first index. If you don’t want to wait until next week, then send us a message or give us a call to learn more, we can’t wait to hear from you.

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