By Emir Paratusic •

Preparing Yourself for Google’s Mobile-First Index

At the beginning of November, Google announced their intention to roll out their brand new mobile-first index. It’s a seismic shift for the search engine, but not exactly a surprising one. Back in May 2015 Google announced that mobile surpassed desktop for the first time – that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. In this increasingly fast-paced, on-the-go world, mobile is definitely first.

What is a mobile-first index?

Put simply, Google will crawl and index the mobile version of any given website first, using it as the primary source of content and ranking signals. This is a move away from crawling desktop sites first, but if a mobile equivalent of a site doesn’t exist it will still index the desktop site.

When’s it launching?

Mobile-first is actually live now for some users, but it’s currently very limited. It will gradually be rolled out to more people as Google aims to test it on more and more users. If Google’s own blog post is correct, webmasters may even have months to prepare for the update.

We’ll continue to carefully experiment over the coming months on a small scale and we’ll ramp up this change when we’re confident that we have a great user experience.

- Google Webmaster Central

Google’s official recommendations

Google have very kindly provided a technical recommendations checklist for webmasters to prepare for the update. Here’s how it breaks down.

Already mobile? Relax.

  • If you have a responsive site or a dynamic serving site where the primary content and markup is equivalent across mobile and desktop, you shouldn’t have to change anything.

Update your site configuration markup

  • If you have a site configuration where the primary content and markup is different across mobile and desktop, you should consider making some changes to your site.
  • Make sure to serve structured markup for both the desktop and mobile version.
  • Sites can verify the equivalence of their structured markup across desktop and mobile by typing the URLs of both versions into the Structured Data Testing Tool and comparing the output.
  • When adding structured data to a mobile site, avoid adding large amounts of markup that isn’t relevant to the specific information content of each document.
  • Use the robots.txt testing tool to verify that your mobile version is accessible to Googlebot.
  • Sites do not have to make changes to their canonical links – Google will continue to use these links as guides to serve the appropriate results to a user searching on desktop or mobile.

Verify your mobile version in GSC

Desktop only? Don’t panic!

  • If you only have a desktop site, Google will continue to index your desktop site just fine, even if we’re using a mobile user agent to view your site.
  • If you are building a mobile version of your site, keep in mind that a functional desktop-oriented site can be better than a broken or incomplete mobile version of the site. It’s better for you to build up your mobile site and launch it when ready.

What does this all mean in practice?

On balance, Google are making the right decision. But that doesn’t mean you won’t pay the price if you aren’t prepared.

If you work for an SEO agency or an in-house marketing team and your client or company still doesn’t have a fully responsive site, use this as a warning. Now is the perfect time to broach the subject and get the appropriate web development signed off.

This update may not be as bad as last year’s mobilegeddon – however, there’s no doubt it could affect your business negatively in terms of rankings and sales if you’re not ready for it. It all comes down to this – there’s only so long you can get away with not having a mobile site. The clock is ticking.

This post is also available on Medium.