Mobile-first index: how Google’s changes impact your website

Interested in search engine ranking? Then you ignore Google’s latest mobile-first index at your peril

In 2015 the company revealed “more Google searches take place on mobile devices than on computers in 10 countries including the US and Japan”. You can be sure that Google is thinking mobile, even if your stats show that your actual website users are not – yet.

We live in an increasingly mobile world. Internet usage by mobile and tablet devices exceeded desktop worldwide for the first time in October 2016 1.

Internet usage importance of mobile-first index
Internet usage worldwide October 2009 – October 2016 (

Google is constantly working to keep its search engine up-to-date and in line with its users’ needs. Now that means giving over more time to thinking about the needs of mobile users. Hence the launch of Google’s mobile-first index. Whereas Google previously crawled web pages the same way as a desktop user, things have now switched around. Now the web crawler treats the mobile version of each web page as the primary page to index.

Google won’t reward or penalise a website based on mobile friendliness. Rather, it is when mobile and desktop sites are significantly different that an organisation will feel the impact of the mobile-first index. Remember from now on the mobile version will be treated as the primary version. If there’s less information on the mobile version – and this is what appears in search results – then this can have a significant impact on user interaction.

UK users are not completely abandoning the desktop just yet (10% of UK adult online population is mobile-only 2) but it is important not ignore Google’s thinking. Also remember that in emerging markets such as India, mobile accounts for 75 percent of internet use.

What is mobile-friendly?

Google’s simple definition of mobile-friendly is a web page that views correctly on a mobile device. Site speed is also becoming more important and will have an impact in the mobile-first index. What Google means is that all of the content loads and functions as required, buttons work properly and all of the page content is visible without zooming.

There are two ways of achieving this:

A mobile-friendly website works the same across all devices, so it looks the same on desktop and mobile.

A responsive website adapts its layout to suit the screen and device being used. Responsive sites give users the best of both worlds, which is why Google recommends implementing responsive design 3.

mobile-first responsive website
Mobile-first responsive website

What should you do to help Google’s mobile-first index?

It has always been important to follow best practice for website SEO. The mobile-first index makes it vital to have a responsive website that adapts automatically to the device being used.

If you have to have two versions of your website, make sure that they are equivalent. For example, make sure that all of the links appear on both versions. Also try to make the mobile version the primary website that is the authoritative source on the content topic. If your site is hostile to mobile (e.g. Flash video) or if it loads slowly then you are going to lose rank 4.

From a design point of view, expandable content makes sense with limited screen real estate. Google has stated that in the mobile-first index “read more” links and content hidden in tabs and accordions will have the same weight as content that is plainly displayed on a page 5.

Mobile-first indexing began at the end of 2016 and full implementation will take months. However there will be more and more mobile-first searches as Google gains confidence that it is working well. So there is no excuse for complacency and all new websites really should now be “mobile-friendly”.

Aodhan Cullen, StatCounter’s CEO, warned that many small businesses and retailers have websites not designed for phones and tablets. “This should be a wake up call especially for small businesses, sole traders and professionals to make sure that their websites are mobile-friendly,” he said.

Check your website using Google’s tools and consider whether Designworld can help build the responsive website that you really need.