Google frequently warns of future major changes in how the search engine will handle sites. For example, several years ago Google warned that secure sites would get a ranking boost at some time in the future. There was scrambling and gnashing of teeth as many heeded the warning and spent the time and resources needed to make their sites secure. The result was that when the change finally occurred, the impact was minimal for most of the top-ranking sites.
Google’s warning about site speed seems to have had the same result. It seems that top-ranking sites are those that heed the warnings and put the resources into responding.
For the past 18 months, there have been warnings about the advent of mobile-first indexing. On March 26, Google announced that it has finally started migrating sites to mobile-first indexing. These are sites that currently follow the best practices for mobile search. If you heeded the warnings and spent the past 18 months focusing on mobile, you can yawn now.
How Does Mobile-First Change Indexing?
Historically, Google has used the desktop version of a page’s content in its crawling, indexing and ranking systems. As mobile users and sites have changed and evolved, a gap has grown in how the page and content are displayed on a mobile device vs. the desktop.
The demands of the small screen often require a reshuffling of the content presentation. Google recognizes this mismatch. With mobile-first indexing, Google will be using the mobile version of the page for indexing and ranking, thus giving the mobile user better search results.
The recent announcement clearly stated that Google will not be maintaining two indexes and will be notifying sites on an individual basis via the Search Console when they shift over to mobile-first indexing. Google reassures that the change only effects how the engine gathers content and notes that content gathered by mobile-first indexing has no ranking advantage over mobile content that’s not yet gathered this way or desktop content.
Moreover, if you only have desktop content, you will continue to be represented in Google’s index. While this may seem reassuring, don’t be too reassured if you have not gone all-in on mobile. It is not clear where or when you will be displayed. It appears that a desktop version will be shown when there is no mobile page that meets the user’s needs. Sounds like desktop pages will slowly be consigned to the equivalent of the back tables of the restaurant close to the kitchen — far from prime ranking positions for competitive searches.
Clearly the Move Is to Mobile
Google has been strongly urging sites to go mobile; providing tools for webmasters to evaluate how mobile-friendly their sites are, developing AMP for delivering mobile pages faster and now introducing mobile-first indexing. This all points to a strong preference for the mobile user.
Mobile users want their content delivered instantly. To further benefit this huge user base, Google continues to put pressure on site owners to improve their site speed. Come July 2018, content that is slow-loading may perform less well for both desktop and mobile searchers. Sounds like a thinly disguised penalty to me.
Check your stats and see just how much of your traffic comes from mobile. Or better yet, check to see how much desktop traffic you have.
You may be surprised. It may have already gone mobile.
You have been warned. Do you really want to persist with a desktop-first design?