Mobile-First Indexing – The Complete Guide

Last updated: August 22, 2019

What is Mobile-First Indexing?

Mobile-First Indexing (MFI) is the initiative set up by Google that allows the mobile version of your website to be the most important one. Traditionally, Google has taken a desktop-first indexing approach, which meant that their crawlers determine your rankings based on the information gathered from the desktop version of a site. Moving forward, Google has stated that it will base all rankings, both mobile and desktop, off of the information it gathers from the mobile crawl (using it’s smartphone-like user agent). Where a desktop site is the sole version, Google will choose to index this version, though now using the Googlebot Smartphone agent.

Danny Sullivan of Google said it perfectly:

Danny Sullivan of Google says that you can use the analogy of a library for mobile-first indexing.

 

In this document, our goal is to tell you everything you need to know about mobile-first indexing. If you have questions that we have not answered in this resource, let us know in the comments section.

Table of Contents

 

What You Need to Know about Mobile-First Indexing

 

  • Mobile-first is happening whether you like it or not:
    Once Google noticed that most users are primarily using smartphones, the transition to mobile-first seemed logical. They anticipated that adults in the UK will spend an average of 2h 26m per day on their mobile devices (2019 projection), signalling that mobile users make up the greatest portion of online users today. With that percentage on the steady incline, it’s no surprise that Google is taking more of an initiative to better serve these users. With the long-term goal being that all sites become mobile-first, Google has no intention of providing an opt-in or opt-out for this kind of indexing.
  • One index only:
    Google’s goal is not to have a desktop index as well as a mobile index, but rather, just one index only. Though there has been much confusion in the past, Google has stated that they are not indexing your mobile site and your desktop site separately. Rather, they are solely using the mobile indexing as the one.
  • Non-identical content between mobile and desktop:
    If you have content that is on your desktop site, but NOT on your mobile site, then you will not rank for it, even on desktop searches. (Gary Illyes SMX – June 2017)
  • All new, previously unknown websites to Google Search will be indexed via mobile-first by default starting July 1, 2019 (you can read about that on Google’s Webmaster Central Blog or see the tweet from @Googlewmc below). However, when it comes to subdomains, John Mueller has noted that subdomains are treated the same as the rest of the domain:

 

Google Webmasters tweets about their plans of making all new sites mobile-first indexing by default

John Mueller says subdomains are treated the same as the rest of the domain.

 

Will Google notify me when we have been moved to mobile-first indexing?

Yes. Google will notify you when you have been moved to mobile-first indexing. In fact, they will alert you from Google Search Console via email. Even more, on GSC you should notice a pop up that advises you that your site been indexed mobile-first, along with the date that you were switched. Here’s a preview from the Google Webmaster Twitter.

If you’ve have gotten the email, it is likely that the transition to mobile-first indexing happened days or even up to two weeks prior, as many SEO’s have confirmed. See below for more information on checking server logs to determine exactly when you’ve been moved to mobile-first indexing.

Here is the message on behalf of Google:

Mobile first indexing email from Google

MFI tips and facts

    • If there is a difference between your desktop and mobile version, Google will only index what is on your mobile version.
      Make sure that your most important content is on your mobile version. If not, forget about your rankings, Google has stated once moved to MFI, they won’t be crawling your desktop site (unless it is the only version available of course).
    • The level of mobile traffic has nothing to do with when sites are moved over to mobile-first indexing.
      As said by Google’s John Mueller, sites that are ready to be moved over are moved—plain and simple. Mentioned in August of 2019, John also said that at this time, Google has been algorithmically testing to see when sites are ready and switching them over once that’s the case. They compare the mobile and desktop version of the site to ensure that the content is the same and that things like images and structured data can still be found.
    • Information behind tabs and things like accordions will no longer be downgraded.
      Google notes that unlike its desktop counterpart, mobile content that is hidden will now see improved recognition. With that being said, we suggest that you don’t hide important content for the sake of having a sleek design. DEJAN Marketing conducted a study in September 2018 comparing revealed content to tab/accordion design with surprising results (in other words, this content behind tabs was still being downgraded). As such, if it’s important to users, make sure it’s clearly visible. To add to this, in a May 2019 Help Hangout, John Mueller noted that content hidden behind tabs on mobile-first sites can be used for indexing and ranking, but it will not be shown in the snippets in the search results. John says this is because Google will only show things in the snippets that they are promising the user they can find [easily] on that particular page. Interestingly enough, there are a couple of SEOs who have seen this type of content appear in the featured snippets (as seen on SER). As of July 2019, there doesn’t appear to be an overwhelming sense of hidden content behind shown the same kind of benefits as non-hidden content. This very well could change, but in the meantime our suggestion is to make important content easy to find!
    • If your site is mobile responsive, you’re (probably) fine.
      Google stated that correctly implemented dynamic serving and responsive sites have done everything needed to prep for the transition. However, we have seen some individual cases where a site was technically responsive, but the mobile version of the site had different coding for navigation links than desktop links. If your mobile version of your site is missing internal links, you could still have some problems.
    • Page speed on mobile is going to be incredibly important.
      At SMX Advanced, Gary Illyes commented that when we move to a mobile-first index, fast page speed will be key. Our current thinking at MHC is that there is no boost for fast sites at this point, but rather, if your site is really slow, there could be a demotion. Indirectly though, faster page speeds could indeed satisfy users and make your site more favourable.
    • If your site doesn’t render properly, it can fall out of Google’s index.
      That’s right, paying attention to how your site is displayed is crucial. We mentioned this previously after Gary Illyes mentioned it at Pubcon 2018.

 

 

Mobile-first Indexing Myths

  • Myth 1: Mobile-first indexing will directly impact rankings.
    • Rather, Google’s priority is to ensure that the transition is as seamless as possible and that your rankings are not negatively impacted.
  • Myth 2: Mobile-first indexing is the same thing as mobile friendliness
    • Not to be confused, Google confirms these two items are completely independent of one another. Mobile friendliness is very important as it is still used as a ranking factor, but it is an entirely different thing than mobile-first indexing. Many sites that are not mobile friendly have been moved to mobile-first indexing.
    • As John Mueller from Google recently noted in his Mobile-First Indexing #AskGoogleWebmasters video, “Even sites that don’t have a mobile site version at all can be indexed fine with a mobile Googlebot. Our goal is to use mobile-first indexing for all web sites in our search results.” (Though this is a process that Google hopes to take their time with in order to satisfy users with content they’re looking for, and also to give site owners the opportunity to adapt and make changes to their site should they need to)
    • I you have been moved to MFI, don’t assume that this means you are mobile friendly. Not sure if you’re mobile friendly? You can use Google’s Mobile Friendly Tester.
  • Myth 3: Keeping your site in poor quality is a smart strategy to helping you avoid the transition.
    • In fact, in a world of rapid progression and high competition, it doesn’t make any sense to prohibit your growth—this is something Google agrees with.


How does this impact me?

While no exact timeline has been provided by Google to have every site moved to mobile-first indexing, we can be sure they’re hoping to make this transition sooner rather than later. In a world where the entire world wide web is available in our pocket, it’s no surprise that mobile users now take up the majority share of online users.

 

What’s next for mobile-first indexing?

Google has no exact timeline as to when sites will all be converted to mobile-first indexing, this far it’s all been on “readiness.” As they are periodically moving sites over, every now and again there seems to be a wave of sites that have been converted. As indicated above, all new domains will be set to mobile-first by default as of July 1, 2019.


When asked specifically for the criteria on transitioning websites based on “readiness”, John Mueller of Google replied saying, “We don’t have a fixed threshold that’s easily comparable. So we do take into account a number of things like the content on the page, the structured data that you have on the pages, the images, the videos, and internal linking. All of these things kind of add up for us and we try to look at it on a per site basis so we can say the site is pretty much ready.” While he pointed out that no site is perfect, he stated that some parts of a website are often better for mobile and some parts are a little worse for mobile. Overall, Google’s intention is to not cause problems. He concluded saying, “We essentially need to be sure that the mobile version, when we index it with mobile-first indexing, is equivalent to the desktop version so that more or less we can shift these over without any problems.”

 

MFI FAQ’s

When did mobile-first indexing begin?

In November of 2016 Google first announced the idea of mobile-first indexing. Move forward nearly a year and John Mueller said that testing for Mobile-First Indexing had just gone live. Intending to release it in batches, many of the first sites were desktop only sites which made perfect sense. It meant that sites having only one version would be the easiest to carry over as there was no discrepancies between mobile and desktop.

 

What percentage of websites are already on mobile-first indexing?

In December of 2018, Google revealed in a blog post that over 50% of the pages shown in search globally are on mobile-first indexing. See more below!

 

Is every website switching to mobile-first indexing?

In a recent Webmaster Hangout, John Mueller has confirmed that Google will likely want to move everything to mobile-first indexing instead of desktop indexing. Understanding that this will be a laborious process, it is expected to take several years. Also mentioned, is that due to this fact, Google does not currently give ranking preference to mobile-first indexed sites or desktop sites.

John Mueller has also mentioned that the remaining wave of mobile-first indexing migration will be harder. The reason? Mobile pages that don’t match the desktop page in terms of content, links, structured data, etc. can cause issues. He added that Google intends to use Google Search Console to communicate with webmasters to help identify which items need to be fixed before migrating. Similar to Danny Sullivan, John says that he suspects a number of sites may never make the move to mobile-first — likely because they’ll never be ready.

Asked recently on Twitter about whether it is possible for a site to be well-prepared for mobile-first but Google has not yet switched it over, John Mueller says that this is in fact possible. As Barry Schwartz discussed on SER, this is a touch confusing. On one hand, Google is defaulting all new sites to MFI, so why wouldn’t they move those are are ready? But on the other hand, Google may be working on their own clock rather than per each individual site. If not that, there could be something a site owner is overlooking that may not quite be up to Google’s standard.

 

What if I don’t have a mobile version of my site?

No need to worry. Google indicated at SMX 2017 that they will still be indexing and ranking the information most recently crawled from your desktop version. However, the entire world is growing on mobile capabilities. We’d encourage you to embrace it and get started on a mobile-friendly site!

 

How will I know if I’ve been switched over to mobile-first indexing?

First and foremost, if you’ve been switched to mobile-first, you’ll receive a notification from Google Search Console. Additionally, as of June 2019, Google Search Console added a couple of new features that’ll indicate your status. You may see a pop up to notify you of the exact date that your site has been switched (like the one shown below), along with the Primary Crawler identified and chart annotation showing when the switch occurred. Please note: When asked to clarify which of the given dates is the most reliable, John Mueller said that it’s best to double-check your log files to verify the exact date (more on this below).

Marie shows the new mobile-first indexing notification pop up from GSC

Here is an example from Google Webmasters team via Twitter

Google Webmaster example of new mobile-first identification features

If you want to investigate this yourself and ‘go behind the scenes’, you can tell if you’ve been moved, and precisely when you were moved, by looking at your log files. Thanks to John Mueller’s mentioning of it, we know that for most sites that are currently on the regular index, you should notice that [roughly] 80% of Google’s crawling is done by the desktop crawler and 20% by the mobile one. If you’ve been switched to mobile-first, that should flip.

For those of you wanting to see for yourself, Marie offers a walk-through using these simple directions:

  1. Request log files from your host
  2. Use a log analyzer. We recommend Screaming Frog’s Log Analyzer (also free – yay! – for up to 1000 pages)
  3. Import your log file
  4. Select ‘All Googlebots’ > ‘All Googlebots’MFI googlebot for smartphone
  5. Click on Overview

    And voila!

mobile first indexing log file analysis

For this particular example, given in a tweet from SEO Toddler, you can see that in his case the MFI switch likely happened on September 6. However, they did not get their email noting the switch to MFI until fifteen days later.

Important tip: Once you have determined on which date your switch to mobile-first indexing happened, add an annotation in Google Analytics. This way, if traffic does decline, you can have a better idea as to whether or not MFI plays a role.

Even if you are not able to check your server logs, you should annotate the day on which you received your message about being moved to mobile-first indexing.

 

How can I look at just mobile traffic in Google Analytics?

While Google has said that the switch to MFI should not impact traffic, it doesn’t hurt to look at your mobile traffic to see if it has seen improvements or declines following your switch. An easy way to do this is to go to Behavior → Site Content → All Pages, and then use the quick filters to select Mobile, and Desktop and Tablet.

Looking at mobile traffic in Google Analytics

If you do see a drop in either mobile or desktop traffic that coincides with the date you received the email from Google, or happens shortly before this, then you should investigate whether your desktop and mobile versions are truly equivalent.

 

My mobile site has less content than my desktop version. Is that a concern?

It absolutely can be. Since Google is solely indexing based on mobile-first moving forward, that means they ideally favour websites that are responsive. Content on the desktop version should be also available on the mobile site. Essentially, for any information that is deemed important, we strongly recommend that that information be visible on mobile if you’d like it to crawled (and therefore rank).

 

The mobile version of my site has content that is not available on my desktop. Should I be concerned?

Though less common than its counterpart, John Mueller says this is “actually better” of the two scenarios. With mobile being the primary version to crawl, it means you could possibly see enhanced results thanks to content becoming newly available.

 

What is the best way to ensure my rankings are unaffected by mobile-first indexing?

Plain and simple: having a responsive design. Google confirms that by doing so, it means you are serving the same content to both mobile and desktop users. Having the same HTML, is means nothing has changed and Google can continue to carry on working as is. Things should continue to work smoothly and there shouldn’t really be any big change there. However, it is possible to see some short term fluctuations and subtle changes.

 

Is the indexing/de-indexing time longer in mobile-first indexing that before MFI?

John Mueller says that things are generally the same speed as before. There may be some subtle differences in how easily content can be crawled, but otherwise the speed of indexing and de-indexing should be the same for sites pre and post mobile-first indexing.

 

Will m.dots, separate mobile sites, or dynamic serving cause problems for me?

We would suggest you make sure the content you want to rank for is actually on the mobile site as well. Pay close attention to metadata, noindex, hreflang, structured data, redirects, etc. Making sure all these items are property addressed will ensure the safest possible transition. For more information, see Google’s Webmaster Central Blog here.

 

I’ve noticed a ranking difference between mobile and desktop, would this be from mobile-first indexing?

Asked in a Google Hangout, John Mueller responded by saying, “No, in a case like this the indexed content would be used for both mobile and desktop rankings. If you’re seeing a difference in rankings, for the most part that’s the normal differences that there are between the two results.”

 

If you haven’t already been switched to mobile-first indexing but your site is very slow, will you be impacted when you make the transition?

In the February 8, 2019 Reddit AMA with Gary Illyes, Gary wrote that you shouldn’t see ranking drops after the move to MFI, as Google has already been able to assess that your mobile site is slow. In other words, if there was a ranking demotion, it likely already happened.

 

Is it okay to use icons on mobile navigation?

John Mueller was asked this in a Google Help Hangout, in which he mentioned that you should be careful, as Google will gather all of their information from your mobile version of your site. As such, if there is no alt-text attributes on these icons, then you’ll lose the anchor text that should be there.


Will my site be crawled more frequently?

Google has stated that the total number of crawled URLs per day generally won’t change. However, in the early stages of the transition to mobile-first, it is likely Google will temporarily crawl your site more frequently in order to reindex everything. As mentioned previously, mobile-first means you’ll begin to see more of your mobile crawlers (Smartphone Googlebot) than your desktop crawlers.

 

How are URLs impacted by mobile-first indexing?

URLs in search: According to Google, with mobile-first indexing, Google indexes the mobile version. When they recognize separate mobile URLs, they’ll show the mobile URL to mobile users, and the desktop URL to desktop users – the indexed content will be the mobile version in both cases.

 

Should I be concerned about my disavow file?

Via John Mueller: If your site is moving to a new domain (m. dot for example), you will need to upload a new disavow file. If you have not, as Google recrawls the links, it would add them back as links again to the signals it has for your site. That would happen gradually as Google recrawls the links. For most sites, especially responsive sites being moved to mobile-first indexing should not require you to make changes to your disavow file.

 

How is hreflang affected by mobile-first indexing?

Under the new outline, Google mentions that the hreflang links on mobile must go the appropriate mobile version of the site. As such, desktop hreflang must match up with the corresponding desktop version.

 

How does PageRank factor into mobile-first indexing?

Admittedly, Google said (at SMX 2017) that they are having some difficulty figuring out how to use PageRank in a mobile-first index. Many sites that use an m.dot for their mobile domain do not have links pointing to their mobile pages. As said previously, mobile pages should be incorporating rel annotation (like canonical) or schema to ensure the mobile version is working as intended.

 

How do AMP pages play into MFI?

According to Gary Illyes, if you have AMP pages, Google will only use them for indexing decisions if they are declared the canonical version of that page.

 

Additional Mobile-First Indexing Tips

 

  1. Consider switching to a responsive design (if you don’t have one already)
    • This eliminates the headache of operating two independent versions and allows content to be a match on both desktop and mobile.
  2. You no longer need to be afraid of hiding stuff behind tabs
    • Google has said in the past that content behind tabs hold less weight but this will be less of a factor for mobile-first indexing going forward. It’s still important to keep in mind that if content is shown “on click”, crawlers will not be able to access it if shown through JavaScript actions.
  3. No more Flash!
    • Avoid serving content through flash as it is incompatible with mobile devices. Many of the features of flash can now be emulated through markups and coding technologies also.
  4. A reminder to update your disavow file
    • A great reminder from John Mueller via Glenn Gabe early in July that says now that a lot of sites have been moved over to mobile-first indexing, if you run an m.dot page make sure that you have uploaded your disavow file for it as well.
  5. Ensure your mobile version has important, high quality content
    • We can’t stress this enough. Google suggests that that this includes “text, images (with alt-attributes), and videos in the usual crawlable and indexable formats.”
  6. Structured data is important for indexing and search features that users love says Google
    • It should be both on the mobile and desktop version of the site. Ensure URLs within the structured data are updated to the mobile version on the mobile pages.
  7. Metadata should be present on both versions of the site
    • It provides hints about the content on a page for indexing and serving. For example, make sure that titles and meta descriptions are equivalent across both versions of all pages on the site.

 

Useful Mobile-First Indexing Tools

  • The Rich Results Test from Google now features a new desktop / mobile selector. This will allow you to review your structured data implementation using multiple users agents so that you can prepare to mobile-first indexing.
  • Google’s new resource for improving mobile experiences.
  • Zeo’s mobile-first index checker is a really great tool to use for a quick check to see if you are ready for mobile-first indexing.

MFI checklist

  • Check if you are missing links on your mobile version that are on desktop. Created by Russ jones, this is a great tool.
    Note: If this is the case, your site could have issues with mobile-first indexing.
  • Curious to see if your site is mobile-friendly? (Remember, as mentioned earlier, mobile friendliness is not the same thing as mobile-first indexing.) Google’s Mobile Friendly Test has the answer!
  • Google’s tool called Test My Site allows you to test your page speed for mobile. The difference from ‘Page Speed Insights’ is that this tool will estimate how many users you could be losing due to your mobile speed.
  • Screaming Frog’s Log Analyzer allows you to check your log files to see if you have been switched to the mobile-first index. If you haven’t gotten an email and you’re just antsy, try it yourself.

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Further Reading/Viewing


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Ask them below in the comments section!

 

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2 Comments
  1. thanks for the report about this Google update. Very useful content!

  2. I read this information from the beginning to the end. It really helped me and really the information that I really need after the first mobile index was launched, thank you for the info.

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Marie Haynes is the founder of HIS Web Marketing, formerly at www.HISWebMarketing.com. In 2015, she rebranded the company to Marie Haynes Consulting Inc.
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