It might seem like a lifetime ago, but it was in 2016 that Google first announced their plans for mobile-first indexing (MFI). Today, Google is still in the process of transitioning sites over to the mobile-first index, which begs the question, what sites have transitioned to mobile-first?
We wanted to find out, so last year, we conducted a study involving:
- Billions of Googlebot crawls
- Millions of URLs analyzed
- Hundreds of unique domains in a variety of industries
The data from our study (which you can read about in our post Mobile-First Index: A Data-Driven Analysis & Discussion or view via SlideShare) revealed a few key findings, namely:
- 34% of enterprise websites had switched over to MFI by October 2018
- Smaller websites are more likely to enter MFI first
- Publisher and responsive websites rocketed into the MFI
It was really the first study of the mobile-first index that was based on real customer data, which helped confirm some of our suspicions and debunk others.
Although Google has been rolling out mobile-first indexing for some time, it’s still a new phenomenon for some, and something many have yet to experience firsthand, so we thought it’d be a good idea to debunk some of the most common myths about mobile-first indexing, as well as break down some of the main ways moving to MFI impacts SEO (especially in light of our upcoming BrightonSEO presentation where we’ll be sharing updated data regarding the current state of the mobile-first index - make sure to check out the end of this article for more details on that!)
Mobile-First Index Myths, Busted
As with any new concept, the mobile-first index was admittedly a little confusing. That confusion led to some mobile-first myths that deserve some debunking.
Whether you’ve already handled your site’s move to mobile-first indexing or you’re still waiting for it, it’s worth making sure you’re familiar with some of the top myths and their corresponding facts.
- Myth: “Mobile friendly design is required for mobile first indexing.”
- Fact: Neither mobile-friendliness nor a mobile-responsive layout are requirements for mobile-first indexing. Pages without mobile versions still work on mobile, and are usable for indexing. However, data from our MFI study revealed that responsive websites were more likely to enter the mobile-first index first.
Myth: “Mobile first indexing directly affects ranking.”
Fact: Mobile first indexing itself isn’t a ranking factor, but because the mobile content is used for ranking, sites with less content on mobile that switched over to mobile-first indexing may experience fluctuations in their rankings.
Myth: “Mobile first indexing is connected to the mobile speed update.”
Fact: The mobile speed update from July 2018 is independent of mobile-first indexing. Of course, fast sites are awesome for users, especially on mobile, since devices & connections there tend to be slower than with desktops. Data from our MFI study did reveal that load times do not seem to have any significant impact on transitioning to the mobile-first index.
How Moving to Mobile-First Indexing Impacts SEO
The impact of moving to mobile-first indexing will vary greatly from site-to-site, but generally, here are the primary changes you can expect to see.
A shift from desktop to mobile crawls
When Google begins to move your site over to the mobile first index, you’ll notice the balance will shift from mostly-desktop crawls to mostly-mobile crawls.
If you monitor your log files and perform log file analysis on a regular basis, you can detect a shift to the mobile-first index by looking at the specific Googlebot user agent. Sites that haven’t been switched over to mobile-first indexing will be crawled primarily by Googlebot Desktop, while sites that have switched over will see the primary user agent as Googlebot Smartphone.
Temporarily increased crawl frequency
During a switch over to mobile-first indexing, Google may also temporarily crawl more as they reindex everything.
If you notice a spike in Googlebot crawl frequency, investigate further! Check to see if you notice any shifts in user agent from Desktop to Smartphone. This may be Google’s attempt at reindexing your site for mobile-first.
Ranking & traffic fluctuations caused by lack of parity
With mobile-first indexing, Google uses the mobile version of a site’s content to rank its pages. That means that if the mobile version of your page lacks parity with the desktop version, switching over to mobile-first indexing could lead to fluctuations in ranking and traffic.
It’s easy to forget that parity matters for so much more than content and links. Site owners also need to make sure that other on-page SEO elements like structured data, canonical tags, hreflang, and more are the same on mobile as they are on desktop.
This doesn’t tend to pose problems for responsive websites, but sites with separate mobile configurations should conduct an audit to ensure that nothing is missing or inconsistent between the two versions.
The current state of the mobile-first index
We know that Google is still gradually moving sites over to the mobile-first index, which is why we knew we needed to revisit our study from last year to update the data.
So we recently went back and evaluated 500 million URLs and more than 1.5 billion Googlebot visits to glean the most up-to-date information about the mobile-first index, and we’ll be presenting our findings next week at BrightonSEO!
If you’ll be there, you won’t want to miss Frank Vitovitch’s presentation, Living in a Mobile First (Indexing) World, where he’ll cover:
- What characteristics are true of sites that have migrated to MFI
- What we can learn from sites that improved after migrating to MFI
- Mistakes to avoid, gleaned from sites that lost traffic during the transition to MFI
The session will take place on September 13th at 10:00am. Learn more here.
If you won’t be at BrightonSEO next week, not to worry! We’ll be publishing the results of our new mobile-first indexing study in an upcoming white paper, so stay tuned for that.
How should we prepare our site for mobile-first indexing?
If you’re responsible for SEO on a site that has not yet been moved over to mobile-first indexing, it’s a good idea to prepare now.
Based on all the data we’ve evaluated from the mobile-first index winners and losers, we recommend 7 key tips to help you prepare for mobile-first indexing:
- Ensure site performance by enforcing content parity
- Foresee and confirm MFI transition through log file analysis
- Optimize user experience by improving mobile load times
- Verify mobile version is accessible to Google Smartphone
- Embrace coherence by aligning schema for desktop/mobile versions
- Maintain seamless navigation by properly updating your hreflang tags
- Keep all common mobile best practices (rel=alternate & rel=canonical)
While those may sound fairly easy in theory, it becomes increasingly difficult to manage on a site with thousands or millions of URLs.
We’ve worked with lots of SEOs in similar situations to help them prepare for and monitor their migration to MFI. To learn more about how we can help, check out Conquer the mobile-first index with Botify.
You may also be interested in our other articles on mobile-first indexing!