The Importance of Mobile-First Indexing in 2021
It’s hard to believe that there are still businesses operating without a website in this age of technology. Some companies have a website but don’t bother making it responsive in order to reach an audience and meet user expectations.
With that being said, even if you’ve got a beautiful website and you’ve put some time and money into optimizing it, you might not realize just how vital a mobile-first approach to web design is.
The advancement of mobile technologies like cell phones, tablets, and wearables (e.g., a smartwatch) has led to a significant increase in the number of users browsing by mobile means, rather than using computers for search queries, shopping, and more.
As a result, Google implemented a “mobile-first” initiative back in 2016, essentially tweaking algorithms to favor sites optimized for mobile, rather than desktop, for indexing and ranking purposes.
Why? Like any business, Google is concerned with meeting customer needs and expectations. When trends showed a growing number of users searching and browsing on mobile devices (and dealing with issues related to responsiveness), the Google mobile-first indexing push was a natural response. It is designed to reward websites that are willing to help Google meet consumer demands.
In 2021, getting on board with a mobile-first approach has become a lot more important for businesses. What exactly is mobile-first indexing? What is a mobile-friendly website? What role do core web vitals play? And why is it so important to shift your focus to mobile search?
Here’s what you need to know if you have yet to upgrade to a mobile-friendly website.
What Is Mobile-First Indexing?
Google has spent decades tweaking the algorithms used to determine which websites get the highest rankings for related searches. Once upon a time, practices like keyword stuffing and nefarious linking schemes (such as link farms) were par for the course. Today, everyone knows these black hat practices will get you delisted.
When the iPhone was released in 2007, it changed the technological landscape, offering mobile internet accessibility that improved and expanded year after year.
By 2016, Google recognized that the scales were tipping in favor of mobile browsing and that websites optimized for desktop browsing alone were not going to cut it in terms of meeting consumer expectations. No one wants to fuss with endless shifting, pinching, and scrolling to view a site that’s not designed for mobile viewing. Google’s solution was to incentivize the use of responsive web design meant to adapt the layout of a website to the user’s screen.
In other words, they wanted to encourage businesses that were operating online to create mobile-friendly websites. Their mobile-first initiative did this by offering more favorable rankings to sites that embraced mobile-first design.
By changing their algorithms to index mobile and desktop sites differently, they essentially gave responsive websites a leg up on the competition.
Google Mobile-First Indexing in 2021
Why is mobile indexing so important in 2021? There are a couple of reasons. First and foremost, Google announced that they would release a 100% mobile-first indexing update in March.
What does this mean for businesses operating online? It means that the mobile version of your site will be the one used for ranking – there will no longer be separate indexing for desktop and mobile. So if you don’t yet have a mobile-friendly version of your website, ranking could become a real problem.
The good news is that websites that are designed to be responsive serve both desktop and mobile browsers, so indexing shouldn’t change as a result of the 100% mobile-first update.
However, if you chose to create separate desktop and mobile versions of your site, the latter will be fine and the former will suffer. This could mean losing a significant amount of organic search traffic that you’re used to seeing from the desktop version of your website.
Perhaps more important than appeasing Google, however, is making sure you have a stab at consumers who largely, or even exclusively, search and browse via mobile devices. As of early 2021, mobile traffic accounts for more than half of all web traffic, and that’s a number you can’t afford to ignore.
How to Make Websites Mobile-Friendly
If you’ve undergone a website redesign in the last few years, or you only recently launched your website, chances are you’ve already got a mobile-friendly site, as this has become the de facto operating standard. However, it never hurts to check your site, and the Google website test tool can help.
Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test is incredibly easy to use. All you have to do is enter your URL. Within a few seconds, you’ll receive results that tell you whether your page is mobile friendly or not, along with a list of additional resources to help you learn more about site-wide mobile usability and mobile-friendly pages.
What if the Google site test reveals that your site isn’t mobile-friendly? There’s no need to panic. There are steps you can take to not only make sure your site is indexed but that it’s optimized for competitive ranking and customer satisfaction, too.
The first thing you need to do is upgrade to responsive design. At this point, creating a mobile version of your desktop site is a waste because Google will only index the mobile site, essentially leaving the desktop version in no man’s land.
A responsive site provides customers with the same content and an equally satisfying experience, whether they’re browsing on desktop or mobile devices. Indexing applies to both versions because they’re ostensibly the same. Once you’ve solved this critical problem, it’s time to consider other ways to remain competitive, and there are a few great options to pursue.
The amount of time it takes a web page to load will impact user experience and ranking, and this is nothing new. Caching—an HTTP headers directive that temporarily stores or “caches” a page’s content so that it’s quickly retrievable—is an excellent tool for creating a fast, reliable user experience. Slow load times can increase bounce rates and reduce repeat visits. Because it is a ranking factor, it will impact indexing.
Content Delivery Networks (CDNs)
A content delivery network (CDN), sometimes called a content distribution network, is a group of computers that connect to a network and operate together, providing greater power and functionality. These networks duplicate content from other servers and deliver it to users from the nearest data center, effectively reducing the physical distance between the server and the user and increasing page speed.
You may or may not have the capacity and resources to set up your own CDN, so it’s more likely you’ll simply take advantage of one offered by your network or cloud service provider. This option can ensure the fastest possible indexing speeds, as well as increase Google crawls and rankings.
Unnecessary and redundant data can have a major impact on indexing and user experience. How can you combat this issue? Minification tools like HTML Minifier can help to remove unused code and reduce the number of files that need to be retrieved to load a web page.
If you have an image-heavy interface, you can also consider reducing image size as a means of speeding load times and improving indexing.
Core Web Vitals & Mobile-First Indexing in 2021
Website performance is an integral part of the user experience, and as you may have guessed, it can also impact indexing. In fact, Google announced it would add core web vitals to ranking factors in May 2021.
What are core web vitals and how can website performance testing help you to improve rankings and user engagement?
What Are Core Web Vitals?
You’re likely familiar with human vitals, like pulse, respiration, and body temperature. These can help to determine whether a person is healthy or in distress. In a sense, Google core web vitals can be used to track the relative health of your website.
- Visual stability
Loading isn’t just about the speed at which your entire page loads, but about how long it takes the largest graphic element to load, a metric known as Largest Contentful Paint (LCP). Google cares about this because studies show that users will stick around longer if they feel like the largest page element has loaded and that the rest will quickly follow. Generally speaking, if it takes longer than about two to three seconds, you could stand to improve.
Interactivity is a core web vital measured by first input delay (FID), or the time it takes for the user to be able to interact with a page (in the form of clicking on a button or link, for example). This activity should be available in under one second (more specifically, under 0.3 seconds).
As for visual stability, that has to do with cumulative layout shift (CLS), or the staggered loading of elements of a page into their proper positions, wherein loaded elements shift in the layout as other elements load. Again, this should occur in under a second, and really, about 0.1 second is considered to be ideal.
How to Test Core Web Vitals
If you can test page speeds on a stopwatch, chances are that they’re way too slow. Instead, you’ll want to use targeted tools to test website performance metrics.
Google’s Page Speed Insights tool is a great place to start. Just enter your URL to see how your page performs (in seconds or milliseconds) for LCP, time to interactive, CLS, overall speed index, and more.
How Core Web Vitals Help Mobile-First Indexing
Mobile-first indexing and core web vitals go hand-in-hand when it comes to creating the best user experience. This is beneficial to everyone involved, including the users that have their expectations met, Google (who gets to provide the best content to search users), and of course, your business, which not only indexes well for ranking purposes, but serves the needs of customers more effectively.
Although there are currently over 200 ranking factors (and throwing more in the mix is stressful for business owners), creating the best possible user experience can only help you to get the rankings that encourage traffic and engage consumers, no matter how they find their way to the online arm of your operation.