Google has just made a major announcement that is likely to shake up the SEO world. According to a post on the Webmaster Central Blog, Google will begin testing mobile-first indexing, a new method to rank pages based on the mobile version of a website first, and falling back to the desktop version when no mobile version is available.

“Although our search index will continue to be a single index of websites and apps, our algorithms will eventually primarily use the mobile version of a site’s content to rank pages from that site, to understand structured data, and to show snippets from those pages in our results,” the post read. “Of course, while our index will be built from mobile documents, we’re going to continue to build a great search experience for all users, whether they come from mobile or desktop devices.”

This change – although long expected – is a huge shift for Google and one that is likely to heavily influence the way webmasters work. Yet, this isn’t a sudden switch that will influence your website’s SEO right away.

The change will be implemented over time as Google learns about its users and how they interact with mobile sites. “We’ll continue to carefully experiment over the coming months on a small scale and we’ll ramp up this change when we’re confident that we have a great user experience,” the post clarified.

Mobile-First Indexing

The sea change comes as a result of the increased use of mobile devices and searches that take place on smartphones and tablets. Google claims that more users are searching on mobile than on desktops, but the current indexing methods looks at desktop versions of websites in order to determine ranking.

That’s why Google is moving towards a model that more accurately represents the behavior of its users. Mobile-first indexing simply means that Google will look at the mobile version of a site first, if it is available, in order to determine ranking. The idea is that the results will be more fitting to Google’s user base and help users more easily find the information they are seeking.

The SEO Impact

So what does this mean for webmasters and how will it affect their sites’ listing on the rankings page? The change means that rankings will eventually be the same, regardless of whether you are using desktop or mobile, and the existence of a mobile-friendly site will have an influence on the rankings results.

Google understands that mobile-focused indexing will have a drastic impact on webmasters, SEO experts, and the work they do. That’s why they outlined some things to keep in mind and some recommendations regarding the indexing shift.

If you currently run a responsive website or a dynamic serving website, then there is nothing special you need to do to prepare your website for the indexing change. Both of these configurations already serve content that is formatted appropriately for different devices, meaning they already serve mobile-friendly and desktop versions of their webpages.

If your website configuration varies depending on the device and platform in use, then there are some changes you will need to make. Google listed the following important steps for those with websites that differ between mobile and desktop in their post:

  • Make sure to serve structured markup for both the desktop and mobile version.
  • Sites can verify the equivalence of their structured markup across desktop and mobile by typing the URLs of both versions into the Structured Data Testing Tool and comparing the output.
  • When adding structured data to a mobile site, avoid adding large amounts of markup that isn’t relevant to the specific information content of each document.
  • Use the robots.txt testing tool to verify that your mobile version is accessible to Googlebot.
  • Sites do not have to make changes to their canonical links; we’ll continue to use these links as guides to serve the appropriate results to a user searching on desktop or mobile.
  • If you are a site owner who has only verified their desktop site in Search Console, please add and verify your mobile version.

Do I Need a Mobile Site?

If you don’t yet have a mobile site, or have never thought about building one, don’t fret. The indexing changes don’t mean you have to rush to build a mobile site in order to be indexed by Google.

“If you only have a desktop site, we’ll continue to index your desktop site just fine,” the post asserted, “even if we’re using a mobile user agent to view your site.” This means that Google will continue indexing your site via your desktop version and you won’t be penalized or see any negative SEO results for not having a mobile site.

If you are in the process of building a new website or considering doing so, it is highly recommended to take the time to create a mobile version. There are definitely unseen benefits to having a mobile site and mobile-first indexing will likely benefit your website in the future.

That being said, it is definitely best not to force the mobile version issue. “If you are building a mobile version of your site, keep in mind that a functional desktop-oriented site can be better than a broken or incomplete mobile version of the site,” Google said. “It’s better for you to build up your mobile site and launch it when ready.”

Overall, this is a big change for Google and one that will heavily influence all of the decisions behind website architecture across the world. The effect has yet to be seen, but mobile-first indexing will likely mark a turning point in Google indexing history and one that will have serious SEO consequences moving forward.