What’s this Mobile First Index is not Mobile Friendly then?

By now, you should have heard of Google’s looming Mobile First Index which is set to get the search world all a frenzy over the coming months. If you haven’t, you can use this post to get up to speed (more on that later).

Before we start, let’s get something clear: Google’s Mobile First Index is not Mobile Friendly. If you have a Mobile Friendly site and assume you do not need to make any amendments, then you are heading for a shock:

  • Responsive Web Design (RWD) is not enough.
  • Non-RWD, & separate mobile sites will suffer.
  • Content visibility is critical.
  • Quality-neutral does not mean that rankings will not change.
  • PageSpeed is a distraction.

If you don’t have a mobile-first site, then you need one. Contact me if you would like help putting mobile first.

#SEO #MobileFirst #MobileSearch #PageSpeed

Mobile First Index: Background & Upcoming Rankings Changes

Desktop vs Mobile Background

As a quick primer: Google currently crawls the web, indexes it and ranks it from a desktop perspective. Its crawling and rendering engines look at the website as if it is being viewed on a desktop. It then ranks pages in response to a user’s search query in broadly the same way. So, all the signals it currently takes into account for ranking are based on a desktop perspective of a page and the web.

Currently, unless your mobile site is an absolute shocker, or unless the user intent behind the query varies significantly between desktop and mobile, it is likely you will rank the same in mobile search as you do in desktop search. There are always exceptions and minor variances, however.

Why the change to mobile-first?

Due to the fact that the majority of Google’s searches are now conducted on mobile, and that Google is very heavily invested in the future of mobile platforms (Android, Pixel and Apps), Google is changing the perspective of its crawling, indexing and ranking from desktop to mobile. Hence the name Mobile First Index. This has significant implications for website owners, whether or not you have a mobile website.

Google’s order of preference for surfacing results to search queries are as follows, websites come last:

  1. Direct Answer or Featured Snippet – meaning no onward click has to take place.
  2. Rich Snippets / Structured Data Answers – meaning no onward click has to take place.
  3. Apps – driving users into the mobile ecosystem.
  4. WWW – traditional listings. Last.

A Project in Disarray?

Google has been discussing the Mobile First Index since late 2016, with several nudges since, and is now seemingly slated for delivery in early 2018. To an external viewer, it looks like a project that is running into issues, as the delivery date keeps being pushed back (Q2 2017 => “early” 2018), and the scope is seemingly being revised downwards. My suspicion is that their test indexes are revealing that the search results created by the new index are much poorer than they anticipated.

Perhaps because of the damp squib of Mobilegeddon a few years ago, Google this time is making many re-assuring noises: “Not a lot will change”, “responsive sites will be fine”, “we’ll roll it out in sections, rather than wholesale”, “moving to wholly Mobile First will take up to 5 years”, “some desktop signals will still be included”, etc. Don’t believe them. Even if it rolls out slowly with segments of the new indexing algorithm being introduced at distinct points in time, these things will gradually change. It is better to be ahead of the curve.

Google may be realising the scale of this task and the transition really will take five years, and version 1 of the index will ensure that nothing changes – which begs the question of the point of the exercise, aside from trying to get webmasters to update their websites to mobile-first. It seems like a lot of effort to create something which is back-engineered to keep things the same.

Mobile First Index: Upcoming Changes

Google has stated it wants the rankings produced by the Mobile First Index to be “quality neutral”.  This does not mean that rankings will stay the same. It means that the sites which rank in the future will be as good as the current listings. That may be mobile versions of the current listings, or it may not.

The primary driver of rankings in a mobile-first world will be *visible* content. That is content that is seen by the mobile crawler and renderer. Content in hamburgers , behind “read more” buttons, stuck in accordion or tabs will be worth less and have less value passed to the various graphs Google uses to rank the web.

As a primary example, look at Google on your mobile. Notice how even on mobile, there’s not a hamburger on site, nor a read more button, and the accordion is there for related but not directly relevant content? There’s a reason the 41 shades of blue company does it like that…

Mobile First is Not Mobile Friendly

  • Mobile First will affect the Link Graph – especially for those sites who switched to Responsive Web Design (RWD) and used hamburgers in place of a top navigation menu. Suddenly, those links will be worth a lot less that they currently are. They will be followed and some value will pass, but the value will be greatly diminished.
  • It will affect the Content Graph – those sites which use “Read More” buttons, or similar, to hide content on mobile, those sites which have reduced page content on mobile sites, and those sites where content pages simply do not exist on their mobile site will be greatly affected. Firstly their hidden and fulsome desktop content won’t be taken much notice of when ranking. This will devalue their content, and thus rankings. As a result of this, they will have less expertise value to spread around the rest of the site, meaning pages that are “okay” have a diminished chance of ranking. Note that Google is currently making reassuring noises about “read more” type buttons – it’s possibly a bit like being “quality-neutral”, something that’s true, but not necessarily accurate.
  • The final thing Mobile First will affect will be the Crawling and Indexing Graph – pages that are not visibly linked on mobile are less likely to be crawled as often and less likely to be indexed. Google values what is seen, and what is seen first above all else.

Return to Top

The Importance of Page Speed

Now, let’s talk about page speed.

Speed is incredibly important on mobile and is likely to be upweighted as a ranking factor in the Mobile First Index, BUT (and it is a big but), it is a post-relevancy ranking factor. Do not buy into the hype that it is the single most important ranking factor on mobile.

If your pages are still by a long way the most relevant and useful answer for a query, then, provided they load reasonably, they will be fine. If they are only just better than a quicker page, expect that page to rank above you. If you are only able to focus on one thing, focus on the quality of the content. If you are able to do two things, focus on speed as well. In an ideal world, you will be quicker than your nearest competitors for the same query.

Be very aware that it’s not just the response speed of the server or the time to download content that’s important; it’s also the time it takes for less-capable mobile browsers to interpret, execute, and render JavaScript heavy content that matters here.

Having said that, I’m about to happily contradict myself. Speed is incredibly important for lots of things, but usually, it is critical for improving conversions, as well as improving traffic. Think about it: if you spend $5,000 improving speed, but it makes an additional $50,000 in sales, it’s worth it, no? Every time I’ve focused on improving overall speed, I’ve seen an uplift in traffic, conversions, and revenue.

Return to Top


  • Mobile First is coming. It may take a while, but you need to get ahead of the game.
  • Being mobile-friendly is not enough.
  • Responsive Web Design is not enough.
  • Content visibility is critical. This will affect the Link Graph, the Content Graph, and the Crawling and Indexing Graph.
  • Speed matters – make sure you are still faster than your competitors and improve your speed for more conversions & more traffic.

Thanks for reading. If you would like to discuss this or would like help putting mobile first, please contact me

Return to Top