Google’s Mobile-First Index Explained

November 16, 2017 | By: Matt Martinez | 3 min read

mobile firstLast fall, as mobile and tablet devices took the lead in worldwide Internet usage over desktop for the first time ever, Google unveiled its mobile-first index update.

For the last year, the update has been in its experimental phase as Google works to make a bulletproof update prior to its full release, while working to keep ranking disruption to a minimum.

If you’ve been tracking user behavior, it’s probably not surprising that mobile-first is an initiative Google wants to take on. While Google says it doesn’t foresee significant changes happening as a result of this update, it’s better to be in the know about what to expect and what the update means for your company.

So, let’s get to knowing.

What is the mobile-first index update?

Simply put, Google will be switching their primary search agent from desktop to mobile.

This means that when Google crawls, renders and assesses a website/webpage into its index, it’ll do it from the mobile perspective first.

But what if I don’t have a mobile or responsive website?

No need to panic; bear in mind, this update is mobile-first, not mobile-only. Google can still crawl, render and assess your site from desktop as well. However, in this day and age, you’ll be better off investing in a responsive web design.

With the Internet usage tables turning in mobile’s favor, Google finds it important to align its index with their primary audience — mobile searchers. Before, Google’s index and ranking system was primarily based on a website’s desktop experience. Though with mobile web experiences becoming more prevalent, and recently dominant, Google has decided to flip this basis.

So, what exactly does this mean for my site and its rankings?

If it were our guess on how much this update will actually affect your site rankings, not that much. And if you don’t believe us, you can hear it for yourself from Google’s webmaster trends analyst, Gary Illyes, on the Search Engine Nerds podcast.

Google has already made it clear that they value responsive, mobile-friendly experiences (so much so that they’ve provided a free mobile-friendly testing tool), so it’s not as if Google is introducing a net new variable into their algorithm here.

Whether a website is or isn’t currently responsive, or does or does not cater toward a mobile audience, Google has already considered this in its evaluation of the site and how users are impacted.

No matter which side of the coin you’re on, the impacts should be marginal at most.

Though, mobile-first or not, accommodating mobile audiences is a must regardless.

What if there are content discrepancies between my mobile and desktop site?

This may call for some concern, depending on how severe the discrepancy.

If the meat and potatoes of your content are absent from mobile, you’ll want to consider remedying this before the official mobile-first index launch. It’s not that Google won’t find it one way or the other, it’s more so just being proactive in preventing any misinterpretation of which content is priority and which is not.

Responsive web builds eliminate this concern altogether.

What about hidden or expandable content: accordions, tabs, etc.?

It’s been stated that Google could interpret hidden or expandable content as less important; though it’s also been expressed that this does not apply to mobile views if done for user experience purposes.

And with these types of elements becoming more commonly used for mobile user experience purposes, who knows how much longer that will stand, or if it stands at all anymore.

If you’re being intentional with providing users what they’re looking for and not forcing them to look twice for it, Google will favor you.

When will the mobile-first index officially launch?

Given that there are still experimentations happening with this update, the reps at Google are unable to give a concrete launch date.

Originally, Google was aiming for the end of 2017, but later informed the public that anywhere from early to mid-2018 is a more realistic time frame for a completed mobile-first index.

Which still gives all of us time to ensure our sites are up to tip-top standards.

How you can embrace a mobile-first attitude

At LaneTerralever, we take a mobile-first approach with any website we touch.

If you’re looking to embed more of a mobile-first approach into your own workflow, but aren’t sure where to start, consider the following tips:

  • Start with mobile designs: With less screen real estate comes an altogether new perspective. Starting small and ensuring fluidity throughout your mobile site first will allow you to properly scale your build to desktop.
  • Make sure it’s fast: Even though this is common knowledge, make sure you take the time to consider it from a mobile perspective. Every second counts, especially on mobile; consider implementing Google AMP on your site for quick and purposeful experiences.
  • Test it internally: Whether you build it out in InVision for you or a peer to test, perform your due diligence and have a couple people sign off on the experience before delivering it out into the world.
  • Ensure equivalence: If you happen to be working separate mobile and desktop sites, make sure the content reflected is the same in all of them.


Still have questions about mobile-first or responsive design and how it relates to your website? Fill out our form at the bottom of this page and we’ll help steer you in the right direction.

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