Last Updated on 4 October 2020 by Lukasz Zelezny
It is not the strongest of the species that survives, but the most adaptable to change.
— Attributed to Charles Darwin
Adapting to Changing User Behaviors
The Internet is still relatively new and is still evolving. When people search the Internet, they no longer sit down at their computers and type out carefully-worded search queries. Since 2017, about half of Internet users are using their mobile devices instead of their computers to search the Internet.
As users change the way they search the Internet, search engines must change the ways they index content in order to show the most relevant and helpful results. This means you must constantly change the way you organize and present information through your website if you want to rank higher in search results.
This represents a significant increase from about 30 percent in 2015. If your website was designed for a desktop computer or you don’t have a mobile-friendly site, you can expect to see your search engine ranking results decline over time.
Desktop and Desktop-Light Websites
Websites were initially developed with the assumption that people would be accessing the Internet from a desktop computer. This has enabled companies to build websites that contain complicated programming logic that’s loaded and processed by a browser on a desktop computer very quickly.
However, as users migrate toward using their phones and tablets, these websites often can’t be loaded and processed quickly by a browser on a mobile device.
As a result, some companies have created “light” versions of their websites that are loaded and processed by a mobile device in a reasonable amount of time. To create these versions, companies often have to eliminate many of the features and capabilities of the desktop versions.
When a user accesses a website, the website determines the kind of device that’s being used and serves a different set of Web pages to a mobile device user than to a desktop user.
Imagine performing a Google search on your mobile phone and viewing search results that are exactly what you are looking for. However, when you click on the search results, you don’t get what the search results indicated you would see. Instead, you get a watered-down version of what you expected because the website served you a different set of Web pages when it determined you were using a mobile device.
The average user blames Google for this inadequacy because the content doesn’t match what’s described in the search results.
Google’s Mobile-First Indexing Strategy
For precisely this reason, Google announced a mobile-first index strategy in March 2018. Rather than indexing the desktop versions of websites, Google began indexing the mobile versions. In July 2018, Google also began using page speed in mobile search rankings, which means favoring websites that load quickly on mobile devices when ranking search results over those that load more slowly. This doesn’t mean that websites without a mobile version aren’t indexed, but it does mean that fast-loading, mobile-friendly websites are more likely to rank higher in Google search results than slower-performing, heavy websites that require a desktop computer.
How to enable mobile first indexing:
1. Redesign Your Website
A pure, Google mobile-first indexing strategy often means a complete redesign of your website. The design would be targeted at mobile devices and then adapted for other platforms such as desktop computers. A mobile-first indexing design is typically simple and concise and uses geometric shapes, bright colors, strong typography and white space as design elements.
The design places call-to-action elements front and center, and incorporates modern communication methods such as chat and chatbots. Needless to say, a Google mobile-first indexed site loads quickly, and is constantly measured to maintain or improve the speed.
2. Adapt Your Website
If you’re not ready for a full mobile-first indexed redesign of your website, you can adapt what you currently have to be mobile-friendly. Since you’re still taking a desktop version and adapting it for mobile devices instead of the other way around, it’s not technically a Google mobile-first strategy. But it is a practical step on the way to a mobile-first indexed website design that enables you to appear as mobile-first to search engines.
When you adapt your current website to this Google mobile-first environment, the objective is typically to provide the same content to all users, regardless of the device they use.
However, the way that content is formatted and presented is different depending on the size of the screen that’s being used to view it. It’s still acceptable in this transition to include some additional functionality, such as menu options or buttons, that appear only when the website is accessed by a computer. Even Google does this.
Fortunately, there are tools that help make this transition to mobile-friendly easier than ever. And there are tools that enable you to measure your success and identify areas that still need improvement.
3. Responsive Websites and Mobile First Indexing
To make this transition to a more mobile-friendly or Google mobile-first website, the word you need to embrace is responsive. Responsive Web design is an approach that automatically adapts the presentation of a website according to the user’s platform, orientation and screen or window size.
Imagine a website that’s open on your desktop computer and visible on your computer monitor. When you click on the corner of the window and drag it to make the window smaller, what happens? On a website that’s not responsive, nothing happens. You simply cut off everything that used to be in view and now you have to scroll left and right to see that content.
On a responsive website, however, the website will automatically reformat itself once your viewing window reaches certain sizes so that all content remains visible in that window. Rather than having content appear side-by-side, it’s stacked vertically. While you might have to scroll down the page to view all the content, the content you see fits within your viewing window and you don’t have to scroll left and right to see it.
4. Content Management Systems (e.g., WordPress)
If you use a content management system (CMS) such as WordPress, you should be using a responsive theme. If your current theme is not responsive and there’s a newer, responsive version available, upgrade to that version. If no responsive version exists, switch to a responsive theme.
Most of the heavy lifting will be done for you by the theme. You will need to review how the responsive pages look on different mobile devices and determine if you need to change the way you present some information that doesn’t convert well to responsive pages.
5. Web Development Toolkits (e.g., Bootstrap)
6. Tools to Test Your Mobile-Friendly Design
To check your new design, go to the Google Mobile-Friendly Test and enter your website URL. You’ll get a report that tells you how mobile-friendly your website is, with specific suggestions for how to improve your score.
7. Fast-Loading Websites
Whether you have a desktop site, mobile-friendly website or mobile-first website, the assumption today is that your website will load quickly. While a discussion of all the factors that influence how quickly your website loads is beyond the scope of this article, there are a few design elements that can significantly slow down your website’s loading that you should be aware of.
Fortunately, most responsive themes and toolkits include features that at least partially address some of these areas to help make your website load more quickly on a mobile device.
8. How a Website is Processed
When you visit a website, it loads the code for the page that you’re viewing into the memory on your mobile device, and then processes the code to format and display the page on your device. When you click a link to go to the next page, it discards the page you were on and loads the next page into memory. The more it has to load, the longer it takes to fetch it, send it over the Internet and to load it into your device.
The more code it has to process, the longer it takes to format and present what it loaded on your screen. That means if you load less and process less, your website will typically load more quickly.
9. Images and Google Mobile First Indexing
Image or picture files are often the culprit when a website loads slowly. The higher the image resolution, the larger the file and the longer it takes to load. Be realistic with the resolution you need for the images you display and shrink images to load more quickly.
Depending on the format you use, you can shrink images with or without sacrificing quality. Those that sacrifice some quality are usually much smaller in size than those that maintain the same level of quality.
10. Code and Google Mobile First Indexing
Your browser will start to format the Web page as the data is loaded. However, some code will force the browser to stop formatting and wait for more code or even for the entire page to load before resuming its formatting task.
This is called blocking. To the extent you can, you want to reduce the size of the code that’s loaded and eliminate any blocking code. One way to reduce code size is to minify it by removing comments and excess white space.
These are important for programmers to understand the code, but they aren’t necessary for a browser to process it. If you can’t minify code, some Web servers will send a compressed version of the code to your browser, which will load the smaller version and then decompress it.
11. Background Loading and Google Mobile First Indexing
When you’re viewing a Web page, you only see the portion of the page that’s within your viewing window. If your browser loads and formats what you see in your window first, it can continue to load and format other data in the background until the page is complete.
To you, the Web page appears to load quickly and you don’t necessarily realize that it’s continuing to load and format content unless you have to wait a long time when you try to scroll down.
12. Speed Measurement and Improvement Tools
A page on the Google Developers site called Make the Web Faster provides tips, best-practices advice and resources to help you make your website load more quickly. A primary tool in that toolkit is called PageSpeed Insights. PageSpeed Insights shows you what happens from the time you start loading your website to the time it’s been loaded, formatted and presented on a mobile or desktop device.
This enables you to see what’s causing your website to load more slowly so you know what to change. The tool often provides you with specific suggestions for how to improve performance and even provides you with optimized versions of your image files that will load more quickly.
13. Adapt to Survive
Even if you can’t do a truly Google mobile-first design right now, you can make your website appear to be mobile-first by using responsive Web pages and reducing the time it takes to load and display your site. These two strategies might not result in higher search engine rankings because they are mandatory, but they should help you avoid being penalized for not having adopted a mobile-first approach.