Mobile-first as a search ranking factor?
27 March, 2018: 620 words, 3-minute read
Mobile-first is a web design concept but the term has the capacity to confuse. To dispel some myths, mobile-first does NOT mean:
- separate mobile and desktop web sites/apps are developed
- the mobile layout takes a higher precedence, or
- mobile devices have a higher priority than desktop PCs.
Mobile-first is a progressive enhancement technique. It allows a modern site to work on any device regardless of its capabilities or screen dimensions.
What mobile-first achieves
When smartphones first became popular, most sites were designed for larger desktop PC screens. Making a site to work well on smaller devices often meant creating a separate set of mobile-optimised pages with identical content.
By 2009, Responsive Web Design (RWD) techniques had been introduced in HTML5 and CSS3. These allowed a layout to respond to screen dimensions - only one site needed to be developed. In the early days, developers would take an existing desktop design then add code to detect smaller screens and change the layout accordingly. Unfortunately, older devices (including phones) did not support RWD technologies: they received the desktop view regardless.
a site may have dozens of “layouts” depending on where it’s viewed and how it’s used
A mobile-first approach reversed the technique. By default, a site is designed to work on a smaller screen - typically using a single-column layout. When a larger screen is detected, the layout is modified to add further columns or styling as necessary. The benefits:
- The site works on every device. An older PC or phone without RWD support receives a simpler mobile layout and remains usable.
- It saves bandwidth. Smaller devices are more likely to be used on mobile networks, so larger images and assets are only delivered when required.
- It’s a more logical way to develop. The layout is enhanced when possible rather than degraded when not.
- Sites must focus on what’s important - the content. Simpler layouts cannot compromise text and features with columns, float elements, modal boxes etc.
Why mobile-first is increasingly important
The technique has become increasingly important with the explosion of web-enabled devices. It’s no longer about mobile and desktop, but smart watches, feature phones, smart phones, phablets, tablets, e-readers, laptops, desktops, games consoles, projectors, TVs, printers, IoT devices and more. It’s impossible to design for every option; a site may have dozens of “layouts” depending on where it’s viewed and how it’s used.
the mobile view of a page will be used when indexing and ranking search results
In addition, mobile web usage overtook desktop in November 2016. In emerging markets, mobile access has exploded in places where the PC revolution never took off.
Finally, in March 2018 Google announced a switch to mobile-first indexing. The mobile view of a page will be used when indexing and ranking search results.
Will Google downgrade your site?
Google claim mobile-first indexing offers no ranking advantage. However, they make separate mobile-friendly assessments; a site which works on mobile will rank higher than a similar site which does not.
we encourage webmasters to make their content mobile-friendly Google
Even if you use mobile-first techniques, less obvious consequences may arise. Web designers often hide content to make mobile layouts easier but, if a feature is useful to desktop users, why remove it on smaller screens? If the indexing bot cannot see content in mobile view, it may never be indexed…
Google offers several tools to assess the mobile-friendliness of your site:
Try your address and a perhaps few competitors.
Our web sites and applications use mobile-first as well as other best-practise and progressive enhancement techniques to benefit users. As a result, Google, Bing and other search engines love them too! Contact us to discuss your requirements…