When Google first started sending alerts to site owners earlier this year, it established the expectation that mobile-first indexing would be complete within "the next six to twelve months," and some organizations predicted the deadline to be on the longer end of that time range.
Now, website owners need to prioritize preparing their sites for complete mobile-first indexing in order to maintain their rankings.
The tech giant has been prioritizing mobile-first indexing since 2016 and now, with over 70% of websites transferred over, the end of the project is in sight.
What is mobile-first indexing?
Many websites have two primary versions: desktop pages and mobile pages. Because these different iterations are completely separate versions, most search engines — Google included — long identified, indexed, and ranked websites based on the desktop versions.
For most of the internet's history, algorithms have primarily focused on desktop pages, where most of the activity happened.
However, as online searches increasingly shifted to mobile devices, prioritizing the mobile page versions made more sense.
According to a recent Statista report, the last quarter of 2019 saw 52.6% of website traffic originating from mobile devices. This is a rapid development, since only 31% of website traffic came from mobile devices just five years ago.
Now, Google indexes and ranks website pages based on the popularity and usage of the mobile versions. Google only has one index, rather than separate desktop and mobile systems, and websites with a smartphone agent (or proper mobile enablement) will be prioritized.
Not only has Google enabled mobile-first indexing for new or previously unrecognized sites since July 2019, but it has also been sending alerts to website owners with sites that can't be properly indexed.
What can businesses expect from mobile-first indexing?
Ideally, there should be little impact on your traffic or rankings. If your mobile site is identical to your desktop version in terms of content, metadata, and accessibility, Google can easily analyze your site.
However, if your mobile site is smaller, has less content, or is substantially different from your desktop site, then you may see less traffic.
In fact, this may have already happened to many websites: the project is already 70% complete, so many sites may have already seen, resolved, or adapted to a change in rankings.
Site owners with old, custom, or complex sites might also expect to see notices from Google over the next few months. Much like with Google's clunkily-worded notices about metadata, the notices may seem more immediately severe than they are by listing errors, warnings, and issues.
This doesn't mean something is wrong with your site or that Google is penalizing your site in its algorithm.
Instead, the notices indicate potential problems that are interfering with mobile-first indexing processes. Google has also provided a list of updates, recommendations, and specific instructions for each code type so anyone who receives a notice can understand the underlying concern.
Website owners should evaluate those potential errors and take action quickly so the mobile crawler can index the site on its next pass through.
What are the impacts for business owners?
Ultimately, if your site relies on website traffic, it's important to follow Google's recommendations and make sure your site is as indexable as possible.
This allows Google to understand current engagement on your site, the value of the mobile pages, and how your site works.
Then, once the September 2020 deadline passes, compliant website owners should see little to no change in website traffic. In fact, depending on how diligent your competitors have been, you may even see an increase in traffic as inaccessible sites don't get indexed.
What should website owners be doing now?
Website owners should be prioritizing the mobile versions of their site over the desktop versions or, more ideally, make the site version updates as identical as possible.