Joe Rutland

Google’s Mobile First Index: What it Means for UX and SEO

10th Jun 18

The digital industry has been unified for quite some time with the view that going responsive with your website is the best way to go. When designed and implemented correctly, it offers a seamless multi-device experience. Offering a great experience to your audience, no matter what device they’re using to access your website, is definitely the ultimate end goal - but in some situations, this was easier said than done.

March 2018 marked a big change in how Google crawls, indexes and ranks websites. It was announced on 26th March 2018 that Google had officially started rolling out its long awaited Mobile First Index.

This article came about after chatting to Zack, a UK SEO consultant, about this and what it means for mobile sites and designers.

The Mobile First Index gives more freedom to designers

The Mobile First Index flips how Google traditionally analysed and interpreted websites. Historically, Google primarily used the desktop version of a website when determining how to analyse and interpret a website and its content.

However, times are changing, and the majority of Google searches now come from smartphones , and have done for the past couple of years. Clearly, searching and browsing habits are changing, which means Google needed to change, too.

Whilst the overall majority of searches have been shifting to mobile devices, designers and digital marketers could often be placed in a tricky situation. Both parties have been giving a great emphasis to a website’s mobile offering for years, yet Google haven’t always made this process easy.

Until the roll out of the Mobile First Index, Google placed less emphasis on content that was hidden from view using UI elements such as tabs and accordions. Essentially, if the information wasn’t visible on the page by default, this content wasn’t deemed as important, and its weight was devalued for ranking purposes.

In a very simplistic way, especially when being viewed from a ‘desktop first’ frame of mind, this makes sense:

If information requires user interaction, then it could be argued that information isn’t relevant to everyone - it’s optional - so therefore it’s not as important. Desktop views of websites generally have quite a lot of space to work with, giving lots of freedom when it comes to UI choices. Mobile views offer much less space, so the available UI and design features that can be used are restricted.

And this is the thing: The way Google analysed websites in the past didn’t allow designers to design the smartest, most useful experiences possible. Whilst Google was emphasising responsive design, it was also devaluing hidden content (on desktop), which is a perfectly legitimate part of many designs (both desktop and mobile).

Thankfully, it’s now been confirmed by Google that this will no longer be the case with Mobile First Indexing. If content is tabbed or hidden within a UI element, with the Mobile First Index, it will be treated the same as regular content.

There are lots of reasons why the presentation of desktop and mobile versions of page may change. For example, content may be tabbed or placed in an accordian to make transitioning break down ideas into thematic, relevant chunks.

Whilst it’s true that users will scroll to consume content, why make them if it’s not necessary? If the clarity of information on a web page can be enhanced by using certain UI elements, whilst allowing users to actually get to the information they deem the most important, in the shortest time possible, it doesn’t make sense for Google to devalue that.

It seems they’ve now realised that, in certain situations, hidden or tabbed content isn’t necessarily unimportant or manipulative, but is actually a legitimate design choice when faced with presenting a design on a smaller screen.

Obviously, there are ways in which people could attempt to manipulate this by dumping thin, meaningless content onto pages in a bid to rank higher, but that misses the point entirely.

Poor quality content creates a horrible user experience. Simply filling up a page with poor copy won’t get brands anywhere. Whereas building out thoughtful, relevant copy, and organising that in a way that’s a breeze to consume on a mobile device, clearly presents a great overall user experience.

Google’s mantra has always been to focus on delivering the best user experience, and the roll out of the Mobile First Index is another step to in the right direction to that goal.

Where potential issues arise

When you’ve worked on a mobile website in the past, there’s a good chance that you’ve recommended removing certain parts of a design from the mobile view of the website.

This can include anything images, calls to actions, maybe even chunks of written content that weren’t deemed important for a mobile user to consume.

Small differences, such as omitting a non-essential image or tweaking the presentation of a CTA are likely to be fine. However, you definitely need to be wary of omitting swathes of content on the mobile version of a page.

Remember, under the Mobile First Index, the mobile view of a website will be the most important in Google’s eyes. This means all important information must be present in the mobile design, which is something to keep in mind when working on future projects.

If the desktop version of your design contains more/better information than your mobile design, you could inadvertently impact your client’s organic visibility. In certain situations, this may make things tricky. Information dense tabular content is extremely difficult to shrink down on mobile, but it’s potentially great, informative content, and therefore should be included.

On top of this, mobile site speed is going to become much more important, which is definitely something to keep in mind when designing mobile sites. Whilst a lot of speed issues can arise from the development and technical side of things, a lot can also be placed down to the design stage too, so be mindful of the possible performance debt that comes with your design choices.

Wrapping up

We’ve known mobile has been important for years, and we’ve given mobile a huge amount of importance within the design process. The Mobile First Index is just another formality within that process.

In some of the cases discussed above, you should tread carefully. Just keep in mind that, if you’re working on a responsive site (which you obviously are, who wants a non-responsive site designing in 2018?), that the mobile version of this site now reigns supreme in Google’s eyes.