Thinking Mobile First

Woman holding phone

Google says people are 5 times more likely to leave a site if it isn’t mobile-friendly.


The world has gone mobile and whether your site is mobile-friendly and in need of a little user experience optimization or needs a full redesign, the time has come to start thinking mobile first. Today, most people are using a mobile device to search. In fact, as early as 2015 Google said “more Google searches take place on mobile devices than on computers in 10 countries including the US and Japan.” Considering this reality, Google is experimenting with making their index mobile-first to better serve the growing majority of their users.

Mobile-First Indexing

Google announced the roll out of a mobile-first index back in November of 2016. What this basically means is that they are actively moving their algorithms away from looking at the desktop version of a page’s content to evaluate its relevance and instead looking to the mobile content on the page. Though still in an experimental phase, they soon plan to “primarily use the mobile version of a site’s content to rank pages from that site, to understand structured data, and to show snippets from those pages in our results.”

This has serious implications for mobile sites currently configured to have different content across mobile and desktop, such as sites using dynamic serving and separate URL designs, which both serve different HTML to the user and to Googlebot. Those with responsive design sites shouldn’t have much to worry about as the content of the desktop and mobile sites are identical.

Mobile First SEO

If your site is ranking well in search results now, that ranking is based on content and other ranking signals taken from the desktop version of your site and perhaps improved by the mere fact that you have a mobile-friendly site. However, when the mobile-first index rolls out fully (this could happen in a matter of months) your rankings in the search results will be based on whatever mobile version you’ve put out there. So, it’s a good time to make sure your mobile-friendly site is shining to avoid slipping in the search results.  You can use the resources below to get started.

Putting Mobile Users First

To their credit, Google has been trying to get the word out for years; sites that aren’t mobile-friendly annoy users and hurt businesses. The impending mobile-first index is just the latest example of their attempt to put mobile users first.

A 2012 Google survey of mobile users aired the frustrations many mobile searchers are still encountering online today. The key takeaways from the report should give any digital marketer, webmaster, or business owner pause.

  • 61% of those surveyed said that if they land on a site and don’t find what they are looking for right away, they’ll quickly move on
  • 79% of users who don’t like what they find on a site will return to their search
  • 50% of users said that even if they like a brand, they will use them less often if the website isn’t mobile-friendly

In short, if you provide a poor user experience to your mobile visitors you risk them bouncing from your site, returning to their search to find your competitor, and maybe even abandoning your business altogether. So how can you avoid sending customers to the competition? By providing a good mobile experience. But what constitutes a good mobile site? It’s probably best to ask the users.

When asked what they expect from a mobile-friendly site, respondents in the same survey answered:

  • Big buttons, simple input boxes, and limited pinching
  • Quick access to business information such as phone numbers and directions
  • Fast load times
  • Readable text

Basically, mobile-friendliness is all about design, speed, and user experience. Here’s a simplified formula:

  • Design: Google recommends a responsive design, which is also the best option considering the imminent mobile-first index. Responsive design serves the same HTML code on the same URL regardless of the device, but renders the display differently based on the screen size of the user’s device. This approach has the benefit of offering the user the same familiar experience no matter what device they are using while also eliminating many of the common mistakes that can result from other mobile design options. Check out Lee Honeycutt’s detailed post on responsive design for more on the benefits of this option.
  • Site Speed: Ensure your mobile site isn’t bogged down by unnecessary scripts and that above the fold content renders in the ideal 2-3 seconds for your users. Web developers can use Google’s Mobile Friendly Test to check their speed and for recommendations on improvement. Sometimes, vast improvements can be made with relatively simple solutions such as optimizing or compressing large images.
  • User Experience: Luckily, you don’t have to guess at what mobile users want. This research study, for example, lays the groundwork for mobile design best practices based on extensive user testing. The survey reveals what you already know if you’re a mobile shopper and web-surfer. Mobile users want to be able to accomplish whatever task their undertaking; instantly, with as little hassle as possible, and on their own terms. Best to keep that in mind when optimizing a site for today’s mobile user.

Despite most of this information being available for years now, many sites still aren’t providing a good mobile experience for their visitors. This puts businesses that have already taken the necessary steps to become mobile-friendly at an advantage and presents an opportunity for those who can bring their site up to speed before their competitors. Investing in a mobile-friendly design, especially under the shadow of a fully mobile-first index, and investing in some user-centric optimization could mean a competitive edge for your site.