When we design websites, we always take a mobile-first approach. This is because it is best to design for the smallest screen and work up, so what you create will always work well on mobile. By taking a desktop-first approach, it means that by the time you get to mobile you may find it difficult making a design work within the confines of such a small screen. The result is either that you:

  • Compromise on the mobile design;
  • Have to go back and make changes to the other designs;
  • End up with a site that is different on mobile compared to other devices.

All of these scenarios aren’t ideal and can easily be avoided by designing for mobile first. However, there is now an additional reason to add to the list as to why mobile designs should be prioritised over other devices.

Introducing Google’s mobile-first index

In late 2016, Google announced it would be changing the way its search index will rank sites; it will soon be mobile-first. Google will do this by ranking the mobile version of a website. The motivation behind this is the recognition that most people are accessing the web through their mobile. While you would expect a desktop and mobile version of a site to be the same, for many websites that isn’t the case. This makes the search results inaccurate for a person running a query on Google, as they end up on a page that doesn’t provide them with what they were looking for because the content was only on the desktop version.

When will the new index be introduced?

Tech Crunch reported in December that Google had already started to make this move, moving a small number of sites to the mobile-first index. This is their experimentation phase, to assess how it will work before they increase the index to cover additional sites. According to Tech Crunch, a mobile-first index will mean webmasters will see “significantly increased” crawling by its Smartphone Googlebot.

Further information has come out this week at SMX Munich, where Google announced it will notify users when a site is moved to the mobile-first index: webmasters will be informed via Search Console when the move has been made. Once the move is complete, an annotation will be added to Search Console reports, indicating when it was done. This will allow site owners to compare data of their site before and after the switch. Apparently, Google will continue with its gradual move of sites to the mobile-first index, but has said it will move sites that are the most ready for it. There is no date yet for when all sites will be switched, but at some point the sites that aren’t ready for it will still be transferred over.

With regard to what “ready” means, Search Engine Journal has said it means what is working in mobile search right now – a site optimised for mobile search will be considered ready, and responsive and AMP content is apparently preferred. Markup on mobile sites will be considered important so where a site has a mobile and desktop version, they should have the same markup.

Why is Google doing this?

The overarching objective Google is trying to achieve is relevant content for user queries. This means that a good desktop site should be prioritised over a bad mobile one. By suddenly trying to turn your desktop site into a mobile one, it still won’t be rewarded by Google and you may have just wasted time and money doing this. Instead, prioritise how you can design a great mobile site, potentially improving your desktop site at the same time. Furthermore, if the mobile version of your site has the same content as the desktop, then you should be safe from dropping down the rankings.

When Google makes these announcements about positions it is taking, it is important to pay close attention to them. Whatever reason they may have, it is likely that it is user-led. For example, penalising sites that don’t have https is a way of protecting individuals using these websites. While you don’t have to make changes to your site as this isn’t a regulation (Google doesn’t make legislation… yet), there isn’t anything to lose in taking action, compared to if you were to decide to ignore them. If you didn’t do anything, despite having different content on your sites, then you will only have yourself to blame if you start dripping down the rankings.

How to follow Google’s lead

While we regularly do mobile design and development projects, we also often just do mobile development where the design stage is handled by another agency or even in-house. This means that our input is limited and our work is dictated by the designs. We regularly tell clients or partners at the start of a project to begin with mobile designs or to share us mobile designs at the same time as the desktop versions, but this isn’t always followed. If you are looking for an agency and aren’t sure how to differentiate between proposals, mobile-first is something you should always ask about and ensure is the approach taken.

When reviewing designs, have a think about how a user will interact with them. Ensure that mobile-first means exactly that – some people may still have an idea in mind and develop towards it even within the parameters of mobile dimensions. While you would get a technical mobile-first approach, it ignores the philosophy behind it.

As Google is focused on how people search, use this as a guide to your website. If in doubt or if you want to make sure that what you have produced will be user-friendly, go out and test it. This is a key part of any project and does not have to be done just at the end when looking for bugs or minor issues. It should be integral to ensuring your site is well designed and well built. This is what you should expect of any good website designer and developer.