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Mobile-First Indexing SEO 2023: Google Has Bad 'Noose' for Ugly Old Desktop-Only Sites

November 4, 2023

After almost exactly seven (7!) years in the making, on October 31, 2023 Google declared Mobile-First Indexing complete. Webmasters are left scratching their heads over the news. "Mobile-first indexing SEO!? What mobile-first!?"

What now? What does this mean for the staunch defenders of desktop-only websites? Those relics of the web, treasure troves of simplicity and unexpected SEO prowess, now face a dilemma. 

What Is Mobile-First Indexing?

Mobile-first indexing means that when Google's search engine spiders scan & crawl your site, they scan & crawl the mobile version of your site. Even if your website is desktop-only, they crawl it as if viewed from a mobile device.

So when Google determines how optimized your web content is, and where it should rank, they view it through the eyes of a smartphone.

Google has gradually rolled out this technology since 2016, when the Mobile Web was exploding. Now, the desktop indexer (a.k.a. "Googlebot Desktop") is entirely phased out (with a catch), meaning that as of November 2023, 100% of websites are crawled mobile-first.

Recap & Mobile-First Timeline

Here’s the 7-year timeline of Google’s mobile-first indexing initiative:

A rough timeline of Google's Mobile-First Indexing from November 2016 to November 2023, illustrating Google's announcements above.
  • November 2016: Google announces mobile-first indexing.
  • March 2018: Google begins rolling out mobile-first indexing to some websites.
  • March 2020: 70% of Google’s index is mobile-first. Google projects this would be 100% by September 2020.
  • May 2023: Google launches the last switchover of sites to mobile-first indexing.
  • November 2023: Google is now 100% mobile-first.

That’s… quite a delay. Needless to say, our websites were first added to Google's mobile-first index in July 2018, and we were well-prepared.

How Do I Know If My Site Is Affected by the Mobile First Index?

Many tech SEOs think the whole mobile-first debacle is a nothingburger. But if Google crawls your desktop-only site, and it looks like shit on a shiny new iPhone 15 Pro Max – unreadable, things in the wrong places, links too close together – what do you think Google will see? How will Google react? What happens to your traffic!?

It depends. Some industries are mobile-dominant. Others are desktop-dominant. You can determine that from your website’s analytics. Here’s what I’d do in each scenario:

1. Mobile-Dominant

From working with clients in 4 countries and two continents, we’ve found most consumer websites see on average more than 50%+ mobile traffic, especially e-commerce and local services. 

There are clear outliers. One consumer website in the medical services industry sees over 80% mobile traffic. Three-quarters of that traffic comes from Android devices.

Today, you could get a Texas-sized phone with a pixel resolution better than your laptop. It’s like, why bother toting around a laptop or tablet? The only difference I can see, one is better on your eyes – you won’t have to see the eye doctor at a young age.

When you’re in a mobile-dominant industry, the first transaction is usually a phone call or add to cart. The urgency can’t be underestimated! They want to access you NOW. 

Think about your customers trying to reach you when they’re out and about. If they can’t touch your site, people will bounce, and your site is almost guaranteed to be relegated to the nether-regions of search rankings. 

Unless you’re the only one in the world providing the product or service you carry, maybe loyal people will stay on your site. Otherwise, get a mobile-friendly design.

2. Desktop-Dominant

Many business-to-business (B2B) industries also thrive on SEO. Imagine a company executive, sitting in their office or on a factory floor, Googling for a medical testing and outsourcing service, and they come across you.

Can you guess what device they used to find your website?

If you guessed “a laptop” or “a desktop”, you’re right. Most of our clients’ B2B websites are desktop-dominant, with 80%+ desktop traffic.

The waters are a little murky here. You see, I was raised on ugly, old-fashioned, desktop-only sites, straight outta the pre-2012 Internet. I can see why some big players in select niches don’t even need to make the switch. They have  ugly mobile-UNfriendly sites, and still make money.

Heck, one B2B website I managed SEO for had an utterly fugly page. In a split-test, the fuglier page out-converted the control by 8X. (As an aside — Design-First marketing has bankrupted every one of my clients who’s tried it. There’s yet to be an exception. If you’re only spending money on beautification, and not conversions or marketing, you’re done.)

Again, Google crawls these sites through the eyes of a mobile browser. You’ll want to check your desktop-dominant site. Let me ask you: 

  • Does it look like shit on a phone?
  • Missing any elements on a phone? 

If “yes” to the latter, you might have some work to do. Not necessarily to make it mobile-friendly, rather to correct those missing elements, so Google can crawl your site and give it the SEO value it deserves.

The situation isn't entirely bleak, though. Google has acknowledged that a "very small set of sites" that don't work on mobile devices at all will continue to be crawled by the legacy desktop Googlebot, albeit much less often. 

But it appears Google won’t notify you. So it’s a clear signal: Do something, or risk obsolescence.

Repercussions of a 100% Mobile-First Index

Unfortunately, this could be bad news for much of the early Internet, which remains in this ugly old format. I bet you 87% of it is unlikely to be updated for the Mobile Googlebot – if ever.

These relics contain important historical information. The original 1996 Space Jam website is a true survivor, nearly as much as Bugs Bunny himself. And, most of all, ugly HTML websites are great for SEO, because they’re lightweight, uncluttered in code (allowing for better on-page SEO), and unlike WordPress, immune to hacking.

The 1996 Space Jam website, a classic of mid-1990s web design, predating Google, kept online by Warner Bros. to this day, and surviving Google's mobile-first SEO updates.

But what happens if these sites become demoted by Google? Well, if you’re a geeky archivist like me, then prepare to work twice as hard just to locate these time-capsules.

…Ohh, Bing, where aaaare yooou?...

I’ll be ramping up on these old sites in our own SEO projects, so check back for the results. I recommend you subscribe to get notified.

Conclusion: What's Next for Mobile-First Design?

The Google Mobile-First saga is officially complete. You bet this update’s gonna be as big news as The Beatles’ “Now and Then”. Except, the ripple will be a lot quieter. Most people won’t feel the effects. But the effects will be lasting, good and bad. If nothing, it sure as heck closes out a big chapter in internet history.

While the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mantra might have served well in the past, the full rollout of mobile-first indexing brings a new dawn. It's a wake-up call to embrace mobile optimization or face the consequences of being left behind.

If you'd like to learn more about how this affects your specific site, you can start by scheduling an introductory 30-minute discovery call and I'll be happy to look over your website.

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