A Timeline of Google Mobile-First Algorithm Changes

  • Date Published
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  • Reading Time 10-Minute Read

A brief summary of Google mobile usage-based algorithm updates, how they impact search rankings and web traffic, and what you should do next.

Looking into the World of Mobile-First Web Design

By now you should all know about mobile-first web design. Having a mobile-first online presence is absolutely essential in 2019. But when exactly did mobile-first web design become so important? And who decided that you should care about it at all? Let’s take a look at a brief timeline of Google mobile-first algorithm changes and find out!

Why We Need Mobile-First Web Design

Since 2015 Google’s mobile-first algorithm changes have prioritized so-called mobile-first websites. With the ever-increasing number of demanding and sophisticated mobile consumers, Google had to adapt. And that means website owners and marketers had to adapt as well by adopting and utilizing the principles of mobile-first web design.

Simply put, mobile-first web design is exactly as it sounds: sketching, prototyping and designing for mobile-first and then scaling up to larger screens from there. Mobile-first web design makes sure you provide the best mobile user experience and usability.

Mobile-first is simply a term or concept for mobile-optimized web design. As the name implies, with this strategy mobile-oriented sites are given priority, and additional elements and functionality are added as screen size increases.

A Timeline of Mobile Usage-Based Google Algorithm Changes

As with so many other web design changes and directives, this all started with Google. Back in 2015 Google decided to focus on how the internet is experienced by the average user. And since most of us were beginning to use mobile devices to surf the web more often the mobile user experience started to take precedence.

And this shift into mobile-first web design thinking brought with it one of the most monumental shifts in web design up to that point. It even had a catchy and somewhat intimidating name: Mobilegeddon. My timeline of Google mobile-first algorithm changes starts there.

2015: Mobilegeddon

What Was Mobilegeddon All About?

Mobilegeddon is a media name given to a set of major updates that Google performed to its algorithms on April 21st, 2015. In short, this update was primarily meant to boost the rankings of websites that Google recognized as mobile-friendly.

In the beginning, responsive websites, and really any website optimized for mobile devices, fit under this “mobile-friendly” description and would be given a rankings boost. Mind you, simply having a responsive website didn’t necessarily make it mobile-friendly, but it was a good start.

Non-mobile friendly websites, as identified by Google would not necessarily be pushed down in search rankings, but their mobile-friendly counterparts would receive favorable treatment. At least, that was the plan.

But Google has many major ranking factors (and they did in 2015 as well), so it didn’t necessarily follow that a mobile-friendly website would leapfrog its non-mobile friendly competitor in every case. There have always been major factors associated with high search rankings, like and quality content, backlink authority—and “Mobilegeddon” kept all of these factors into account.

Even so, the paradigm shift was apparent: mobile consumers and users were on the rise, and Google was beginning to pay attention to them. Which meant all of us had to do the same if we wanted to stay ahead of the digital curve.

The Aftermath of Mobilegeddon

Like many concepts that get hyped up on the media, Mobilegeddon wasn’t quite as “Armageddon-ish” as many expected. Bad websites didn’t completely fall off the face of the earth. As a matter of fact, even now, 5 years later, many websites still do not provide an adequate mobile-first user experience!

But even so, there were some major shifts in the way the mobile experience was perceived by website owners. The effects of Mobilegeddon can mostly be viewed through the general public’s shifts toward taking the mobile experience more seriously.

Since Mobilegeddon, 25% of websites without any previous mobile strategy have become mobile-friendly. Moreover, after the shift, e-commerce site owners focused on embracing a mobile strategy as fast as possible.

The digital world is transitioning more and more toward giving internet users what they want. Which means that modern businesses and product brands shifting more thought and attention the mobile experience. But unfortunately, we are still nowhere near where we should be. Even after Mobilegeddon one-third of all websites are still unaware or simply don’t care about mobile ranking signals.

Where exactly do we go from here? Let’s continue with our timeline of Google mobile-first algorithm changes and find out. And we don’t have far to go.

2016: Google Announces Mobile-First Updates

Let me jump ahead for just a brief second. 2018 signaled the beginning of a new era in mobile-first web design. Before I go into that, let me continue my timeline of Google mobile-first algorithm changes by looking at what exactly motivated these changes.

One of the major premises of Mobilegeddon was that Google was going to establish a separate mobile index for search results. And this would be one of the first major Google mobile-first algorithm changes. This tactic was used to differentiate mobile-friendly sites from non-mobile friendly ones, but also to label mobile-friendly sites as such in search results.

Back in November of 2016, Google introduced the concept of mobile-first indexing. The premise of mobile-first indexing was that the mobile index created by Google in 2015 would eventually take the place of the desktop index currently in place.

What Does Mobile-First Indexing Mean?

Well, first of all, all of the Google mobile-first algorithm changes mean the search engine is paying attention to the same things we are. Google understands that mobile traffic has overtaken desktop traffic and that internet users prioritize the mobile experience. They recognize that if internet users care more about a high-quality mobile experience, the internet needs to put mobile first.

Google is steadily moving to a mobile-only world. Mobile-first indexing seems like the inevitable consequence of a year (or more) almost exclusively dedicated to evangelizing and forcing a change of mindset from desktop to mobile. Moz

2018: The Rollout of Mobile-First Indexing

Next on our timeline of Google mobile-first algorithm changes is a long-anticipated (and often delayed) event. On March 26th, 2018, Google officially announced that it had begun to roll out mobile-first indexing. And while this again struck fear into the hearts of many website owners it all depended on how well your website was prepared.

At the most general level, the way Google identifies and categorizes your website in search rankings is by crawling, indexing and ranking it. Up until then, Google’s “crawlers” would crawl the desktop version of websites, as that was often the most commonly viewed iteration of the average website.

With the rise of mobile search—which has surpassed desktop search in recent years—Google has realized that desktop-first indexing no longer makes sense. As I mentioned above, Google announced it was researching and looking into mobile-first indexing back in November of 2016. If most people are using mobile devices to search, why should ranking and indexing be decided based on the nature and performance of desktop sites?

Mobile-First Indexing and Mobile-First Web Design

Ultimately, mobile-first indexing simply meant that Google began using the mobile version of a website’s content for indexing and ranking. Mobile-first indexing was a paradigm shift in how Google analyzes websites. Up until now, Google crawled the desktop version of your site.

When Google migrated “sites that follow the best practices for mobile-first indexing” it chose to keep one search index rather than two. This means from then on there will be no desktop-first index that applies only to desktop searches vs. a mobile-first index that applies only to mobile searches.

This means mobile-first indexing is here to stay. And mobile-first web design is the only strategy that will help you support your short and long-term business objectives.

2019: Google’s Unconfirmed “Maverick” Update

While Google has to this point remained silent, website owners noticed significant volatility in search results this past July, specifically on July 11, 12, 16 and 18, 2019. This suggests another one of Google mobile-first algorithm changes. This seems to contradict Google’s earlier statement that they would be announcing larger algorithm changes in advance.

Some SEO professionals are of the opinion that Maverick is an attempt by Google to even-out the results of their June 2019 core update which saw many sites lose significant of traffic, likely in part due to the core update coinciding with the Diversity Update of June 4-6. Search volatility appears to be consistent across different devices and product categories according to SEMRush.

Regardless, Maverick has resulted in noticeable volatility in search engine results and traffic with no particular industry or niche being affected. This is leading to speculation that the above-mentioned June core update did not go as planned and Maverick represents a correction of sorts.

With Google remaining mum as far as confirming or denying the update, marketers and website owners are left with the same recourse always offered by Google, creating high-quality content that is useful to your audience.

Anticipating Future Google Mobile-First Algorithm Changes

Nobody is sure what Google has in mind next. But one thing is certain, there will be future Google mobile-first algorithm changes. What exactly they will entail we can only guess. If you want to stay ahead of the curve and prepare yourself for any new or further Google mobile-first algorithm changes you must have a mobile-first online presence.

In 2019 and beyond, mobile-first web design will be more relevant than ever. Companies and product brands will do well to embrace it. Mobile-first design is only going to become more important. As the number of mobile consumers increases so will the number and variety of mobile devices.

Not only that, but mobile consumers are evolving as well. What was considered an acceptable mobile user experience only a few short months ago is no longer going to cut it. If you want your online presence to be relevant and informative to ever more demanding and sophisticated mobile consumers, you need to keep working at it. Just as Google is working on its next mobile-first algorithm changes.

Of course, this is all up to you, the business owner. You can keep sticking your head in the sand and believe that “my consumers will know where to find me.” But all that approach will get you is sand up your nose and in your eyes! Study after study has shown that mobile consumers are using mobile search more and more to find solutions to their most pressing problems. Mobile-first web design will ensure they will find you instead of your non-mobile competitors. We are here to help!

Is Your Website Meeting User Mobile User Expectations?

Have you focused on mobile-first web design for your business or product brand? If so, how has this helped you better meet your mobile user expectations? If not, what is the biggest obstacle you face getting a mobile-first online presence? Do you have other problems with your business website design? Please feel free to let us know so our audience can benefit as well and grab our feed so you don’t miss our next post! And feel free to share our post with your audience!

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By Gregor Schmidt
Co-Founder / CXO