Mobile-First Design – What It Is and Why It Matters
The fall of 2018 was a trying period for online marketers, bloggers, digital agencies…basically for everyone whose bread and butter comes from the online realm. Why? Because that’s when the search engine giant, Google, started rolling out its mobile-first indexing. This certainly didn’t come as a surprise since the “Mobilegeddon” in 2015 already introduced prioritizing of websites that display well on mobile devices. Mobile-first design was already a thing, but Google still managed to cause some panic.
But let’s take a step back for a moment and look into what “mobile-first” actually means.
Mobile-First Design Explained
In short, mobile-first design is the kind of design that prioritizes mobile devices. In general, this includes smartphones and tablets or any devices with a smaller screen. To understand this concept properly, we first need to talk about responsive web design or RWB. In RWB, we basically enable the web and all its shapes and contents to fit smaller screens without losing quality. It also needs to be done in a way that people find convenient or comfortable. When done properly, responsive design means the user doesn’t have to zoom in, scroll or pan the screen to view all the content of the site.
Obviously, with the degree at which mobile searches have overtaken the desktop ones, it’s only natural for a website to be responsive. It’s not even a question of the survival of the fittest. It’s simpler than that. If your website is not responsive, it might as well be inexistent. People don’t have the time or the patience for non-responsive websites.
But there’s more here than just responsiveness. When developing a product, designers used to take the desktop version as the starting point. Then, after finalizing that particular version, they basically dropped certain elements in order to optimize the product for mobile.
Today, the process is different. “Progressive advancement” is a widely employed principle in design, which takes the mobile version as the starting point. And that’s exactly what “mobile-first” means. Design starts from the mobile end, and then expands gradually to more advanced versions.
As we mentioned earlier, in 2018 Google initiated a brand new way of indexing the sites. Indexing is important because it’s one of the mechanisms Google uses to decide how high up your website is going to rank on search engine result pages.
So, basically, mobile-first indexing means that when Google deploys its crawlbots, they’re first going to look for the mobile version of your site, and then for the desktop one. Note that the mobile version is not the only one that gets indexed and ranked. Your desktop version is taken into consideration too, but only after the mobile one. If your website doesn’t have a mobile version, it is going to have a significant negative impact on your website’s rank. Not just that. The quality of the mobile experience your website offers is also a factor.
And that’s why mobile-first should be taken very, very seriously by any website owner.
How to Optimize for Mobile-First
So you got yourself a cool responsive theme? Good. Responsiveness is extremely important. But don’t you think for a second your job at optimizing for mobile-first ends there. It’s more complicated than that.
Whether you’re giving your old WordPress site a spring cleaning or you’re building a brand new one, there are things you can do to make it more appealing to Google crawlers and mobile-first indexing.
- Optimize your website speed
Google hates slow websites. No, really. It has a particular bias toward websites that are slow to load. Since the summer of 2018, Google is officially prioritizing fast websites so that’s definitely something to think about.
Even if your website is a bit sluggish, don’t worry. There are plenty of things you can do to speed it up. For instance, you can use one of the excellent caching plugins that create a HTML-ready version of your site so it loads faster. You can also compress all of your files so they upload in the lowest and lightest size possible. Finally, take some time to go through your website and look for any technical errors, such as broken links, overly saturated pages, and so on.
- Check your SEO
When it comes to Search Engine Optimization (SEO), assuming you’re already applying all the best practices in the field, there are a couple of additional things to keep in mind.
For one, you need to assure the parity in content between your site versions. This particularly applies to internal links, structured data, tags and such. Also, make sure your servers can handle the crawl rate. This used to be an issue when mobile-first indexing first rolled out but a surprising number of websites still hasn’t adapted to the new crawl activity.
Finally, monitor your indexation status regularly and make sure robots.txt is validated and your server log files are in order.
- Opt for a responsive framework
Yes, we did say earlier that using a responsive theme, built on a responsive framework, is not enough for proper mobile first optimization. But it remains one of the essential factors, so we thought we should reiterate.
Bootstrap and Foundation are currently the most popular and arguably the best responsive frameworks, so opt for a theme using one of them. They are ideal for translating your website’s design onto smaller screens with a minimal risk of glitches and bugs. Furthermore, they do so on both the front-end and the back-end level, so they considerably cut down the developer workload.
- Optimize your navigation, content and interaction
Finding that perfect balance between not enough content and too much content is the common ailment of all mobile websites. Yet, it’s a battle that we just need to keep fighting. Visitors need information, and they need it to be presented in a clear and simple way. Clutter is unacceptable. Organize your content so that you get to say what you have to say, strategize your calls to action, and nothing else.
Also, consider your website navigation. If it’s too complicated, it simply won’t do for mobile.
Next, if your navigation bar on desktop is long, you need to make it way shorter in your mobile version. Consider making your text larger and transform your links into buttons that are easy to tap.
Finally, see if your layouts are properly optimized for common hand-held actions, such as tapping and swiping.
- Test, test, test
This is a quite logical step but it won’t hurt to stress it once again. You always need to check and test everything on your site. Even if you haven’t made any changes recently, consider doing an occasional test just to see if everything is working fine.
Most people these days use modern browsers, or browsers optimized for mobile. However, an astonishing percentage of Internet users still use older browser versions, and you need to think about them as well. You want your website to look just as good on an old iPhone 4s as on the new Huawei P20.
Simply test your website design for responsiveness and don’t forget the A/B split testing, especially for your landing pages. Of course, before everything else, customize the mobile version of your site, and prepare it for users.
Mobile-first is a trend that is going to stick around for a while, and that’s the reality we all have to accept. By “we,” we mean everyone involved in creating and running a website. Designers, developers, admins, SEO experts, editors, copywriters – everyone has to remember to prioritize the mobile. Of course, that’s not to say we should neglect desktop versions. It’s just that mobile-first design needs to be taken seriously.