What is mobile-first design?

Mobile-first design refers to the practice of designing a website in a way that prioritizes mobile visitors and their experience with the site.

What Is Mobile-First Design, and How Does It Impact SEO?

Traditional SEO was built on two core elements: earning links (which represent trust and user value), and creating quality content (which uses keywords, answers searcher questions, and earns links). While there were many other technical elements that mattered, these could often be nuanced and situation-specific. With the explosion of mobile devices being used as a gateway to the web, however, the rules have changed. Now, integrating mobile-first design principles is an essential SEO step for all websites.

What is mobile-first design, and what can you do to optimize your site’s user experience (UX) and improve your SEO? This guide will dive into these topics and give you the insight needed to improve your SEO with mobile-first indexing in mind.

What Is Mobile-First?

As of July 2019, Google has enabled mobile-first indexing for all new websites. In subsequent months, Google has continued to monitor existing sites, switching an increasing number of them to mobile-first indexing. While existing sites are notified in the Search Console when they are switched, new sites receive no such notice, as it is now the default.

Historically, Google crawled and indexed the desktop versions of pages. With this change, however, Google now crawls and indexes the mobile version of pages as well. Google’s decision is likely due to a shift in consumer internet use habits. As of 2016, mobile internet use surpassed desktop internet use, and this preference has continued to strengthen over time. If most users are using mobile devices to view content, it makes sense that Google would prefer content that is mobile-optimized.

If your site was unprepared when this switch occurred, you likely saw negative impacts on your search engine optimization efforts. This can be a frustrating experience — particularly when you aren’t familiar with mobile-first design principles in the first place, and your site isn’t ready.

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Mobile-First Web Design

Given Google’s historical approach to indexing, it’s understandable that some web developers might have a tendency to design websites primarily for desktop computers, then “downsize” web experiences in terms of scope and features until they can function on mobile devices. However, this approach runs contrary to mobile-first web design.

Instead, it’s key that we develop content primarily for mobile devices — especially now that Google is indexing content based on how they adapt to them. To embrace mobile-first web design, it’s essential to understand the tenets of responsive web design, as well as the distinguishing characteristics of the design philosophies of progressive enhancement and graceful degradation.

Understanding Responsive Web Design

Responsive web design is a method of web design that emphasizes making web content render appropriately on a wide variety of devices and browsers. It involves the use of fluid grids that can adjust to a variety of screen sizes. Responsive design incorporates flexible multimedia that can display without error on as many devices as possible.

Want to see responsive web design in action? Open the Page One Power homepage in a separate window. Try changing the size of your window. Maximize it, then squeeze it so that it fits only a small portion of your screen. Notice how the content of the page reacts to the screen size? This is responsive design, and it is now standard in web development. If you’re interested in learning more about the basics of responsive web design, you can review some responsive web design basics in an informative article from Google.

Note that there is a difference between responsive design and mobile-first design. While content with an emphasis on responsive design focuses on adapting to different screen sizes, it is not necessarily optimized for mobile devices. Mobile-first websites, however, are designed specifically to offer a stellar user experience on mobile devices. 

Mobile-first design is founded on the web design concept of “progressive enhancement.” To clarify the meaning of this term, let’s explore what it — as well as its counterpart, “graceful degradation” — means in terms of web development. 

Progressive Enhancement vs. Graceful Degradation

When designing content for a variety of different devices, you must first choose a development approach. Note that advanced website features may necessitate some compromises when working with a smaller amount of screen real estate. These are two similar, but fundamentally different, development methodologies to addressing such compromises:

  • Progressive enhancement: Build a version of your site or app for mobile phones and lower-end devices and browsers first. This version will only have basic functions. More advanced iterations with additional interactions and effects can then be built for mid- and high-end devices and browsers. 
  • Graceful degradation: This methodology is the complete opposite. It involves building a version of your site or app for advanced devices and browsers, then cutting features to create mid- and lower-end iterations for mobile users. In short, increased compatibility is achieved through a subtractive process rather than an additive one.

While both of these approaches are valid, progressive enhancement is a wiser choice for developers looking to prioritize mobile-first design. This is because its focus is on creating a stable, fully functional experience for mobile users — which is vital in the era of mobile-first indexing.

Mobile-First Design Principles to Improve Your UX

Mobile-first design essentially focuses on the needs of the user. By prioritizing mobile iterations of your site before your desktop versions, you meet the consumer where they are at — which is, increasingly, on mobile devices. This is key to providing the best possible UX.

Beyond this simple fact, there are some mobile-first design principles you should incorporate in your web design practices in order to maximize your UX:

  • Design your site with the user journey in mind: Where is your user coming from? What are their needs? Where do they need to go? Imagine your user’s journey, then design your website to best facilitate it. When designing for mobile-first, this mindset can lead to some unique considerations. For example, how can mobile device features be utilized to improve your offerings? By seeking answers to these questions, you’ll be well on your way to embracing mobile-first design.
  • Prioritize good content: Cut the noise. Having less space to work with means you need to cut unnecessary or distracting content. Your website will have a greater impact if it provides only useful content that authentically meets the needs of users.
  • Provide a clear site structure and visual hierarchy: When using a mobile device, users should be able to easily navigate your site and find the information they need with minimal fuss. You can help in this regard by providing a clear and consistent site structure. Further, each page should use header tags and proper formatting to help readers visually navigate content. Big chunks of text, for instance, is a serious no-no for mobile-optimized websites. 
  • Optimize page speeds by stripping back unnecessary elements: People using mobile devices want to quickly access the information and answers they are looking for. Burdening visitors with excessive, unnecessary page elements can cause pages to load slowly. This will frustrate visitors, sending many of them to your competitors instead.
  • Test your web content on a variety of different devices: To ensure that most visitors will be able to access your content without a hitch, try accessing it on a wide variety of devices: phones, tablets, Android devices, Apple devices, etc. In addition, be sure to collect data on mobile traffic. The more data you can collect in this regard, the better you can adapt your content to make it as useful as possible — and in the world of mobile-first indexing, it will also lead to better SEO.