How Google’s Mobile-First Algorithm Impacts Small Businesses

Google's latest algorithm update is a wake-up call. Adapt mobile-first best practices today, or risk fading into the landscape.

Customers have no patience for slow, error-ridden websites that fail Google’s mobile-first test. If the experience is poor, they’ll leave your website without a backward glance.

Unless you are a supervillain, or hiding from the authorities, a cloak of invisibility is not necessarily a good thing. When you’re in business, and desire to use your digital presence to drive site traffic and revenue, invisibility, most definitely, is not a good thing. Yet, if you can’t remember the last time you updated your website—or if the pictures and text look super-teeny-tiny on your mobile device—you may, very well, be invisible.


Google’s latest mobile-first indexing mandates

In March 2020, Google—the search engine, internet-of-everything behemoth—announced it was changing the way that websites are indexed into its search engine. Though we’ll get deeper into the weeds in a moment, the key distinction is this: If your website isn’t built with a mobile-first posture, it now—and likely, into the future—will be overlooked by Google’s indexing algorithm.

Yes, you will be virtually invisible, while your more tech-savvy competition will likely have risen to the first couple of pages of Google’s search results, the Holy Grail for companies, and the measuring stick for digital marketers. (The good news? As of August, Google was still in the process of migrating sites to mobile first, though it expected to be finished by the end of 2021).

So why is this happening now?

Well, Google has always considered itself the trendsetter rather than the trend-follower. With the mobile-first mandate, they are continuing a process they started in 2015, when they required websites to be “mobile friendly” to earn higher organic search visibility. Fast forward to today: Nearly 55 percent of websites across the globe are now accessed on mobile devices, up from just 31 percent when Google issued their first mobile-first edict in 2015.

Photo: Shiwa ID, Unsplash
Photo: Shiwa ID, YFS Magazine

Looking under the hood of Google’s latest mobile salvo, we can better understand what they’ve done. Since a majority of users now access Google Search with a mobile device, the Googlebot is now calibrated to crawl and index mobile pages by default. Though Google said that this policy applied to new websites, experts have observed that even legacy websites are now measured by the mobile-first mandate.

An earlier phase of Google’s march to mobile focused on loading speeds for websites on mobile; in fact, the latest Mobile First program shines a spotlight on the Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) Project, which seeks to further increase mobile loading speeds by preloading some components into the device (if you’ve ever seen the initials AMP in the URL when clicking on a link, you’ve likely noticed this faster loading speed).


How to leverage mobile-first indexing

How can startups and small businesses ensure their digital presence is always in compliance with Google’s mobile-first posture?

Here are some tips I recommend to my clients.

  • Make sure your site elements are appropriately sized on mobile. Consider the text size, tap target, and padding. Visible to Google is one thing, visible to the public is another.
  • Another way to get your website ready for mobile is to streamline your checkout for an omnichannel approach. In other words, make sure you have “cart portability” so the process is passed seamlessly between devices. A shocking 85 percent of customers start a purchase on one device and finish it on another.
  • On a similar note, don’t make your customers start over. Ensure to offer save options, like wish lists, which can help returning customers easily see what they looked at while on another device.

Pop-ups are another good way to trigger a customer’s buying impulse. It’s also an easy way to ask for an email for a newsletter or discount codes to encourage additional visits.

Use pop-ups on mobile when customers arrive to show specials, when they leave without purchasing, or when they abandon a cart. Use accordion and drop-down menus appropriately, and never use Flash. Google has a long history of ignoring Flash-based content. These are the best pop-ups for the mobile experience:

  • Floating pop-up: These appear at the top or bottom of the page as a simple bar, and promote discounts, offers, free shipping or other perks.
  • Slidebox pop-up: Slidebox pop-ups for mobile appear in the corner of the screen, larger than floating pop-ups but leaving space for the main content to be visible. Good for reading more options.
  • Featured pop-up: These pop-ups are displayed in the middle of the screen above the main content. Although they are not full-screen pop-ups, they should appear after the user has shown an interest by navigating away from the landing page.


Finally, know that Google is not looking to make millions of websites fall into obscurity, but simply to nudge you to get with their program. Thankfully, Google shares mobile-first indexing best practices.

The message is simple: If your website was built in Ruby on Rails in 2007, it probably was already obsolete before Google came along and told you so. Look to refresh your website with new messaging and new approaches at least every two years.

“Making improvements to a company’s website is just part of the answer. The best performers cultivate a mindset of continuous improvement, establish repeatable practices and effective governance, have a rigorous focus on performance metrics, and constantly monitor the revenue impact of site changes,” according to McKinsey & Company.

The back end of a website can become a maze of plugins that need refreshing and coordination. Google’s new algorithm is a wake-up call! Adapt “mobile first” best practices today, or risk fading into the landscape.


Based in San Diego, California, Christa Martin is a CMO with Chief Outsiders, the nation’s fastest growing fractional CMO firm. She helps SaaS, healthcare, consumer goods, and professional services companies accelerate growth.


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