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Mobile-First Indexing: What Does It Mean for Medical Websites?

By Stewart Gandolf, Chief Executive Officer

Person using Google on phone while sitting in front of laptop displaying same Google screenIt's official: the number of Google searches coming from mobile devices has exceeded the number of searches coming from desktop. Nearly 60% of search traffic comes from mobile devices, which means more and more prospective patients are viewing your hospital or practice website from a smartphone—not from a home computer.

Now, after a year and a half of testing, Google is doing more to prioritize sites that are mobile-friendly over those that are not: rolling out mobile-first indexing. In healthcare, mobile-first indexing has lasting effects for how patients find your website and what kind of traffic you can expect to see.

Related: Custom healthcare websites that attract patients

A brief history of “Mobilegeddon”

Google frequently alters its algorithms to respond to the changing needs and behaviors of searchers. As a response to an increase in mobile search, Google announced a change in how it evaluated mobile-friendly sites back in 2015.

This was deemed "Mobilegeddon" by experts who anticipated a major impact on how sites ranked in the search engines.

However, the panic proved to be mostly unwarranted. While some sites were penalized for a lack of user-friendliness on mobile devices, most changes were relatively minor, and even those sites without mobile-friendly content continued to see rankings.

The takeaway from Mobilegeddon was that the search engine giant would continue to reward mobile-friendly content. And in 2016, Google announced another change that was sure to move things forward: mobile-first indexing.

2018: The year of mobile-first indexing

Most users are searching on mobile devices. And yet, Google still crawls through the desktop version of your site first to determine rankings for search from both mobile devices and desktop.

In other words, Google will look at the sitemap, content, metadata, etc. of your desktop site before crawling your mobile site.

That’s all about to change.

On March 26, 2018, Google announced the first rollout of mobile-first indexing. Now, Google will crawl through the mobile version of a website first. Whether someone is searching from a smartphone, tablet, or computer, the mobile version of the site will be the trusted version in terms of content.

This initial rollout will only affect sites that already follow best practices for mobile, and Google's blog assures that “content gathered by mobile-first indexing has no ranking advantage over mobile content that’s not yet gathered this way or desktop content.”

However, as more sites are pulled into mobile-first indexing, you can count on seeing some changes to how your site ranks—unless your site is already optimized for mobile.

Responsive medical websites should see the best results

Mobile-first indexing best practices require a mobile-friendly website: one that can be viewed and navigated just as effectively via a mobile device. However, mobile-friendly does NOT mean the same as having a responsive site.

Responsive websites automatically resize for any device—desktop, tablet, or mobile—without needing a separate mobile and desktop design. Many non-responsive mobile-friendly sites exclude the content and structured data of their desktop companions. The desktop version may be completely optimized in terms of page speed, navigation, and other ranking factors, while the mobile version diminishes that experience.

If you do have a separate mobile and desktop site, you should take some time to audit both sites in terms of mobile-first indexing.

Users should get the same content experience no matter which device they use. Metadata—the description of content throughout your site—should contain the same keywords. You’ll also need to check things like your XML sitemap, your server capacity, and that's just the beginning.

What should the healthcare industry take away from mobile-first?

If you already have a responsive site, you should not have to change much to optimize for mobile first (assuming you are happy with your current rankings). If, however, your website is neither mobile friendly nor responsive, there's a good chance it needs to be completely redone. 

Google wants the best possible experience for your patients—and you should too! That means having a website that is just as easy to use on a mobile device as it is from a desktop computer.

Take some time to test the mobile experience by putting yourself in a patient's shoes. If you were attempting to make an appointment, fill out a form, or access important information about services, would you be able to do so quickly and easily from your smartphone?

Mobile-first indexing is a sign of the times. It's important for people to be able to find your hospital or practice online via the search engines. However, health systems and practices should take away that it's just as important for patients to use your website effectively and efficiently from their smartphones.

Just as Google continues to update algorithms based on the needs of searchers, medical websites should take the right steps to consider how patients find hospitals and practices online and adjust for a better overall mobile experience.

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