Mobile-first website development isn't just a buzzword. It's not the flavor of the week. And, it's not to be confused with mobile-friendly or mobile-responsive. Developing mobile-first websites means setting yourself up for a top-speed user-experience.
Inherently, small devices – like mobile phones – have less processing power than full-on desktop computers. That technological power gap is decreasing with every new generation of smart phones and devices that are brought to market, but that doesn't mean the entire world's worth of smart phone users are going to all upgrade their phones to the latest version all at once. Whether you're on a brand spanking new device or still using a Blackberry from the 90's – mobile-first means your website is going to operate well on the weakest link.
Less powerful devices don't process information as fast. That's a fact.
Mobile-first development is the practice of reducing the amount of resources required to run your website on the least powerful devices. When possible, loading less resources help sites load faster. Balancing the load helps across the board – on both mobile devices and desktop computers – but, it's especially helpful for weaker devices. Some scripts, features, plugins, and modules and other digital resources are just too heavy to run on slow devices. Often, the most noticeable offenders are oversized images because you can see them with the naked eye, but bloated scripts and external resources that require time to download and execute are just as bad – if not worse.
There was a time when the Internet was in its infancy and people would wait entire minutes for websites to load. Nowadays, the Internet is infinite and and instant. Waiting for anything seems silly when there's another choice or another option just a few seconds away.
Phase one of mobile-first website development was having two versions of your website – a desktop version and a mobile version. That was okay for a while. Over time, more and more internet-connected devices were invented. And, more and more non-connected devices (like televisions and video game consoles) added internet connectivity features, too. Bluetooth and wireless internet changed the landscape.
Around 2004, web developer Ethan Marcotte (then of the Boston Globe) coined the phrase Responsive Web Design. Responsive websites blurred the lines between what was a mobile website and what was a desktop website. Essentially, it killed the mobile-only version of websites and introduced a concept of fluidity to website designs and development. No longer were websites coded for specific devices, but instead were coded for specific widths – device independent. Responsive websites work across all screen sizes small, large, and unforeseeable. There was no more need for a mobile website and desktop website because instead of building two separate sites you could simply build one site that worked reliably everywhere it displayed.
For the next 15 years, websites were having identity crises. New cutting edge websites were being built responsively, but there were plenty of older websites that still existed as static (i.e. not responsive) sites, as well as remnants of sites with both desktop and mobile versions. In many cases, rebuilding and rebranding a website from the ground up is too big and too expensive a process. Lots of businesses will roll with what they have until they no longer can – it's an if it isn't broke then don't fix it mentality where good enough is often good enough. Responsive mobile-friendly websites weren't a necessary means to qualify for existing – they were a competitive advantage of first-movers, early adopters, and forward thinkers battling it out in the arena of competitive search engine optimization and commercialized search rankings.
On July 1, 2019, Google – the largest and most used search engine on the planet – implemented mobile-first indexing. Mobile-first rankings in search engine results pages signaled the end of an era and the beginning of a new competitive landscape. Simply having a mobile site or a mobile-friendly site was no longer enough to compete in search results rankings. The change in Google's ranking algorithm meant Google was doing a 180-degree-turn. Instead of evaluating the desktop version of a website to establish its rank, the search giant was going to evaluate the mobile version – the one no one cared too much about up until this point. Google was putting its foot down and letting the world know more people were searching the Internet on their mobile phones – or at least they were forecasted to be in the coming years – than were using the service on their megalithic desktop computers. Desktop usage wasn't going away, but it had plateaued and mobile was determined to be the future.
Mobile-first indexing meant having a mobile-friendly website made your website more valuable than a competitor who doesn't.
In May of 2021, Google is planning another update – this time for Core Web Vitals. It's a fancy name, but it's giving weight to page load time, layout shifts, and better user-experiences. Coupled with mobile-first indexing, it's telling you that mobile websites need to be better. They need to be built better – using mobile-first best practices – so they can offer a full and robust user-experience the same as their desktop versions. Mobile technology is improving, so the experience you can serve up on mobile-devices come with higher expectations. Simply put, websites are being pushed to do better.
Mobile-first website development reduces a website's code-footprint. It goes above and beyond dumbing down resource loading and dives into a space where resources are loaded eloquently, intelligently, and intentionally with purpose. Done right, mobile-first website development isn't meant to trip you up – it's meant to stand you up and propel you forward. It's an ideological methodology, as well as a technical implementation. And, it's becoming increasingly necessary for businesses who want to compete and rank high in search engine results. When everyone's up to snuff and doing the same things (i.e. every website is mobile-responsive) it's time to look to new ways to gain competitive advantages.
The next competitive advantage is coming in the form of being mobile-first – being better by doing more, faster.
Is your website mobile-first?