The changing face of mobile first - web accessibility is key

By Max Brockbank

The Media Image


The Drum Network article

This content is produced by The Drum Network, a paid-for membership club for CEOs and their agencies who want to share their expertise and grow their business.

Find out more

September 30, 2019 | 7 min read

It’s tempting to think that Google invented the term 'Mobile First', because Google is now synonymous with it but, actually, it first appeared in a blog by Luke Wroblewski in a blog from 2009.

The Media Image on how the principles of mobile first can be applied to any screen today.

LukeW – a top web design expert, whose company Polar was later acquired in 2014 by Google – foresaw the dramatic take-up of mobile devices. They now account for three in five of all searches.

He argued that traditional web design should be turned on its head. Instead of creating a whizz-bang website that looked cool on a big shiny new iMac, he suggested sites should be designed primarily for the devices on which they were most likely to be seen – on a tiny screen no bigger than 450 pixels wide and 750 deep.

As the screen size got bigger, the page elements would increase in size (and perhaps number) to occupy the bigger available real estate.

Google first acknowledged search would be changing when the then CEO Eric Schmidt announced in 2010 that – going forward – they would adopt “Mobile First in everything”.

“Mobile first in terms of applications. Most first in terms of the way people use things.”

And thus began the rise of mobile first design and development.

All that being said, it took another eight years (March 2018) before Google properly committed to mobile first and said it would soon grade websites ONLY on how their mobile pages work.

Then on July 1st this year – a whole nine years since Schmidt’s announcement – it was further announced that all new domains would only be assessed using mobile first principles.

Still rolling out

With all this hype, it must have been a bit of an embarrassment to the Google bosses when, in late August, they had to plead for patience from site owners who were asking: “Why isn’t my site being mobile first indexed”.

The question is a very real one. When mobile first indexing was first announced, many site owners were spooked into making their mobile offerings better. It even acquired a name – Mobilegeddon. Partly for this reason, most third party tools will show a brand’s mobile site doing better than the desktop version, simply because back in the day it had a mobile first makeover, seen at the time as a quick win for SEO visibility.

But the biggest enabler of mobile first will be 5G coverage, coming to a smartphone near you soon (unless you have an iPhone).

A growing band of users can now stream smoother movies, upload videos quicker, and connect more of their devices to the internet with less delay, using 5G. The new system brings more speed and more capacity so, inevitably, consumers will demand that websites simply work quicker and faster.

For brands, the good news is that mobile users are more likely to buy and have more disposable income than their desktop cousins. Studies also show that iOS users are likely to spend more. This may however simply be a function of Apple users having more disposable income – Apple devices cost considerably more than some of their Android counterparts.

Embracing mobile first can have big benefits for your eCommerce website. A talk I gave to start-ups in 2013 called “A Journey into Content” holds true today. We all use our mobile phones a lot. Not having a website which works with the user to promote a pleasant experience is throwing away the chance of sales and customer interaction.

Beyond the Desktop Age

In that presentation I wrote how one in five UK office workers spent more than 90 minutes commuting each day. More recent figures show UK workers spend 251 hrs a year commuting, that’s an awful lot of cat videos, Facebook updates, or impulse buys.

If, on the other hand, your site is only geared up for desktop use, no-one in their right mind, nestled up against the rest of humanity, with its BO and bad dress sense, is going to want to pinch and slide to see it in its full glory, especially with one bar of 3G and a failing battery.

We may even be reaching the post-desktop age. Just this week, Ad-Tech expert Joanne Joynson-Hewlett, suggested that people were skipping desktop completely and going straight to mobile. She argues that reliable and popular apps, VR technology and Augmented Reality almost make the laptop obsolete for advertisers.

While a desktop apocalypse may be a while off in the organic search world, there are lessons to be learned.

Some designers are looking further ahead. In late August, Adam Sedwick in his blog Is “Mobile-First” as an idea dead? argues that the word 'mobile' in mobile first is holding webmasters back because they instantly think of smartphones.

Fluid Dynamics

Certainly, a good responsive site should make your life easier, even if it simply means it will still work when squeezed to fit the available space on a crowded laptop screen. And the principles of mobile first – clarity, usability and above all speed – are relevant whatever screen you’re using.

Perhaps the best approach is to think of the internet experience as a fluid thing which should not depend on what browser or OS or device you use. The precedent here is web accessibility – making websites easy to use by people with disabilities, primarily sight impairment.

It’s said that when Tesco redesigned their website in the mid-2000s to improve accessibility, turnover increased by 10%. That may be because it opened up Tesco to a whole group of users who had been “excluded” by not being able to use the site, in the same way that not considering a mobile user excludes them from your desktop site..

Max Brockbank, head of SEO at The Media Image.


Content by The Drum Network member:

The Media Image

The Media Image (TMI) is an independent performance media agency offering a paid search led full-service digital media solution built on the principles of people,...

Find out more

More from Advertising

View all


Industry insights

View all
Add your own content +