The SEO community is buzzing with Google’s forewarned mobile algorithm update and, understandably, our clients want to know what we think and what our recommendations are to be proactive and reactive to the change. Enough chit chat, read on for Geary LSF’s rundown on the upcoming Google mobile update.
Wait, What’s Going On?
Google has announced that on April 21st they will roll out a new algorithm update, which will preference mobile-friendly web pages in mobile search results. Google’s definition of “mobile-friendly” is extensively defined in Google’s mobile SEO guidelines, but I would generally paraphrase it to be, “mobile experiences that don’t make users want to Gronk Spike their devices.”
They have already prefaced this rollout with a new “mobile-friendly” tag in Google mobile search results, giving users a visual cue for mobile-friendly sites and which has already impacted click through rates in mobile results. However, come April 21 it won’t just be up to the user to avoid pages without the tag and the algorithm will start to suppress pages that don’t qualify for the classification of mobile-friendly.
Not sure if you’ve noticed all the people with metal squares glued to their hands, but mobile device usage is on a rocket ship trajectory with no signs of slowing. As devices have become more powerful and portable, people have started to favor these devices as their primary way to research the world around them (read: search the web). In fact, it’s getting to the point where a growing population owns a mobile device and nothing else.
As the leading search engine product, Google wants people to have the best experience possible, but when someone searches and clicks to a site that requires pinching and zooming to the point of mental instability, that makes Google a less effective product. That, understandably, is not OK with Google. Their answer to this problem is simple: don’t include crappy mobile sites in the index. And so they have graciously provided fair warning to webmasters that if their content isn’t easily navigable and viewed on a mobile device, they’re not going to do well on everyone’s favorite search engine.
What You Should Know
This update affects mobile search results only
Mobile results and desktop results are two different indices and this change affects only mobile. So, if there is a 0% chance that your audience will ever use a mobile device to try and find you or your services, you can completely omit this update. If so, please identify yourself in the comments as my imagination can’t seem to identify you.
You can test your site with Google tools
Unlike algo updates like Penguin and Panda, this one isn’t intended to blindside black and gray hat wearing webmasters, so this time around Google is handing over all the tools you need to gracefully cruise through this upcoming update (granted they do provide some portions of Webmaster Tools to address link profile issues). The mobile SEO guidelines is a good start and the Mobile-Friendly Test will let you check page by page. You can also use Google Webmaster Tools to see a broader view of all pages on your site that aren’t mobile-friendly (WMT -> Search Traffic -> Mobile Usability).
Your site may not be mobile-friendly because of
Viewport not configured
Content not sized to viewport
Small font size
Touch elements too close
(Way More Details Here)
This Algorithm Updates in Real Time
For algorithm updates like Penguin and Panda, you typically have to wait for the next update before a penalty is lifted. Thankfully, that’s not the case with the mobile update, meaning that once configured, your site will earn the status of mobile-friendly the next time Googlebot crawls your site.
Golden Nuggets from Google’s Recorded Hangout
I strongly recommend you take an hour to watch Google’s recorded Hangout, where two members of the Google Webmaster Team take the time to overview the upcoming update and field questions. Understanding that an hour is a lot of time these days, I compiled my highlights below.
Mobile-friendly is determined on a page by page basis
From what I heard in the hangout, there is no domain-wide mobile-friendly score that may affect your whole site. That means you don’t technically need to make every page in the bowels of your site mobile-friendly. You can instead prioritize the pages that you want to make mobile-friendly. Caveat: a user can still click to a mobile-friendly landing page and then navigate to a poor experience, so if I were writing an algorithm that could score overall domain mobile-friendliness (which it can) I would be very tempted to make that data a factor at some point.
If you have the Mobile-friendly tag, you’re good to go
The mobile-friendly tag seems to be a precursor signal of what pages will benefit and, conversely, the lack of which will indicate who might get pushed down in rankings.
Mobile-friendly designation is binary
Pages are designated either mobile-friendly or not. There is no, “kind of mobile-friendly.” I personally think this makes things easier.
Responsive is preferred, but not algorithmically
There are 3 basic ways to deliver mobile-friendly versions of your content, responsive web design, dynamic serving, and separate URLs. Google reps state that responsive design is their recommendation, but that is a subjective recommendation – any successful mobile configuration will perform equally well after the update. Responsive design is recommended because it’s typically a cleaner, more robust solution, but depending on your site, the other two may be a more effective way to get it done.
It’s just another piece of the algorithm
In response to a question about mobile-unfriendly sites losing rankings for their branded terms in mobile search, the Google team had an interesting response. Paraphrased, this mobile-friendly algorithm update is still weighted amongst a multitude of other factors that determine rankings. Included, is relevance, authority, engagement metrics, and all of our other favorite pieces of what makes a page rank where it does. So this update probably isn’t so drastic as to take branded rankings from uniquely named businesses, or even powerful enough to sink mobile rankings for big authoritative sites that may be slow to comply. However, I would count on this signal to be more than just a tie breaker in a situation of all else equal.
What You Should Do
Have a serious think about what mobile means for your business
I’ll caveat that mobile is growing, it will continue to grow, and every webmaster should be thinking about how to evolve to make the web mobile-friendly. That said, we have businesses to run and not everyone needs to pull the fire alarm and create a mobile-friendly site.
Find your percentage of mobile traffic (total and from organic search)
Ours are both about 14% (past 3 months), which I would call significant. That should be a good barometer for how important mobile usability is right now for your business. If you’re getting a high percentage of mobile traffic via organic search, you may be at risk of losing those numbers come April 21st (if you aren’t mobile-friendly).
Test your mobile experience in the wild
The next reco will be to use Google’s tools, but I always like to ground myself in the actual user experience first. Search your business, brand, or keywords you know you rank for and see if your listing has the “Mobile-friendly” tag. Then click through – is it easy to navigate? Is it easy to move through the funnel? I say let this be your first impression of your site on mobile because it will be a human interpretation and won’t be a rationalization based on Google’s OK. Their tool may be very advanced at poking common mobile usability holes but at the end of the day that’s just a proxy for actual user experience. Better yet, have a daughter, brother, stranger or other unaffiliated person try your site out and collect feedback.
Use Google’s tools to test
Ok, now you can use Google’s handy tools. They are basically pleading for adherence and are giving you the tools to fix mobile problems, so use them! Or please ask your trusted partners to use them for you. Like I mentioned previously, employ:
Plan steps to become mobile-friendly
For non-friendly sites, you’re probably thinking, April 21st? That’s less than a month! How the heck am I meant to have a mobile responsive site by then?
Depending on your present configuration, it’s probably not realistic to take a completely unfriendly site to mobile-friendly in 22 days. However, if your data and audience research shows that mobile usability is a big factor right now, that’s all the more priority this plan should hold. If you’re really in a pinch, I would take a look at top performing pages in desktop and prioritize them for mobile optimization, with the assumption being that these are likely also the pages that currently rank in mobile and stand to lose visibility.
That said, the best mobile usability strategy will not be a patchwork, but a long-term strategy for how your entire site can best serve a mobile user for the long term.
What GLSF is Going to Do
Thankfully our own recent web redesign is completely mobile responsive, and very well-timed given this upcoming update (no, we don’t know someone on Google’s Webmaster team). We should be locked and loaded with our own site, but there’s still plenty for us to think about for our clients’ sakes. In addition to letting them know about the update, we will be considering the role of mobile for all of our clients – especially SEO clients that we see significant mobile traffic from, but who don’t yet have the mobile-friendly tag.
We have also begun to plan reporting changes for clients that have a distinct mobile population, since keyword rankings may now be markedly different based on device. We have also internally identified clients that are in mobile-influenced industries and will plan to annotate the date of update to assess the impact. However, before any drastic changes we’re first going to let the news be known, encourage clients to start moving toward mobile-friendly, and wait to see the effects.
This algorithm update is different given the transparency and prior notification, but it is no break from the purpose of all algorithm updates that Google devises: to protect the integrity of their listings and present the best experience for the user. Don’t mistake this for something warm and fuzzy. If people can’t use Google to find the information they want on their new favorite mobile device, you can bet they’re going to go somewhere else – and then who is going to click on those Paid Search ads (which, by the way don’t seem to be held to any kind of mobile-friendly standard).
On this one the best practice is to comply, especially since a mobile-friendly web isn’t just what Google wants, it’s what consumers want, which means you should have mobile-friendly design on your punch list already. With any luck, this upcoming algorithm update can serve as just the right ammunition to get stakeholder and IT teams moving on your long-awaited mobile-friendly site.
And of course, if you need any help planning and launching your mobile-friendly site, Geary LSF is here to help with all of your Earned, Owned, and Paid digital marketing goals. If you need help with SEO or mobile web development to figure this new update out and make sure your business is poised to benefit, just give us a call.