Starting April 21, 2015, Google’s mobile search results will penalize non-mobile-friendly websites. So if you’ve been putting off “going mobile” with your website, it’s officially time to make it happen.
In case you haven’t noticed, use of mobile devices for visiting websites has grown substantially over the last few years. In the US, estimates now show that somewhere around 35% of all web usage happens on Smartphones or tablets. You can expect this percentage to grow — Google definitely does.
Google has recognized that when people search on a mobile device, they’re more satisfied by results that take them to websites optimized for mobile viewing. So now, Google is making “mobile-friendly” a major factor in search results made on mobile devices.
That means if you count on traffic from search engines, and your website is not mobile-friendly, this update will likely have a large negative impact on your business.
The Google “Mobile-Friendly” Algorithm Update
From Google’s Webmaster Central Blog:
Starting April 21, we will be expanding our use of mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal. This change will affect mobile searches in all languages worldwide and will have a significant impact in our search results. Consequently, users will find it easier to get relevant, high quality search results that are optimized for their devices.
In other words, websites that are not “Mobile-Friendly” will be penalized when people perform searches on their mobile devices.
Up until now, Google has generally delivered the same search results, regardless of what type of device is used. A website with a #1 ranking shows up at the top of both desktop and mobile searches. After this month’s update, that formerly #1 search-ranked website — now deemed “mobile-unfriendly” by Google — will no longer appear at the top for any search done on a mobile device.
A few key points to keep in mind about this mobile-friendly, algorithm update:
- It affects searches done on mobile devices only — not searches done on a laptop or desktop computer.
- It is applied on a page by page basis, not site-wide, so it may be that some of your pages will be affected while others won’t.
- Unlike some past algorithm updates — such as Panda and Penguin — where you were left to guess how the new algorithm would view your website, this time Google is telling you, in advance, exactly how they’ll view your site after the update.
- This evaluation of “mobile-friendliness” is done not by humans, but by Google’s computers, so it’s possible (though unlikely) for a website to look fine on mobile devices, but still be dinged by Google.
Some Context for This Latest Google Algorithm Update
Google understands that the use of mobile devices is growing, and that people use search engines on mobile devices just like they do on their desktops and laptops. However, when people are searching with their smartphone, does it make sense to show them the same search results as when they’re at a full-sized monitor?
Google’s answer, apparently, is “No.”
What Google has found is this: how information is presented matters as much as the quality of the information itself. So — even if a website offers great information that matches a user’s search — if viewing that information is painful because the website doesn’t provide a “mobile-friendly” experience, then its value to the searcher is greatly reduced.
Have you ever tapped on a Google Search result on your mobile phone, only to find yourself looking at a page where the text was too small, the links were tiny, and you had to scroll sideways to see all the content? This usually happens when the website has not been optimized to be viewed on a mobile phone. This can be a frustrating experience for our mobile searchers.
– Google Webmaster Central Blog
For the last year or so, Google has been developing and testing software that can look at the code of a website and determine whether or not the website has been optimized for mobile devices. If you’ve used Google search on a mobile device lately, you may have noticed that they’ve started adding “Mobile-friendly” labels to the results.
Tracking this “Mobile-Friendly” label experiment has proven to Google that helping searchers find “mobile-friendly” results is a winning strategy: mobile searchers prefer “mobile-friendly” search results.
Therefore, the next logical step is to show them only “mobile-friendly” search results. And that is exactly what this new “mobile-friendly” algorithm is going to do.
This “mobile-friendly” algorithm update is Google’s official move in the direction of separate mobile and desktop search algorithms. Right now Google is focused on making a simple “yes or no” determination of mobile-friendliness, but once that takes hold, expect Google to start making qualitative assessments of websites on how “mobile-friendly” they are.
What Is “Mobile-Friendly”?
Essentially it means that when users pull up a website on their Smartphones, they don’t see a miniature version of the website with text the size of a flea, and they must zoom in and swipe side-to-side to surf the site.
New Rule: If you have to zoom in, it’s not mobile-friendly.
Image via Google’s Mobile-Friendly Guide
There are three primary “mobile-friendly” website styles:
A) Responsive Design
For newer websites, the trend is toward building one website that automatically scales its design to the screen size of the visitor’s device.
Image via Google’s Mobile-Friendly Guide
B) Separate Mobile and Desktop Versions
Many business have built separate, mobile-specific versions of their websites, then have added scripts to: 1) detect when a mobile visitor is trying to visit their website, and 2) redirect such visitors to the mobile-specific website.
Image via Google’s Mobile-Friendly Guide
C) Mobile-Specific Theme
Using some of the same technology that allows for responsive design, websites whose content is stored in a database can simply tell web browsers to switch to a simpler, mobile-friendly theme when visitors are on mobile devices.
Image via Google’s Mobile-Friendly Guide
How to Find Out if Your Website Will Be Affected
Google wants to help you get your website mobile-friendly and has provided tools to help you both to find out if your website will be affected, and to provide information on how to fix any “mobile-friendly” problems.
1) Google Webmaster Tools Mobile Usability Tool
Is your website set up to use Google Webmaster Tools? If so, there’s a specific tool to evaluate the mobile-friendliness of your entire website. (If not, jump to step 2, below.)
Simply go to “Mobile Usability” in “Search Traffic.” There, you’ll see specific mobile usability problems and which pages they affect. It also features a nice graph that tracks mobile usability errors over time; so, as you fix things, you’ll see the performance improvements.
2) Google’s Single-Page Mobile-Friendly Test
Your next step is to use the Mobile-Friendly Test. This test is available to anyone and does not require using Google Webmaster Tools.
This test will tell you definitively whether or not Google judges the pages of your website as mobile-friendly.
Go to the page provided by Google: Mobile-Friendly Test
Here, you just enter a URL for a web page, and the test will tell you whether that page passes Google’s mobile-friendly test.
If your page passes, you’ll get a green “Awesome! This page is mobile-friendly.” banner. If not, you’ll see a red “Not mobile-friendly” banner. If pages on your website are failing, then you’ll likely suffer negative mobile search rankings once the update goes into effect.
If the page is found to be “Not mobile-friendly,” you’ll also see some reasons from Google detailing why the page failed the test.
Top Reasons Pages Fail
- Text too small to read — Visitors have to pinch and zoom.
- Mobile viewport not set — There is a mobile-friendly version, but the trigger to switch the mobile user to that version isn’t working.
- Links too close together — On mobile devices, visitors are tapping with fingers and thumbs, so extra space around links is needed so users don’t inadvertently hit wrong links.
- Content wider than screen — Visitors have to swipe left and right in order to see all of what’s on a page.
- Test multiple pages on your website. The first page you’re likely to test is your website’s homepage, but don’t stop there. Remember, Google’s mobile-friendly algorithm update is applied page by page, rather than sitewide. Just because your homepage passes the test doesn’t mean the rest of your website is mobile-friendly (and vice versa). So, also test a few inner pages, like your “Contact” page, “Service” or “Product” page, and “About” page.
If Your Website Passes
If you’ve run your website through Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test and it’s passed, congratulations. You don’t need to do anything — not right away, that is. In fact, you may even experience a boost to your search engine rankings, as your competitors with non-mobile-friendly websites could drop below you.
As I suggested earlier though, this first “yes or no” algorithm test is likely just the beginning for Google’s commitment to mobile-friendly search. Now, we can expect them to focus on other factors that affect the mobile experience, such as page speed and mobile SEO.
- And remember to actually go through your website on different mobile devices and really take a look at the user experience. Helpful as they are, Google’s tools can’t show you how attractive your site looks on mobile screens or whether the navigation path works smoothly and intuitively.
- Check your stats to learn whether mobile visitors are bouncing at a higher rate than desktop users. Check out how and how easily mobile visitors navigate through your website? Do certain pages create problems that don’t seem to affect desktop visitors?
If Your Website Doesn’t Pass
If your website doesn’t pass, you’ve got a few short term fixes:
- If your website is built on an established software platform, such as WordPress, you may simply be able to switch to a newer mobile-responsive theme or set up a third-party plugin to enable a “mobile-friendly version” of your website. You will lose some visual customization, but as I said, it’s a short-term fix. Google has provided a dedicated guide that shows how to do this for the most popular website-building-software platforms. If your software platform is not listed, go to their website or contact them to learn what options are available. Please Note: if your website has lots of plugins and customizations, this may turn out not to be a viable option.
- If your website was custom built and the content is stored in a database, check with your web developer to see what it takes for them to make your website mobile-friendly. Perhaps they can throw together a bare-bones, separate, mobile version.
Remember, both of these options are short-term and are offered as band-aids.
For the long term, it’s time to start thinking about investing in a responsive website or, at the very least, a mobile specific website.
Google defines responsive web design as an “approach…that serves the same HTML code on the same URL regardless of the users’ device (desktop, tablet, mobile, non-visual browser), but can render the display differently (i.e., “respond”) based on the screen size.” Google recommends building your website using responsive design, rather than creating a separate, dumbed-down mobile site.
While a redesign of your entire website is more daunting and potentially more expensive than simply building a simple, separate mobile website, responsive design offers some huge advantages.
Here’s what Google says (taken directly from their Mobile Guide — Responsive Web Design):
We [Google] recommend using responsive web design because it:
- Makes it easier for users to share and link to your content with a single URL.
- Helps Google’s algorithms accurately assign indexing properties to the page rather than needing to signal the existence of corresponding desktop/mobile pages.
- Requires less engineering time to maintain multiple pages for the same content.
- Reduces the possibility of the common mistakes that affect mobile sites.
- Requires no redirection for users to have a device-optimized view, which reduces load time. Also, user agent-based redirection is error-prone and can degrade your site’s user experience (see “Pitfalls when detecting user agents” section for details).
- Saves resources when Googlebot crawls your site. For responsive web design pages, a single Googlebot user agent only needs to crawl your page once, rather than crawling multiple times with different Googlebot user agents to retrieve all versions of the content. This improvement in crawling efficiency can indirectly help Google index more of your site’s content and keep it appropriately fresh.
Separate Mobile and Desktop Versions
You can build another simpler version of your website, one designed just for viewing on mobile devices. Then, using available software, your website can determine whether or not a visitor approaches your website on a mobile device and, if they do, automatically route them to the mobile-friendly version.
When browsing on a mobile device, have you ever seen a “Visit Desktop Version” link at the bottom of a web page? If so, there’s a separate mobile version of that website.
But, caution: this method has some serious drawbacks, such as:
- Two sets of design and code must be maintained.
- Content updates must be duplicated in each place. (Although, if your website is database driven, this might not be such a big deal.)
- Mobile-specific websites have separate URLs from the non-mobile version of that site, which means:
- Links from other websites to inner pages on the desktop website won’t automatically go to the same location on the mobile website (at least not without a lot of work).
- There’s a high potential for irrelevant cross-links, i.e., internal links that take the visitor to the wrong version of the website.
- Search engines will potentially consider the mobile-specific version of pages to be duplicate content and thus penalize your website in both mobile and desktop search results.
Google recommends building your website using responsive design. This entire article is ultimately about pleasing the search engines, isn’t it? So, if Google — the “Kleenex” of search engines — offers an opinion on how to make your website mobile-friendly, we believe you should listen.
I hope this article will help you better understand and prepare for Google’s April 21st “Mobile-Friendly” algorithm update.
The purpose of the article is not to scare you into dropping everything to somehow make your website mobile-friendly immediately. While it technically is possible to do so in some specific cases, it would likely be unrealistic. But here’s the bottom line: it’s time to invest in making your website mobile-customer-friendly.
Google’s “mobile-friendly” update is intended to please mobile users. Because they’re a large and growing part of our audience, it’s an update that makes good business sense.