On 26th Feb, Google’s Webmaster Central Blog published a post that caused many website owners to run for the hills screaming about the impending apocalypse:
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.
Google Webmaster Central Blog
Why was this such a big deal and what does it mean for you?
Why this is a big (huge) deal
Google has never announced so publicly an algorithm update before, and it’s been previously unthinkable that they’d even give a specific date. The Penguin and Panda updates saw a lot of site’s ranking destroyed (and businesses too) and yet these were unannounced. So the fact that Google gave website owners two full months warning on this one indicates that the effects are going to be very significant.
Google employee Zineb Ait Bahajji stated at SMX Europe that the update would have more of an impact on search results than Penguin and Panda. Just how big, we won’t know until the day arrives but reading between the lines (as one must when it comes to Google announcements), we can make some deductions:
What this update will likely mean
We expect the 21st April update to give much greater prominence to mobile friendly websites in search results. This ‘greater prominence’ will likely come in two flavours:
- Ranking increases for sites with positive mobile usability metrics (low bounce rate, high time on page, high conversion rates etc)
- Ranking decreases for sites with negative usability metrics (high bounce rate on mobile, low TOP, low conversions etc)
If we take a look at two examples from our own Analytics portfolio, we can see the sort of user behaviour that Google is likely to consider penalty-worthy:
In some markets, we’re seeing as much as 65% of traffic coming from mobile so it makes sense that mobile usage data impacts search results, at least for mobile searches.
How Does Google Qualify ‘Mobile Friendly’?
Over the past few months, we’ve seen the number of mobile friendly warning messages from Google to site owners increase significantly, and this is a likely predictor of the new algorithm’s behaviour. We expect that in addition to looking at statistics as we have above, Google will be using some specific measures of a site’s likely mobile friendliness including:
- Does the site steer clear of any non-mobile technology (e.g. Flash)?
- Is the text readable without users having to pinch and zoom?
- Does the window resize so that users don’t have to scroll horizontally (this is behaviour that we have not been conditioned in)
- Are buttons and links far enough apart that big fat fingers can tap them without accidentally clicking the wrong one
Sites that fall foul of any of these criteria have been receiving warning messages, and sites compliant with these criteria have noticed a little mobile friendly link in mobile Google SERPs.
Batten Down the Hatches! How to Prepare
If you’re not currently mobile friendly, time is really running out. You have two options:
A Separate Mobile Site
You can build a separate mobile website that is triggered when the visitor has a smaller screen. This is a feasible option and is sensible for anyone that has a very complex main site, or whose mobile site traffic has a very different outcome than their desktop traffic. The downside is that you now have two websites to maintain, and the user experience on mid-size devices is suited to neither the mobile site nor the desktop. The advantage is that it can be quite straightforward to ‘bolt on’, even if you have no dev control over your main site.
‘Responsivise’ Your Main Site
Making your site responsive (responsivisation is a 100% legit word found in the Ninja Dictionary) can also be relatively simple but requires specialist developer skill and is not a job for the amateur. Responsive behaviour means that the site responds to different size screens by rearranging its elements to scroll vertically and menus to change form so as to be finger-friendly. Long term it’s the best option as it means you have one site to maintain, one set of pages to optimise and mid-size screens can be catered for.
What NOT To Do
Whatever you do, all indications suggest that this is not one to just sit tight and ride out. It’s unlikely that Google will ever go back from Mobilegeddon once it’s rolled out so if mobile visibility is an important component of your future success, do not bury your head in the sand!
If you’d like to talk to us about preparing your site for the April 21st update, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org with the headline URGENT! HELP ME PLEASE!