Over the last few months, Google has been making announcements across all their channels about upcoming changes to mobile search results. As of April 21, 2015, Google officially updated algorithms to focus on serving more mobile-friendly search results. An official announcement was made in a blog post on February 26, 2015, but this upcoming change has been alluded to at various conferences and events over the past year. Google’s other major algorithm updates (Penguin, Panda, and Hummingbird) were never introduced so far in advance. With this mobile algorithm update, however, Google has been trying to give as much notice as possible to webmasters and site owners so they can adequately prepare for it.
Notifications have been showing in mobile search results and across some of Google’s blogs and other resources.
Since early 2014, webmasters have also been receiving notifications in Google Webmaster Tools if their websites were not mobile friendly. The screenshot below is from Google Webmaster Tools:
In the official blog post, Google emphasized the two important changes that are coming:
More mobile-friendly websites in search results
Starting April 21, 2015, 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 search results. Consequently, users will find it easier to get relevant, high-quality search results that are optimized for their devices.
More relevant app content in search results
We will begin to use information from indexed apps as a factor in ranking for signed-in users who have the app installed. As a result, we may now surface content from indexed apps more prominently in search. (This change began on February 26, 2015).
For most website owners, the change relating to more mobile-friendly websites in search results will be most important. Google has provided numerous resources to help Webmasters and website owners make their sites mobile-friendly. This includes features and tools within Google Webmaster Tools itself, as well as external tools such as the ‘Mobile-Friendly Test’. This test will analyze a URL and report if the page has a mobile-friendly design.
What to do
So what can the average site owner to avoid getting penalized or losing traffic due to the upcoming algorithm change? Well, unless you are a whiz at web design and development, not a lot — it’s best to leave it up to the professionals and make a few updates to your site to get it up to modern standards, while ensuring it is mobile-friendly. Depending on how much traffic a website receives via mobile, this could be either a high or low priority.
Testing, testing, testing
In anticipation of the algorithm change, 6S Marketing ran a test. We registered a domain (6s-testing.com) and created a website using an older version of a WordPress template. Unlike our official website, it was not mobile-friendly. In the example on the left, note how our actual website is marked as ‘Mobile-friendly’ when viewed from a smartphone. The 6s-testing.com website does not have this classification in the example on the right.
The 6S Marketing website was redesigned three years ago using responsive web design. This is the recommended method for designing a website to ensure it is viewable across all devices — desktop, tablet, and mobile. Responsive design essentially serves all devices with the same code that seamlessly adjusts for screen size. There are other methods for creating mobile website versions, such as dynamic serving and separate URLs, but these are outdated procedures. If you are going to optimize for mobile, it is best to go with the responsive route.
Tools to test mobile-friendliness
We experimented with our test site using Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test tool. The test confirmed that our site was ‘Not mobile-friendly’ and listed the reasons why. It also provided links to other resources to help make the site mobile-friendly.
We verified our test website in Google Webmaster Tools and checked the ‘Mobile Usability’ report. This informed us that there were issues with mobile friendliness, along with resources on how to fix the problems:
Another Google Developers tool, PageSpeed Insights, offers detailed information on mobile usability issues and corresponding solutions.
We examined all the recommendations across the tools and made the easy decision to change the WordPress template, or theme, to one that had a responsive design. This was easy to accomplish in the backend as we didn’t customize our basic theme — in reality, there are multiple factors to consider, and a lot of design and development work will be involved. After we changed our WordPress template, we ran it through Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test tool again. This time, we got the result we wanted:
A few days later, our test site received the ‘Mobile-friendly’ prefix in Google’s search results:
Google Webmaster Tools’ Mobile Usability report also gave our test site a clean bill of health:
There have been a lot of doomsday-style blog posts about what will happen to websites that are not mobile-friendly. While Google indicated in a blog post that mobile-friendliness will be used as a ranking signal — and that this update will have a significant impact on search results, it won’t stop showing sites that are not mobile-friendly. To quell the doomsday conversions taking place across forums and on Google+, John Mueller — a Webmaster Trends Analyst and one of Google’s top authorities on such matters — said, “We’re not going to be removing sites from search just because they’re not mobile-friendly.”
As a precursor to the algorithm update, another blog post from April 16 announced changes to how Google presents website URLs in search results. An emphasis was also placed on their support for additional schema.org structured data signals.
So if you are a non-techy website owner, what should you do? First of all, don’t panic. Follow these steps:
- Use the Mobile-Friendly Test to check if your website is mobile-friendly. If it is, then you should be all good.
- If your site is not mobile-friendly, check your Google Analytics account and see how much of your average monthly traffic is from mobile users.
- If you get a lot of traffic via users on mobile, then it’s a good time to think about getting your website redesigned and developed in a way that is mobile-friendly and responsive.
- Ensure that you stay up to speed on the latest Google algorithm updates and are aware of best quality and content practices when it comes to search (or hire the services of a good Digital Marketing agency)!
We would love to hear about your experience preparing for this update, whether you have been able to make your website mobile-friendly or not. Share your thoughts in the comments below.