Optimizing for Small Screens in 2016
The much feared Mobilegeddon proved to be one of the more survivable -geddons out there, but it still brought about a major change in people’s approaches to mobile optimization. Even if you did end up on the wrong side of the update, it just doesn’t seem as appropriate to say you were “hit” by it like it would with cuddlier-sounding, yet far more dangerous Penguin or Panda.
Even though the update wasn’t as devastating as some feared, a number of websites did experience a significant drop in results served on mobile devices. If the mobile traffic was close to being essential for your business, you couldn’t have missed the warnings brimming with precise and actionable info on why and how to prepare for the change.
However, even those who tried to adapt didn’t always come out on top. Fortunately for them, the real-time nature of the update and fact it targets specific pages instead of entire domains made getting out of disfavor far from impossible. In the aftermath of this major SEO event, this article will summarize what we’ve learned about it so far and what optimizing for mobile is likely going to be about in 2016.
1. A proper balance between mobile and desktop
When discussing the mobile optimization, it is important to consider the extent to which certain sites and businesses behind them have suffered because they focused too much on optimizing for mobile at the expense of the desktop experience they offer. This is just the cost people pay for working in an industry based on speculation. If there’s a novelty, more often than not, there’s panic about it.
This doomsayer-inspired approach to reporting does manage to get more attention to particular issues, sometimes reaching ears that would be deaf to a subtler warning. However, it also often causes massive overreactions, making people blindsided to the possible downsides of the adaptation. In other words, being an early adopter can be extremely beneficial, but before you sign the papers make sure that the progeny in question is not of Rosemary’s descent.
Simply put, some focused too much on finding ways to become more appealing to mobile users and, in doing so, forgot they still need to remain presentable to their desktop audiences.
You can find a lot of resources on how to optimize for mobile, but they rarely include warnings about negative effects this might have on other aspects of your online visibility. This article does a great job of explaining why some of the suggestions and numbers that are being circulated may not be as accurate or as relevant as you might think. Most notably, based on the results from comScore’s 2015 U.S. Digital Future in Focus study, the article suggests:
“Desktop is not losing ground — and that very slight decrease of 1% is much more likely correlated to mobile proximity than to a switch from desktop to mobile.”
What this means for your business is that making sure your site is properly optimized for mobile will at some point require you to make concessions. Sometimes, there is just no ideal merger of optimizing for desktop and mobile. Occasionally, the requirements of one will clash with that of the other and you’ll have to choose which to favor.
This can happen at each point from choosing between responsive, adaptive and separate URL configuration to deciding on the length and readability of the content you publish.
When making the choice, don’t get mesmerized by all the projections and statistics regarding the growth of mobile. In other words, don’t just plow on taking every chance to make your site mobile friendlier without carefully considering the impact the changes might have on the site’s performance or visibility on desktops.
Luckily, a significant portion of what seem to be best practices is equally valid regardless of the platform you are optimizing for. Making your pages load faster, for instance, can only improve user experience, regardless of the device. With this in mind, let’s take a look at what we know about optimizing for mobile at the end of 2015.
2. Choosing the right configuration type
While Google recommends choosing responsive design whenever possible, there are plenty of websites that could benefit more from one of the other two formats – adaptive or separate site configuration. Responsive sites certainly seem to be more likely to load properly on different devices than the other two types, but having to serve the same content to screens of different sizes often necessitates some kind of compromise. You can read more on the advantages and drawbacks of responsive design and whether it’s a ranking factor on Search Engine Land.
3. Getting the technical factors right
Although a proper SEO strategy extends beyond technical optimization, this aspect is still critical for getting great results. Correspondingly, mobile optimization involves tweaking some technical properties, out of which the most important ones are:
– Page loading speed has been a known and obvious factor for a while now and it has only increased in prominence in the context of mobile devices.
– Flash is done, let it go.
– The same guide prompts you to ensure that your video content is playable on all devices that might be used to access it and that you ensure that your site doesn’t return mobile only 404s.
4. Intuitive information architecture
If you are sufficiently familiar with how your target audience consumes content on different devices, you should be able to provide them with a shortest path to conversion. The configuration you have chosen will determine the amount of freedom you have with your site’s layout and organization.
For instance, if you’ve built a mobile specific site, you might be able to better tailor the pages for smaller screens and only display the ones that make sense in that environment. However, this form of flexibility comes with a price. You have to keep a close eye on your redirects, making sure that they lead to appropriate pages on the alternative version of the site. On the other hand, if a user is trying to find a page on your mobile site and it doesn’t exist, redirecting them to the corresponding page on your desktop site is always better than returning a 404.
5. Mobile content best practices
Optimizing content for mobile devices can be tricky, especially when it comes to multimedia elements. In relation to this, an after-update study by SearchMetrics compared top mobile and desktop results for a set of 10,000 general keywords, revealing that:
“While the average number of images per page is around nine in the desktop top 30, less than four images are found in the mobile SERPs on average.”
Considering the importance of page load time for user experiences, reducing the number of images in mobile-oriented websites helps with the page loading. However, images are not the only thing that should go. Namely, for an excellent mobile user experience, any kind of screen clutter is discouraged – from ads and unnecessary internal links to bulky navigation elements.
The same study found that the average length of articles published on the top ranking mobile websites has increased to more than 800 words per page since 2014, still keeping it much lower than the average length of content on desktop optimized sites. Surprisingly, high ranking mobile pages seem to be somewhat more demanding than their desktop counterparts when it comes to reading ease.
This implies that content should be highly concise and task oriented, with as few links as possible. Unordered lists seem to have become one of the most common methods of satisfying both the imperative for brevity and the need to convey complex and detailed information, and as such are often found in top ranking mobile sites. Videos seem to be popular for the same reason, but their resource demands sometimes exclude them as a viable solution.
6. The true value of backlinks and social media shares
While backlinks still have some weight for increasing the visibility of a page in mobile search, they seem to be far less important when it comes to traditional, desktop-oriented optimization. Social media signals seem to have taken their place as one of the more prominent factors in optimizing for mobile, which is hardly surprising when you consider the specificites of user behavior. Namely, mobile is found to be twice as social as desktop, which means that social strategies only matter more for mobile optimization.
Bundled together like this, the info presented above might seem slightly intimidating, but optimizing for mobile is far from being that complicated. Google even offers a convenient test meant to help you determine how mobile-friendly your pages are. The results will show you where there is some space for improvements and which aspects of your website conform to the specific requirements of the platform.
Finally, it could be said that most of the Mobilegeddon-related discussions have had an unnecessarily apocalyptic note, but the general idea remains. Optimizing your website for mobile screens will continue to grow in importance in the years to come, especially as the screens get smaller and attentions spans shorter.