Google’s upcoming mobile-friendly update that will start reshaping mobile search ecosystem as of April 21st has been a hot topic in the SEO circles for several weeks now. Although building a mobile website has been an imperative for webmasters over the last few years, a great number of websites still performs quite poorly on smartphones and tablets, which is why Google decided to take some harsher measures to ensure the best possible mobile experience.
Indeed, considering the fact that now majority of digital media consumption takes place on mobile devices (as revealed in comScore Mobile App Report last year), it’s unsurprising that the Google search team encourages the development of properly-built mobile websites. Namely, the company recently announced that they will be expanding the use of mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal, which would have a significant impact on search results.
Much like all the other Google’s updates, the anticipated algorithm is intended to enhance users’ digital experience by showing only the most relevant results for specific types of queries, this time in mobile search. However, this also implies changes and potential challenges for webmasters that may not currently have resources to adjust their websites to Google’s new demands. Therefore, the update is likely to bring a large-scale impact, which is exactly what triggers the curiosity of SEO professionals and webmasters alike.
Bigger than Panda and Penguin
After the years of accelerated mobile device adoption and mass changes in people’s browsing habits, online search can hardly resemble what it used to be few years ago. Correspondingly, Googlebots can no longer crawl the web the same way and, although the new algorithm is not expected to affect desktop searches whatsoever, its impact will definitely be huge. In fact, according to some estimates, it will be huger than that of either Panda or Penguin.
Namely, as suggested by Zineb Ait Bahjji at SMX Munich, the new update will affect almost five times more searches than Panda and as much as 12 times more than Penguin at its peak. Translated into digits by SEO Roundtable, this will account for 50% of searches changed, as opposed to Panda, which at its top affected 12% searches and Penguin that changed 4% of results.
Zineb from Google at #smx Munich about the mobile ranking update: is going to have a bigger effect than penguin and panda!
â€” Aleyda Solis (@aleyda) March 17, 2015
Clearly, 50% is indeed a huge number that is only to further establish mobile optimization as a priority for all webmasters. This is especially important since having a mobile friendly website means much more than simply obtaining a “mobile-friendly” tag’ it means redesigning all the pages so as to meet the expectations of mobile users and provide seamless experience regardless of the device or screen size they are coming from.
Therefore, while some webmasters may decide only to adjust specific pages to mobile screen sizes in order to satisfy minimum demands by Google, others will need to rethink their whole content
and design strategies. This means deciding on the way to build a mobile site, rearranging the most important elements and rethinking not only the contents, but also the overall context of digital strategies.
Getting started with a mobile website
Anyone with even a remote interest in web trends knows that Google has been encouraging creation of mobile sites for years now, which greatly influenced the overall web design and web marketing industries. Of course, mobile expansion has never been just a buzzword, but a mass trend whose importance influenced different aspects of digital marketing. We saw this when we talked about content marketing in the mobile era, for example, where we discussed why a greater focus should be put on understanding the way mobile users interact with website contents.
Building a mobile website is yet another activity that requires both time and strategic planning in order to deliver satisfying results. This is why Google created a guide to facilitate this undertaking, pointing to the advantages of responsive design over dynamic serving and mobile-only sites, which are two other methods webmasters have at their disposal. From Google developers guide, the differences between these are explained from the perspective of both search engine and end user.
Responsive design has been a favorite method of building a mobile website among webmasters for two major reasons: it greatly improves user experience since it neatly displays website contents across multiple screen sizes and is probably the best option for SEO. Namely, Google themselves recommended responsive design as the best possible way to retain the intuitive website structure and ensure its most important elements are shown properly regardless of the device a user is coming from.
However, one thing that could be considered a disadvantage of responsive design is the fact it requires extensive collaboration with web developers, which is usually something small organizations and one-man businesses find difficult to afford. Therefore, many website owners whose primary areas of interest are unrelated to IT may find this an investment they’d rather skip. Of course, for such website owners, there are other options to create a mobile-friendly website, which may not perform as well as responsive design in all the critical aspects, but which are useful for obtaining the mobile-friendly tag.
As opposed to the Separate URLs method that we’ll describe later, dynamic serving shows the same URL to both mobile and desktop users. This is a great option because it doesn’t mess up the URLs to show duplicated content to different devices, but it still requires changes in the HTML code, which is again something that may confuse the engine and result in inappropriate display.
Google’s guide on setting up Dynamic serving notes that with this option, it is not immediately apparent that HTML of the website is altered for mobile users, which is why a Vary HTTP header needs to be implemented to help both caching servers and Googlebot find the mobile contents easily. Essentially, this tells the browser that the contents displayed should depend upon a user agent whose detection may be tricky if some parts are improperly set. To help you cope with these, Google lists three most common errors you should avoid in order to eliminate all the possible disruptions.
The third method essentially refers to creating two distinct sites out of which one is shown to users coming from desktop platforms, while the other is intended for mobile users only. One of the reasons webmasters may choose this option is that it virtually requires no changes to the existing site and creates another one to fully support mobile devices.
The downside is obvious: you have two sites Google may find difficult to connect, which may also cause different issues concerning user experience. For example, a person browsing a site from a mobile platform decides to send its URL to a person who is currently on desktop. The other user won’t be able to see it at all, which is already enough for the negative user experience.
Therefore, responsive design has a variety of advantages over all the other methods and should be used whenever possible. Coupled with a carefully planned mobile content strategy, such a site should guarantee excellent performance on mobile platforms and better search visibility. SEO-wise, this is also a recommended method as it minimizes the risk of losing some SEO benefits as it may be the case with the other two techniques. This is also briefly commented on by Matt Cutts in the following video:
Avoiding mobile SEO mistakes
Outlined this way, the techniques for building a mobile website may appear quite simple, but there are, of course, multiple other aspects one needs to consider in order to do this successfully. Namely, after you’re sure your website meets all the technical requirements for being included in mobile search, you need to think about the ways you can better optimize it. Again, much like with traditional on-site optimization, you’ll need to avoid these seven most important problems:
- Unplayable content. Since some types of videos or animated content are not playable on mobile devices, Google recommends using HTML5 standards to enable such elements to work seamlessly on mobile platforms.
- Faulty redirects. Proper redirection of URLs is particularly important for websites that use separate URLs to serve specific versions of content on mobile and desktop devices. If this is the case with yours, you need to ensure that each mobile URL displays an appropriate mobile page instead of sending users to a homepage URL, which is one of the most common mistakes with this type of mobile websites.
- Mobile-only 404s. 404 errors are terrible for overall user experience for various reasons and, in case a website serves distinct URLs to different platforms, 404s can appear even if a certain page exists for desktop version and is inaccessible on mobile devices. This is why these issues need to be double-checked in Google Webmaster Tools.
- App download interstitials. Websites that promote native apps for mobile visitors need to pay attention to the way their banners are designed and displayed in order to avoid blocking users from completing specific tasks. Again, Google recommend a set of actions that need to be considered in order to come up with a proper form of app download interstitials.
- Irrelevant cross-links. Similar to faulty redirects and mobile-only 404s, irrelevant cross-links can send a visitor to an irrelevant page and this is why it is crucial that webmasters check whether all the links point to correct pages. This may be confusing for both users and the engine, which can cause your website to lose some SEO value.
These are probably the most frequent issues webmasters may face when trying to optimize their websites for mobile use and this is why this list is a handy resource for anyone preparing for the next update. Suffice to say, making any of these can negatively affect users’ perception not only of your website, but of your company as well, which is a topic we discussed earlier in our guide on SEO mistakes that can hurt your business. Furthermore, since the final goal of every website is to provide the greatest possible experience for end users, webmasters may consider developing a more detailed SEO strategy focused on this group of users specifically.
With over 60% of people now browsing the Internet from their palms, new strategies need to be defined for almost every aspect of online marketing, including search performance. Building an SEO-friendly mobile website, therefore, could be seen as a critical point for online expansion because it greatly determines how users will interact with a business or organization in general. Obtaining a mobile-friendly tag before April 21st should certainly be your priority in the next few weeks, but constantly providing excellent user experience on mobile devices is a long-term goal every webmaster needs to start thinking about now.
Hope this guide has helped you better understand the possible implications of the upcoming update. If you have any other thoughts regarding mobile optimization, feel free to share your views in comments!