What Is This Update?
At the end of February, Google announced that they will be rolling out an algorithm update specifically aimed at improving mobile search results by using its mobile-friendliness determination as a ranking factor.
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.
In the past, Google merely recommended—perhaps strongly at times—that brands utilize mobile- friendly user interfaces by adding different labels that let users know if a site was mobile friendly, slow loading on mobile devices, or if mobile redirects might take the user to a different landing page than the one ranking.
However, while Google has been giving some explicit directions on how to implement mobile-friendly deployments for some time now, they have not publicly stated that mobile friendliness would be a ranking factor until now.
According to eMarketer, 2015 is the first year in which they predict mobile searches will surpass desktop searches in terms of volume. By 2016, they predict that mobile searches will be 32% greater than desktop searches. Statistics like those make it pretty easy to see why Google would be making this update now.
When it comes to their search results, Google has always placed a high priority on not just providing the best results, but also providing the best user experience for their searches, as evidenced by the labels they placed on mobile results in the past. Using mobile friendliness as a ranking factor now is really the logical next step.
What Do We Know?
Google has been almost unprecedentedly open about this update and has provided webmasters and SEOs with a surprising amount of information on this update so that everyone can be prepared. Here’s the CliffsNotes version.
- This update will begin rolling out on April 21st and should take a week or so to complete, meaning it will be the end of the month, possibly the beginning of May until the full impact is seen in the SERPs.
- Only mobile rankings for smartphone users will be impacted; rankings for users on tablet devices will not.
- This update will be implemented on a page-by-page basis, not domain wide. So, if the majority of your website is mobile friendly and you just have some legacy content that is not, only that legacy content should have the potential to be negatively affected.
- There will be no scale of mobile friendliness used in determining if a page is impacted. A page will either be mobile friendly or not in terms of determining whether or not its ranking is affected by this update.
- App Indexing will be part of the algorithm. This will allow Google to index apps just as they do with webpages and websites. This will be exclusive for websites that are connected to Android apps and this content will be surfaced for users who are signed in and have the app installed.
- This update will run in real time, unlike some past Google updates such as Panda and Penguin which are refreshed on a (sometimes) regular basis. This means that if your site is not mobile friendly now and you make it mobile friendly, you will in theory only need to wait for Google to recrawl your site to start to see the benefits.
- Google recently said that branded keyword rankings most likely won’t be impacted that much, if at all, if a brand is not mobile friendly. So, even if your website is not mobile friendly today, it is not likely you will see much, if any drop off in your brand-focused keywords.
What Does Google Consider Mobile Friendly?
There are three different mobile deployments that Google considers mobile friendly:
- Responsive Design – Google’s preferred deployment. With responsive design, a user will see the same content on a webpage regardless of what device they view it on—desktop, tablet, smartphone—but the UI will be different based on the device. The UI will “respond” to the screen size the browser detects and display the content appropriately.
- Dynamic Serving – With this method, the device type is detected and different content is displayed based on that device type. The URL remains the same, but the content is different.
- Separate URLs – The original mobile-friendly deployment, this method involves setting up a separate mobile site from the desktop site—almost always an m.domain.com. In this case, the URLs and the content are different based on device type.
If your site does not follow one of those deployments, chances are that it might not be mobile friendly.
How Do I Know if My Website is Mobile Friendly?
There are a few ways to determine whether or not your site is mobile friendly. First, there is the official Google tool. With this tool you can cut and paste any URL and find out pretty quickly if Google finds the page to be mobile friendly and if they don’t, they’ll tell you exactly why not.
There is also a great Chrome browser extension that you can download which will analyze a page as it loads and let you know if it’s mobile friendly without ever having to go directly to the tool.
There are many other tools available that will show you how your website renders on different devices, but unless the tool explicitly states that it uses Google’s mobile friendly score, you would be wise to use one of the two methods above to ensure that you’re testing your site with the proper ones.
What if My Website Isn’t Mobile Friendly?
If your site is not currently mobile friendly, you still have some time to make it so before the update begins rolling out, but time is running out. If your website uses a common CMS such as Drupal or WordPress, there are mobile-friendly templates and plugins that can be implemented pretty quickly.
If you are a larger brand that leverages an enterprise CMS, a quick redesign by April 21st is likely not possible. In that case, creating a mobile-friendly website should be one of your top priorities in your next redesign. Mobile search demand continues to grow and not having a mobile-friendly website is going to place you at a competitive disadvantage.
For brands that won’t have a mobile-friendly website by April 21st or anytime shortly after, you should consider increasing your mobile paid search spend in order to compensate for any losses in website traffic following the algorithm update.
What Data Should You Look at Moving Forward?
Whether or not your site is currently mobile friendly, you are going to want to closely monitor your organic search metrics both pre- and post-rollout of this update to determine how much your site has been impacted; but what specifically should you be looking at?
- Desktop vs. Mobile Traffic – Check your web analytics to see how your mobile organic search traffic changes starting April 21st. Drill down into the exact pages that are receiving traffic to see if any specific pages are affected more than others—especially if you know that some of your pages are not mobile friendly.
- Desktop vs. Mobile Clicks & Impressions – In Google Webmaster Tools you can use the filters option to see your mobile performance, and track changes in clicks and impressions for both keywords and landing pages for mobile.
- Desktop vs. Mobile Keyword Rankings – If you are using a rank checking tool such as BrightEdge, which allows you to track rankings for mobile and desktop searches separately, track those keywords on both devices before the launch in order to see which keywords have been impacted the most for you.
When looking at all of these metrics, it’s important to compare your metrics to both pre- and post-April 21st as well as year over year in order; this removes any fluctuations in traffic that could be occurring due to any seasonality in the search volume for the keywords that deliver traffic to your website.
As I mentioned earlier, if you are seeing significant drops in mobile organic search traffic and know that you won’t have a mobile-friendly web deployment in action anytime soon, you should consider increasing your paid search spend to compensate for the loss.
Uncovering New Opportunities
While everyone likes to focus on all of the potential negative outcomes with algorithm updates, there are always positive opportunities that algorithms can bring as well. For instance, if your site is mobile friendly, you could not only stand to gain search traffic and win a competitive advantage over other brands, but you could also find you have some new opportunities as well in terms of keywords that have moved into a position where they can now be focused on with your SEO efforts
Whenever an update this large is rolled out, it’s very important to keep an open mind and to fully assess your entire SEO campaign afterwards; this enables you to make any necessary changes to either address your losses or capitalize on new opportunities you didn’t previously have.
Good luck to everyone in surviving the “Mobilepocalypse”!