On April 21, 2015, Google changed the rules for mobile search in a big, big way. For the very first time, the search engine takes the mobile-friendliness of a website into account as a ranking factor in search results. In Google’s own words:
“This change will affect mobile searches in all languages worldwide and will have a significant impact in our search results.” - Google Webmaster Central Blog
But what does “mobile-friendly” really mean now?
In the past, Google preferred sites that followed certain best practices on mobile devices (like avoiding the use of Flash) and last year began adding labels in search results that told you whether or not a site was mobile-friendly. However, content was far-and-away still king of search when it came to rankings. If your content matched what a mobile user was looking for, you were pretty well set. This has changed. Content is still very important, but Google is also now looking at the overall design and user experience a visitor will get on mobile. So, the best SEO for mobile devices means adhering to some best practices, such as ensuring links aren’t too close together (so wayward thumbs won’t click the wrong one) and text is appropriately sized.
So what are my options for going mobile?
Actually, let’s back up. First, it’s a good idea to test out your existing site using Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test to see if you’re already making the cut. If yes, great! If not, we’ll talk about your options.
There are essentially two paths to getting good with Google. You can create a separate mobile website (m.domain), which is linked with your regular one, or create an entirely new responsive website that works across desktop, tablet, and mobile. (Technically, there’s a third option called dynamic serving, but for all intents and purposes, it works just like a responsive website.)
How do I decide between mobile-only and responsive?
This depends on your given situation. Responsive is certainly the way of the future for a variety of reasons. There’s one URL, only one place to go to check analytics, it gives you the ability to edit specifically for tablet, etc. If you’re ready to revamp your entire web presence, responsive is definitely recommended. This can be done yourself through the use of a website builder, hand-coded if you’re a bit of a tech wiz, or farmed out to a professional. It really all depends on what’s most comfortable and convenient for you.
But what if you’re not ready to redo your entire website? If this is the case, creating a separate mobile website will works just fine for the April 21 update. It’s relatively quick and painless to do, and there are tools available online to help you out. Once the site is created, you simply need to take a small bit of code and place it on your existing desktop site. When someone finds you in a mobile search, they will simply be redirected to the mobile version. Google Mobile-Friendly Test = Passed.
Does this update affect my site’s ranking when it’s searched for from a desktop?
Short answer–no. These new ranking requirements only apply to searches that are performed on smartphones. Your standard website shouldn’t see any issues when it’s searched for from a desktop computer. However, there is one small caveat here I’d like to point out.
If you do create a website that delivers a great experience on every device, in all likelihood, your bounce rate (the amount of people who land on the website and immediately leave) will be lower. A low bounce rate is a good indicator to Google that your website is providing users with a top-notch experience, and this can help improve your website’s overall SEO. So, though you won’t be penalized in desktop searches for not being mobile-friendly, you actually could get a bump in the rankings if you are.
So what’s Google cooking up next?
Honestly and truthfully, nobody knows. But it’s a fair bet we can expect to be headed down the mobile rabbit hole a bit more in the coming months. Google has made it very clear that what they care about on mobile is content and a good user experience, which makes sense. Some estimates place mobile’s piece of the overall internet traffic pie at over 60 percent.
So going forward, try to focus on creating that dynamite experience visitors will want to engage with. This means avoiding things like full-page interstitial ads and videos that play automatically below the fold. If you create a great user experience you put yourself in a good position to deal with Google’s new mobile search algorithm as it scales out and capture more customers.
So to sum up…
- Google’s mobile search update took effect April 21, 2015.
- If you’re not mobile-friendly, you’re likely taking a hit in your mobile search ranking.
- You can use Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test to check your site’s current mobile status.
- A separate mobile website or responsive site will both pass Google’s mobile-friendly test and will save your search ranking.
- The update doesn't penalize your site in desktop searches, but making your site mobile-friendly could help improve your overall SEO ranking.
- Try to create a site that delivers the best mobile experience possible, because we can probably expect to see more moves like this from Google soon.
Itai Sadan is the CEO of Duda, an industry-leading website builder, that helps small businesses connect with potential customers anywhere, anytime and anyplace. Itai's mobile web and small business website expertise has been cited by USA Today, Website Magazine, The Huffington Post, Mobile Entertainment and more. He speaks regularly on the local, mobile and social space at industry events hosted by such organizations as BIA Kelsey, Constant Contact, Local Search Association and the Israeli Conference.