Google’s announcement in February 2015 that mobile-friendly web pages will be ranked higher from the 21st April 2015 has not come as a surprise to many. Over the previous six months, strong hints had been a regular feature of Google releases, leaving SEO and web designers in little confusion as to the added importance that mobile-friendly web pages would have. Google’s announcement has finally cleared up the specifics; as specific as Google’s announcements about their page ranking algorithms ever are.
Get a Mobile-Friendly Website!
If the preceding hints were missed, this latest announcement must not be ignored. Efforts must be directed towards making all web pages mobile-friendly if a reasonable, result in driving page ranking is to be maintained.
Details of Google’s Mobile-Friendly Announcement
The presumption in favour of mobile-friendly web pages takes two distinct routes. Firstly, starting from the 21st April 2015, searches from smartphones prioritised results that are considered by Google to be “mobile-friendly”. With a significant increase in the number of searches from mobile devices looking only to increase, the importance of ensuring that you are not lowly ranked on mobile searches is clear. Searches on mobile devices will increasingly return results that are optimised for mobile devices.
Secondly, Google will start to use App Indexing information, listing apps alongside and in the same as websites for mobile users. This allows for apps to be marketed to a much wider field of users, with deep links to the app appearing in Google search results. These two distinct changes from the world’s largest search engine are the largest algorithm change in over a decade, further promoting the move to mobile device-led internet. The news is a clear warning shot to any website that is not yet mobile-friendly. Ensure your site is up to scratch by 21st April or face a drop in ranking.
The importance of Mobile Friendly Website in Google Rankings
Over the course of the last 10 years, Google ranking has become a key aspect in successful web design. There has been much academic interest in cracking Google’s ranking algorithms, and in return, Google’s algorithms have evolved to penalise sites that are wantonly trying to fool them. It is a game of cat and mouse that has created an entire industry, but the best sites, and the sites that are rewarded most by search engine rankings are those that develop a genuine strategy of appeal above algorithm breaking. Now, with over 50% of Google searches being generated by mobile devices (a trend that looks set only to increase), mobile-friendly web design is essential for high search engine page rank.
Google’s dedication to the mobile device is clear, and those designing or updating sites must take genuine consideration of the mobile market, with Google even sending “mobile usability” warnings to pages that are not mobile-friendly. Whilst these warnings do not carry with them a ranking penalty, it is certain that mobile-friendly web pages are rewarded with higher rankings, a statement made by Google themselves in March 2015, who will “use mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal” from April 21st 2015.
Mobile Friendly Web Design – Google’s Tips
Google has accompanied the announcement that mobile-friendly websites will gain a higher page rank with three tools for page designers. Firstly, on verifying a site through Webmaster Tools, Google will automatically publish a warning to designers of pages that are not mobile-friendly. This is the first clear signal that a page will no longer succeed under the new Google algorithms. The warning will come in the form of an email from Google, stating both which pages were deemed to be ‘mobile unfriendly’, and a list of suggestions to rectify the situation.
On passing this first flag, developers can then go into specifics by using the newly developed Google Mobile-Friendly Test. Enter a URL into the search box, and the test will set the ‘Google bots’ to review the page and provide a simple ‘yes or no’ answer as to whether the page is mobile-friendly. At this stage, there is a range of useful general hints and tips into the specific areas where the mobile user experience is often reduced by complexities such as unplayable content, blocked image files, and 404 errors.
Once the URL is checked for these issues, and any found have been rectified, the Google Mobile Usability Report can further identify areas in which a particular website may not display as desired on a mobile device. Released in October 2014, the Mobile Usability Report is part of the Google Webmaster’s Tool kit, the report will detail factors such as text size, flash content, and even the special effectiveness of links (Are your links too close together to work on a small screen?).
The most common problems (as detected by a Googlebot) are;
- the site uses software not commonly found on mobile devices – the most regular being Flash.
- The site’s text size is too small for a mobile device, without zooming.
- The page size is too large to be seen on a mobile screen without scrolling horizontally.
- The page has links that are too close together to be accurately and independently selected by a thumb.
Going Further – Increasing Google Ranking through Mobile-Friendly Strategy
However, once a site is considered to be mobile-friendly by the Googlebot, and the ranking slide has been prevented, how can the news be used to actively increase a page’s Google ranking? Again, Google has advice. The Google Developer’s Mobile Guide provides a range of help and tips for developers of a range of website types.
Besides the requirement for a mobile-friendly site that displays beautifully on a range of mobile devices, Google has also announced that there will be an SEO penalty for sites that load slowly onto mobile devices. This is not a new phenomenon in Google’s algorithms, with slow loading pages being ranked more poorly in standard search results since 2010. This same idea is now being translated for mobile sites too.
Methods of Going Mobile Friendly
There are three ways to make a website mobile-friendly in the eyes of a Googlebot;
Responsive Web Design
This is our preferred method and Google’s recommendation, where the page delivered by each device is the same HTML code on the same URL. However, each device renders the page slightly differently based upon the size of the screen. This is done through CSS. As long as the GoogleBot has access to the CSS, Google will reward RWD pages with an increased page rank. Furthermore, the page can be shared easily by users, and displayed on all types of media without issue, as well as reducing development and maintenance resources.
This uses the same URL for all devices. However, depending on what sort of device access the URL, a different combination of HTML & CSS will be activated. Without a Vary HTTP header, the google bots will not register this, and though the site is mobile-friendly, the page may be erroneously penalised for not displaying correctly on mobile devices.
The third method for ensuring that individual pages are mobile-friendly is to have separate URLs for device types. This is a common method, and can be seen on mobile sites as the URL starts with “m.”. These are less popular with google bots, and cause an increase in both design and maintenance for designers. However, they do allow the same site to perform completely differently for different audiences. Advanced sites, whose detailed functionality is a major attraction to users on a PC, may wish to offer a ‘watered down’ or more targeted functionality for the small, on-the-move customer. Wayfinding sites are a prime example of this. Where on a PC, a way-finding site will want to offer detailed directions, potential excursions, accommodations, and travel advice, a mobile version will more likely want to concentrate solely on the primary information. This will require separate URLs.
App Indexing allows Google to promote your app, just as it would a website, through its search pages. This means that an individual searching for content on Google will be able to automatically open that page through your app, if it is installed, immediately. Reliant on deep links (and therefore currently only accessible for Android Apps), App Indexing can be used to further the success of the main webpage. In order to make this successful, the application must be linked to your website using the Google Play Console. This can be done, and further advice sought, via the Google Developer’s Webmaster pages. Advice on these pages extends to advice on how to create deep-links, as well as how to connect Apps and websites that have unique URLs so that Google can link them.
Is being Mobile Friendly more important than traditional SEO?
The quick answer is no. A beautifully mobile-friendly site that is responsive, displays beautifully and loads instantly will only rank highly if the site’s page ranking is already high. These two methods must be used together in a complimentary way. SEO and mobile design must now both be considered when designing or maintaining a site.