Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Google is Making "Mobile-Friendliness" a Ranking Signal: Are You Optimized?

Earlier this year, Google sent an email to many webmasters warning about "critical mobile usability errors." Google's intention was to prepare webmasters for a likely upcoming algorithm change. At the time, we noted, "The race is on," and asked, "Are you running?"

Hopefully, you answered affirmatively. Otherwise, you might now lose traffic--and sales. In a recent post on its Webmaster Blog, Google announced an upcoming algorithm update that will significantly impact mobile rankings:

"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. Consequently, users will find it easier to get relevant, high quality search results that are optimized for their devices."

So is your site mobile-friendly?

If you're not sure, take Google's "Mobile-Friendly Test" here. You might also Google your website name from a mobile phone. Since November, Google has distinguished mobile-friendly sites with a "Mobile-Friendly" tag in search results. A sample search for, say, "summer blazer" reveals two mobile-friendly sites and one not-so-mobile-friendly sites.

The first two sites here, Brooks Brothers and Pinterest, have received the Mobile-Friendly tag (noted below the address before the description). The third result, Lifestyle Mirror, has not received the tag.

A closer look at the search above reveals why the first two sites receive the Mobile-Friendly tag and the third site does not. To be mobile-friendly a site should, above all else, load quickly with mobile-appropriate-sized text and graphics. Take a look at the streamlined, and (perhaps most importantly) easy-to-read appearance of Brooks Brothers' mobile-friendly page.

Brooks Brothers' Mobile-Friendly page for "Summer Blazer." The screen is uncluttered and the text is easy-to-read. 

This Brooks Brothers page invites the mobile user. Simply put, to use the words of Google, the page is "viewable on a modern device."

On the other hand, a not-so-mobile-friendly website will repel the user experience. We all know the hassle of pinching and zooming a page to find what you need. Check out the appearance of this Lifestyle Mirror page, which obviously has not been optimized for mobile.

Lifestyle Mirror's not-so-mobile-friendly page for "Summer Blazer."

It's mystifying that a site that ranks so highly has not yet been optimized for mobile. As Google itself states here:

"Making websites that work on all modern devices is not that hard: websites can use HTML5 since it is universally supported, sometimes exclusively, by all devices."

What's more mystifying, though, is that the site continues to rank so highly on a mobile device. Why has it taken Google this long to use mobile-friendliness as a definitive ranking signal?

After all, we've been exposed to unfriendly mobile pages like Lifestyle Mirror's for far too long. The page itself might reveal valuable information, but the experience essentially makes the information useless. What good is text if you cannot comfortably read it? Better to wait for the laptop or tablet. But that's not the nature of mobile search. You perform a mobile search because you need the information now.

Thankfully (finally), Google rankings will reflect mobile-friendliness. There's no way to tell specifically how the new algorithm will influence rankings, but likely the Lifestyle Mirror page--and others like it--will be replaced by other relevant pages that have been optimized for mobile.

Thankfully--for Lifestyle Mirror, at least--Google will evaluate sites "page-by-page," which means that an entire site will not be penalized, only those specific pages that have not been optimized for the mobile experience. On the other hand, if an entire site shares similar pages that have not been optimized, the site itself could see a major traffic reduction.

Remember, mobile search now accounts for up to 60% of all online traffic. If you site is not optimized for mobile, you could miss this 60% entirely. As Jill Kocher writes over at Practical Ecommerce:

"The worst-case scenario is that all of the sales-driven organic search traffic via a mobile device disappears instantly when the change happens. That’s the worst case. It can’t get worse than losing it all. In all likelihood, the worst case won’t actually occur, and the decrease would be more like 80 percent, or 50 percent. But measuring the worst case helps you decide if the issue really is significant enough to act on immediately."

In our opinion, the issue is certainly significant enough to act on immediately. What are you doing now to optimize your site for mobile?

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