As the rollout of Google’s widely discussed mobile ranking algorithm update on April 21st draws closer, you’re probably either looking forward to a validation of your SEO prowess, or freaking out about how much search traffic you’re about to lose.
Either way, it’s probably a good idea to assess your level of preparedness, and understand the most common issues and what it takes to fix them. Before we jump into that, let’s take a quick look what’s going to happen and why it matters.
Why the Update is Happening Now
For years it seemed that speakers at every conference I attended proclaimed it was “the year of mobile.” I’m not sure exactly which year it was, but it seems that one (or all) of them was right.
The trend has been clear for some time now, with desktop traffic steadily decreasing and mobile traffic steadily increasing at approximately the same rate. The chart below shows that we’re quickly approaching a 60/40 split in favor of desktop, but that split has already surpassed 50% in favor of mobile in many countries where mobile usage is greater than desktop.
With this major shift to mobile and Google’s desire to maintain quality search results regardless of device, this change was bound to come. And it’s going to be a big change. The mobile-friendly algorithm will be a global change that significantly impacts Google’s mobile search results – perhaps bigger than the Panda or Penguin updates.
Assessing Your Level of Mobile-Friendliness
Google has been stressing the importance of mobile for quite a while, not only directly, but implicitly through a steady series of documentation updates, Webmaster Central blogs, and mobile testing tools. Fortunately that’s left us with a ton of great resources. So if you’re serious about understanding mobile from Google’s perspective, their extensive Mobile-Friendly Websites guide is a great place to start.
To determine if you’re ready for the mobile-friendly update, these are going to be the main tools you’ll need:
Google’s Mobile-friendly Label
The very first thing you should do to see if Google has recognized your site as mobile-friendly is to search for your site on a mobile device and see if it displays the “Mobile-friendly” annotation. It should look like this:
If you think your site is mobile-friendly, but you’re not seeing that annotation, you’ll definitely want to dig into why. And even if you’re seeing that label, keep in mind that it’s given on a per-page basis, so you’ll want to be sure to check your top pages, if not your whole site.
Google’s Mobile-friendly Testing Tool
With the Mobile-friendly Test, you can simply paste in your URL and submit. Google will then do a quick analysis of the page you entered and let you know the status. Hopefully you’ll see this:
But you might see something that looks more like this:
The good news is that the Mobile-friendly Test will clue you in immediately as to why Google isn’t seeing your site as mobile-friendly so you can get right to work with some updates.
Mobile Usability Report in Google Webmaster Tools
Spot-checking pages is tedious and I wouldn’t recommend it for a large site. To more efficiently get a view of the top pages with issues across your site, check out the Mobile Usability section in Google Webmaster Tools. This report specifically identifies pages on your domain that are suffering from mobile errors. This tool will be critical in helping you prioritize mobile usability issues across your site.
Google’s PageSpeed Insights
Even if you’ve got the “Mobile-friendly” annotation in your results, you may have issues that could impact mobile usability down the road. Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool provides a lot of information not only pertaining to mobile usability, but as the name implies, to page load speed on both the desktop and mobile experiences. Page load speed is a known ranking factor and that could increase in weighting as mobile adoption continues to grow.
Device Emulation Mode in Chrome
If you’re deep in the throes of fixing mobile usability issues on your site and need an efficient way to view different screen sizes directly in your browser, check out Device Emulation Mode in Chrome. It’ll allow you to emulate several screen sizes and resolutions, as well as various network speeds.
To find Device Emulation mode, Go to the main navigation in Chrome and look under More Tools > Developer Tools. Once the window opens you’ll see a little phone icon, as indicated in the screen grab above. Click that to toggle Device Emulation mode.
How to Be Mobile-Friendly
As I mentioned in the previous section, Google’s Mobile-Friendly Website guide contains everything you need to know to create a mobile-friendly user experience. Below is a summary of the most common mistakes that Google finds on mobile websites. They’re the errors you’ll most often encounter in the Mobile-Friendly Test, PageSpeed Insights, and the Mobile Usability Report in Webmaster Tools.
Mobile only 404s: If you have a separate mobile site and automatically redirect users from desktop URLs to mobile URLs based on user agent, make sure the mobile URLs to which you’re redirecting actually exist. That might seem obvious, but this is a common error. To avoid these types of issues, I always recommend building mobile URLs that are closely aligned with desktop URLs, such that it’s easy to predict the mobile URL format given the desktop equivalent.
Faulty redirects: These most often occur when a user enters on an interior page of the desktop site from search results, but is redirected to the mobile homepage. If you’re going to redirect mobile users from your desktop site, make sure you’re redirecting to the equivalent URL on your mobile site and not the homepage.
Flash usage: Flash isn’t supported by iOS or Android versions 4.1 and higher. If you’re sending users to a page that uses Flash, it’s not going to be considered mobile-friendly. Worse yet, the page is going to be broken for a lot of users, so consider using more up-to-date, mobile-friendly technologies.
Viewport not configured: You’ll want to be sure you’re using a meta viewport element in the head section of each page to let browsers know how to adjust page dimensions and scale based on the device.
Fixed-width viewport: Developers sometimes set a fixed-width viewport in an effort to fit a fixed-width (non-responsive) design into a mobile device viewport. Problem is: Google doesn’t consider it mobile-friendly and will display an error. To fix, you’ll want to take the responsive approach and set the viewport to match the device’s width and scale.
Content not sized to viewport: The main issue here is that you don’t want users to have to scroll horizontally. If you’re using large, fixed-width elements that need a large viewport to display properly, you’ll likely see this error. Google’s suggestion is to use CSS media queries to apply different style for a range of screen sizes.
Small font size: If users have to “pinch to zoom” in order to read your font size, it’s too small and Google won’t consider it mobile-friendly. Some good rules of thumb: a) use a base font of 16 CSS pixels and from there use sizes relative to that base to scale the font, and b) use the browser default line height of 1.2em. Those general guidelines depend on the specific font being used, so when in doubt, whip out a phone and see if your friends can easily read the font on your website.
Touch elements too close: The average adult finger pad size is about 10mm wide, so, based on that, the Android UI guidelines recommend a tap target size of about 7mm, or 48 CSS pixels (assuming you have a properly set mobile viewport). Again, when in doubt, take out your phone and do some testing to ensure it’s easy to avoid “fat fingering” touch elements in your mobile design.
What to Keep an Eye on as the Mobile-Friendly Update Rolls Out
For my client sites and my own, the main things I’m going to be watching are 1) total Google search traffic from mobile devices, 2) distribution of sessions by device between desktop, mobile, and tablet, 3) total mobile traffic, and 4) number of sessions per mobile device.
We created a handy custom dashboard for Google Analytics that contains all of the views above. Feel free to access it and add it to the Google Analytics profile of your choice to keep tabs on the right metrics as this update rolls out. Let me know in the comments below if there’s a particular metric you think would be a helpful addition.
The mobile-friendly ranking signal is one of hundreds of signals designed to return the best results. Mobile results could still return a non-mobile-friendly result if that’s deemed to be the best result (like perhaps for branded searches). Focusing on the overall mobile experience is probably more productive than focusing on the algorithm itself, but when you need to prioritize, it’s helpful to know which concerns to scratch off your list first. The following FAQ is a summary of the questions that came out of the mobile-friendly Q&A session with Mary and Michael of the Webmaster Relations team at Google.
Q: Will the mobile-friendly update have any effect on desktop rankings? A: No. The update will affect the mobile results only. You shouldn’t see any change to desktop rankings.
Q: Will the mobile-friendly update apply to all languages? A: Yes. However, you may see the update affecting one language and not another for a short period as the update will take a number of days to roll out completely.
Q: Will this algorithm update affect tablets? A: No. Google serves the desktop experience for tablets. You may serve a tablet-specific experience after users click on the desktop results in Google, but Google will continue to display your desktop URLs in search.
Q: Are their varying degrees of Mobile-friendliness? A: No. You’re either mobile-friendly or you’re not. That could certainly change in the future as Google fine-tunes the algorithm, but initially there will not be degrees of mobile-friendliness.
Q: Does my whole site have to be mobile-friendly? A: No. Mobile-friendliness is determined on a per-page basis. This is why it’s a good idea to prioritize your top pages if your site isn’t yet mobile friendly.
Q: Is there a ranking benefit to using responsive design? A: No. Responsive, separate mobile site, and dynamic are all mobile-friendly implementation options. Google recommends responsive design because it’s easier to maintain and less error prone.
Q: I fixed a mobile usability issue on my site. How long until I get the Mobile-friendly label? A: The mobile-friendly algorithm will run in real-time. If you’ve made an update to be mobile-friendly, you should see that reflected the next time your page is crawled.
Q: Is it okay to have a single desktop page that gets broken up into several pages on mobile? A: This happens frequently in an effort to make mobile pages lighter and faster. Unfortunately, Google expects the bi-directional annotation, rel=alternate and rel=canonical, to have a 1:1 relationship. Since Google doesn’t support this behavior, they may not be able to effectively consolidate ranking signals between the mobile and desktop versions.
Q: Will this affect Google News? AdWords? A: No. The mobile-friendly algorithm only pertains to Google’s organic results only.
Are You Ready for Mobilegeddon?
Google certainly has the power to effect change on the web, and the mobile-friendly algorithm update is going to force a lot of holdouts to make mobile usability improvements in short order.
If you have a mobile-friendly site and feel good about all the factors outlined in this article, good for you. You might see an incremental traffic gain as competitors who outranked you in mobile search with desktop experiences get moved down in the SERPs.
If not, there’s no time like the present to start working on mobile usability improvements.
Image credit: Canva & Wikimedia