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Mobile Usability: The New Google Ranking Signal

Pat Marcello
Mobile Usability: The New Google Ranking Signal

By now, most SEOs know that Google is adding mobile usability to its ranking signals, and the change is slated to be part of the algorithm on April 21. So, as the late Douglas Adams tells us, “Don’t panic and always carry your towel!”

You have more than a month to get your site into a clean, mobile version that Google will approve. And it’s important to Google that you do this because I’ve read that Google is getting at least 50% of their traffic from mobile users now. That’s a BIG number. This will affect everyone across the board, in all languages.

No surprise, right? I mean, so many people are only working on smartphones or tablets that it’s only polite to give them something worth seeing. You’d think we’d all be ready for this, but even some BIG brands still have sites that aren’t mobile-friendly. Makes you wonder why, ne?

I’m guessing that these big brands have been depending on their apps a little too much. Apps are native to the technology, so that made sense, but now (even if you have a killer app), your website still needs to be mobile-friendly.

Where to Start

Test your mobile usabilitySo, let’s get started. First, go to Google Webmaster Tools and see where Google feels your site stands in terms of mobile usability. You can find the link under “Search Traffic” in the left-side navigation panel.

If you’re lucky, you’ll find what I did: a screen that says, “No mobile usability errors detected. Be sure to check your site variants.”

One thing to check is both the www. version and the non-www. version of your site. To Google, they’re different and you should have both registered in Webmaster Tools. There’s a lot of HmmmS??? -img about that, so I won’t go into it here, but if you have both versions, check both versions, even if you have set a preferred domain and did a 301 redirect from one form or the other.

And even if you think you’re ready, you may come back with errors. I did on my SEONewsBlog.com, and Google lead me right to the problem. I had an old video from 2010 on my site, which had been removed from YouTube, apparently. (Not my viddy, no.) It was simple. I used the WordPress plugin “Redirection” to send visitors to another page. Poof! No more mobile usability issues.

And… It wasn’t just the video there, either. Google says “Touch elements too close,” which means that a mobile user would have trouble making a clear touch on their mobile device, and advises, “Make sure your links and buttons are far enough apart. Learn more.”

But Google told me: “You should ensure that the most important tap targets on your site—the ones users will be using the most often—are large enough to be easy to press, at least 48 CSS pixels tall/wide.” I mean,

Google is kind enough to give us clear direction on what needs to be done to correct the issue.

You Don’t Want to See This

Here’s a report for one of my client’s sites:

Mobile report - not friendly

Yep… Lots of work to do, and it’s not a simple solution. The site is vast. Though the blog is built on WordPress, other pages are not. (No, I didn’t build it or we wouldn’t be having these problems. I’ve been assuring that sites are mobile-friendly for several years. There was BIG handwriting on the wall, you know?)

But having a WordPress site makes mobile usability simple. Most themes are “responsive” these days. But even if you have an older theme that’s not responsive and you can’t part with it, you can make it responsive with the Jetpack from WordPress plugin. It produces a clean site image with clear navigation. I’m not sure about Drupal or Joomla (because I don’t work in them), but I’m guessing that developers are moving in the direction of mobile usability, too.

If your pages are HTML or .aspx or whatever else, you have your own private hell to deal with. Every page will need to have special meta data to make them responsive, or you can use .htaccess to fix things. I’m not going to create a tutorial here, but you’ll need to make sure that every page is corrected.

The Common Mistakes

Here are some common issues found in mobile compatibility:

  • Unplayable videos. You’d think this is a no-brainer, but if you have old content and the video has been removed, you’ll need to either a) replace the video or b) 301 redirect the URL to another.
  • Blocked image files, JavaScript or CSS. If you block these, your mobile rankings will suffer.
  • Broken links. Use Xenu Link Sleuth software to check for broken links on your website or just go to Google Webmaster Tools and find them.
  • Ignored speed issues. With mobile, it’s even more important that your site loads quickly. Get rid of elements causing your page to load slowly. One thing I see a lot are HUGE images. People don’t realize that images from digital cameras or scanners, for instance, are really, really big in terms of file size. Always resize your images before adding them to your site. It will save time, bandwidth, and disk space.
  • Not viewing your site on a mobile device. This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s worth mentioning. And don’t forget, Apple devices and Android devices work differently. Make sure you’re ready for anything.

Help is Available

There is good news. In addition to Google Webmaster Tools, the Big Dog has also presented us with a getting started with mobile instruction.

And if you have limited tech skills, hire someone now to make your site mobile friendly or you will find your Google rankings suffer. A simple change for WordPress webmasters is to just swap out your theme with one that is mobile friendly.

How do you know if your existing theme is responsive? Go to Webmaster Tools. If you see errors, you probably need a change. Or, install Jetpack by WordPress and make the mobile theme option active. Configure it to your preferences and BOOM! Done.

Have you encountered any challenges in making your website friendlier for mobile devices? Let us know about your challenges and solutions in the comments.

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Pat Marcello is President and SEO Manager at MagnaSites.com, a full-service digital marketing company that serves small- to medium-sized businesses. Follow her on FacebookTwitter or Google+. Pat’s last article for SEMrush was "Google's Fetch and Render: Why It's Important."
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