Mobilegeddon: A Comprehensive (Survival) Guide

Google recently implemented a change to their algorithm, giving higher rankings to mobile-friendly pages, in what I consider to be a very classic-Google play. 

Their algorithm has changed over the years to focus on actual content rather than descriptions and keywords, and they've up-played content that garners a lot of attention through tracking inbound links to those pages.

All of these changes have been for the good of Google's audience - the searchers - but also beneficial to Google. The more accurate and relevant the results, the more trust is placed on their software and therefore the more advertisements will be successful, etc. It plays well into Google's business model for them to put their visitors onto pages that offer a superior experience.

As part of that, changes to Google's algorithm - intentionally or not - also leads to pushes for new paradigms in design and accessibility to gain in popularity. This most recent announcement is perhaps the largest example of that.

Coming directly from Google's announcement:

"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."

This announcement has spurred much debate and panic across the World-Wide Web, complete with apocalyptic images of desolation and despair. But should you be concerned? Here is my guide to surviving the latest algorithm change.

Why mobile matters to your business

If your company site is mostly Business-to-Consumer (B2C), then it's likely that you have little to worry about, though you still should run the tests below to verify. B2C sites tend to undergo more frequent revision and redesign in the layout itself in order to make a great experience and so are the most likely to already be mobile-first or at least mobile-friendly.

If on the other hand you are doing more Business-to-Business (B2B), then there's a better chance that you may be going into these changes blindly and run the risk of becoming more difficult if not impossible to find via Google searches originating on mobile devices.

Why? To be frank, it's because a number of B2B organizations, perhaps even yours, are under the misplaced guidance that the millennials, who tend to use their mobile phones more than their laptops or desktops, aren't the ones making decisions for the business.

There may be a grain of truth to that and we may find that millennials or younger generations aren't, in fact, making those decisions. Instead, they're the ones doing all the research. In other words, they're among the top influencers. Even if they're not the final decision makers, they're doing the legwork - nearly 50% of it, according to Think With Google, who state:

"Back in 2012, there was a pretty even mix across age groups. In 2014, however, 18- to 34-year-olds accounted for almost half of all researchers, an increase of 70%." In case you're wondering, in only two years, the shift in the 18-34-year-old segment has moved from 27% to a dominating 46%. Millennials now represent, by far, the largest group of B2B researchers.

Later in the document, the authors also note that "71% of B2B researchers start their search with a generic term" instead of starting with branded searches, as many are led to believe. When it comes to the purchasing process, 42% of researchers use a mobile device at some point leading up to the purchase and of those, there has been a 91% growth in using mobile devices for the entire purchase path.

These growth metrics are reminiscent of those that so significantly impacted B2C over recent years. Just like B2C, B2B companies need to step up their mobile marketing focus or risk losing significant business.

Another point that I'd like to add is that your analytics may very well be lying to you about the importance of mobile. It's easy to look at overall traffic and, seeing a low number of mobile conversions, assume that mobile is less important. However, if you inspect the mobile reports and see a higher-than-average bounce rate from mobile devices, then the point you should come to is that they are abandoning your site precisely because of the poor mobile experience.

In short, a lack of mobile conversions doesn't speak so much about the popularity of mobile as it does to how well (or poorly) you're serving to that audience.

What is included in the new Google mobile algorithm

Believe it or not, there's a very simple test you can run on your site to tell you in no uncertain terms what Google thinks of your mobile-friendliness. Before we get to that, it's worth knowing a bit more about what Google has changed since April 21.

According to a recent Q&A with Google's Gary Illyes,

  • This is not a push for Responsive Web Design and RWD will have no ranking benefits over other mobile optimization solutions. Though, Google does recommend RWD as a solution that would work for "almost everyone."
  • Google wants to see your CSS and JavaScript. Openness with your CSS and JS code will be a requirement in the pass/fail status of your site's mobile-friendliness. If those files are blocked to Google, then expect to see your rankings in mobile searches taking a downward turn.
  • Mobile-friendliness is page-by-page, not site-wide. So if a portion of your site fails the mobile-friendly test, it won't negatively impact other pages that offer a friendly experience. That means that you can still have an in-page app that requires Flash or desktop conveniences such as a physical mouse and keyboard without negatively impacting the rest of the site. Though that page will still fail the test.
  • There is nothing new that impacts tablet-class devices such as iPad or Kindle Fire Tablet.
  • Mr. Illyes strongly recommended having your sites mobile-friendly by April 21st and didn't give any indication of "wiggle room," implying that the algorithm changes will take effect in full force on that date. No exceptions.
  • It's more-than-possible that there will be a completely separate index strictly for mobile searches, though there was no indication in the Q&A that this separation would occur on April 21st. We still should take this as a word to the wise and start making plans now, not later.

This does not list all of the factors used by Google to determine your pages' mobile-friendliness. If you would like to test your site, you can do so using Google's own Guide for Mobile-Friendly Websites.

The first step in that guide is to test your site, which will give you an indication of how Google sees it, at least in terms of mobile support. The tool will give you a pass/fail rating as well as a preview of the site within a generic mobile device plus some other information about blocked resources.

For example, when I test Episerver's home page, I get a pass rating and Google lists three URLs that are blocked to the indexer. Luckily, Google doesn't downgrade your site if the JS or CSS are hosted by a 3rd party. Your page ranking will only be negatively affected if Google is unable to load the CSS or JS from your own site.

When I try the site for a local Japanese steakhouse, however, it fails spectacularly, even for a very simple site. The text is too small, the links are too close together for most fingers to target them accurately, and it's not set to display correctly in a mobile viewport. As you can see in the image below, Google sees a very tiny page on the screen that would be painful if not impossible to read and definitely impossible to be accurate in clicking the links (provided you could read them, of course). This site would require a bit of zooming and panning to find the content you want. As of April 21st, that doesn't fly with Google.

If you want even more details about which pages on your site pass or fail, I highly recommend checking out Google's Webmaster Tools. Under the Search Traffic section, there's a report for Mobile Usability that can tell you which pages fail the test and why.

While it's not shown in the screenshot above, Google does offer some next steps should your site fail the test and I would say that they are a decent starting point for more information.

Read part two "What to do if you fail the Google mobile-friendly test"