What to do if you fail the Google mobile-friendly test?

Part two of my guide on how to survive the latest algorithm change "Mobilegeddon".

As the saying goes: there are no problems, only opportunities. If your site fails the Google mobile-friendly test, then this is your opportunity not only to finally make the leap and have a mobile site but to potentially take it much further and stage your organization for success. That requires an investment – an investment in doing things right instead of simply doing them over, in preparing for the unknown instead of reacting to the already-has-happened.

If your site is not mobile-friendly, then you are firmly in the latter camp. However, even being mobile-friendly doesn't exclude you from the need to think more strategically about the future. Unless you can say you're prepared to serve content on devices that are still gaining traction (e.g. game consoles and televisions), newly released (e.g. Apple Watch), and those yet to be announced, then you can probably use a bit more planning. Because the world moved into mobile eight years ago and now it's time to move even further.

The best service you can do for your content and all of your delivery channels is in developing a strong long-term strategy, which is covered later in this article. However, not every company has the luxury of time to put their ducks in a row before taking action.

If you really need to adapt immediately, then you will very likely need to depend on a third-party service to make a mobile version of your site or adapt your existing site to be mobile-friendly. Please understand that this should not be considered a long-term solution. These will help you pass the test, but they will not give you a truly optimal mobile experience for your customers.

While it may make sense for your business to use one of these services, any solution that offers a "one-click" or similar offer to "mobilize" your web presence is relying on a large number of automated decisions that may or may not be ideal for your business or site. Often, there's little opportunity to tweak those decisions. In addition, much of what they're able to do - especially in an automated fashion - will depend greatly on the cleanliness of your own HTML code. In other words, your mileage may vary.

  1. Logo is invisible on the white background.
  2. Bland and unoriginal with a low-contrast color combination.
  3. Missing primary homepage feature.
  4. Poor use of space creates an off-balance look.

When evaluating these providers, ask for a demo against your own property and particularly against some of your most complicated page layouts. Get a firm grasp of the time it will take to get up and running and, critically, understand what changes and tweaks you'll be able to make both before and after the conversion process is complete.

These services often work by converting your site and hosting the converted code in their own data centers. They intercept requests to your site and make a determination: is this a mobile visitor or not? If not, they'll pass the traffic to your original site. If so, they'll serve the converted data. Understanding that you're essentially allowing them to set up a separate version of your site raises some additional questions:

  • How will this impact my site analytics? In most cases, it shouldn't. Especially if you're using a hosted analytics provider like Google Analytics. However, if you're using an internally hosted provider, then this may be a very critical question.
  • How long until my content changes on the primary site are reflected in the converted version? Obviously, you would want this to happen in real-time and it's possible that the service provider is able to do so. You'll need to understand the process behind how that content is updated and at what time interval, if any.
  • How do they determine which visitors are mobile versus not? The ideal test is based on the capabilities of the incoming device, but that's quite difficult to do in these scenarios. They may use their own algorithms or a third party service, but if it were up to me, I'd like to know the percent accuracy of the tests they perform. Not all detections are created equal and 100% accuracy is very close to impossible to achieve. I'd want the hard numbers, if they have them.
  • Is there any prerequisite knowledge or training preferred for using the platform? I purposely use the word "preferred" in this context because you'll want to get the most out of your purchase whether those skills are required or not. Also, depending on your team, you may want a solution to be more or less technical in nature.

I'm sure you'll have plenty more of your own based on your site's needs.

Above all else, stay calm and look at your own business needs objectively. If you're not sure what those needs are, then establishing those needs, and not the broad-stroke need to "go mobile," should be your first stop. As long as you keep your eye on that target and make sure that every decision is evaluated against it, you'll be on the path to success.

Finally, keep in mind that some specialized service organizations that offer to convert your site into a dedicated mobile site have a vested interest in downplaying the benefits or capabilities of adopting responsive web design. I was shocked to find one company stating, "For any site that needs to consider the optimal experience for every user regardless of their device, responsive web design isn't enough." A statement such as this is a very bold claim with little supporting evidence unless you don't consider ESPN.com, BostonGlobe.com, CNN.com, The Library of Congress (loc.gov), or ContentMarketingInstitute.com to be sites and organizations that give no regard for delivering the optimal experience for all devices. This is not to say that Responsive Web Design is best for everyone and every situation, but it cannot be dismissed so categorically with such a broad-stroke statement.

Mobile sites vs. responsive design

While not every site and company will benefit more from a responsive design than from a dedicated mobile experience, stating categorically that responsive design will fail to deliver in this endeavor is shortsighted at best. Its for this reason that I strongly recommend garnering the assistance of an unbiased and objective third-party when developing your long-term strategy.

Having a solid strategy for mobile is more than layout and more than content, though both are critical. First, you need to understand that supporting mobile - and doing it well and right - is not even about mobile. In fact, focusing on mobile-only may in itself be shortsighted.

Where you should align is in future-proofing your customer experience and adopting a philosophy of being able to serve well-structured content to any device at any time. There may be exceptions to this, such as providing a specific toolset, but in general terms they can be applied to nearly any website.

If youre stuck with a website design and strategy that is two-three years old or more and especially if that site is not mobile-friendly (requires visitors zoom and pan to read or navigate the site or otherwise fails Google’s mobile-friendly test), then you should put considerations for a redesign on the table as soon as possible.

The philosophy that fits best with future-proofing and omni-device delivery for most sites is responsive web design. If youre given concerns about adapting the site for mobile, then you can safely ignore it for nearly all cases thanks to a supporting development methodology known as RESS. Without going into detail, RESS provides a solution for serving optimized HTML to mobile or other device classes without impacting the total download or the work required by the browser. This strategy also promotes efficiency in both content and code development in true write-once-publish-everywhere fashion.

I admit that I tend to recommend responsive design to my clients because I understand the technology, its limitations, and how it can be done correctly, safely, and in an optimized fashion. Moreover, Google agrees with that recommendation.

Services offering to convert your site to optimize it for mobile will provide some short-term relief as a band-aid patch for the upcoming changes to Googles algorithm, but I definitely question their value as a long-term solution particularly because they tend to target specific devices or classes. If the last few years have shown us anything its that we cant depend on the ecosystem of internet-connected devices to remain static, if, in fact, it ever was.

A solid content strategy and a my content anywheredesign philosophy will do more to serve your organization in coming years of evolutionary and revolutionary technological advances than any push-button solution can hope to provide.