From today, Google will be using mobile-friendliness as a ranking factor in its search results. They announced the change on February 26th, presumably to give website owners enough time to plan and make sure their websites are mobile-friendly before the big day.
It’s the first time Google has announced an update before releasing it and based on what Google has told us, we already know a few key things about how the update will work.
First of all, it’s a worldwide update and could take up to a week to roll out completely. Normally, algorithm changes are launched in the US first before rolling out to other markets, and it’s thought that this update will affect more than 12% of searches – compared to the 3.1% affected by Penguin - so we should assume that Google is pretty serious about this update.
Mobile Searches Only
This may seem obvious but it’s worth noting that only mobile search results will be affected. Your desktop and tablet rankings should remain unaffected.
Non-Branded Searches Only
This update won’t affect search results for your brand name, which makes sense. If someone is searching for your brand they are probably going to want to see your website first. Changing that would create a poor user experience and, as they always like to remind us, Google’s main aim with these updates is to create the best search experience for their users.
URL Level not Domain Level
Secondly, the algorithm will assess each URL individually. This means that even if the majority of your pages are well optimised for mobile devices and continue to rank fine, some others might not and could subsequently drop out of the search results - just optimising your home page isn’t enough!
Owners of large websites should be wary of this and – if you haven’t already - make sure you check all your pages using Google’s Mobile Friendly Tool or the Mobile Usability Tool in your Webmaster Tools account.
Beware though: These two tools can differ in how they view your site and whether they give you a pass or fail. If you are seeing different results, then do a Google search for your website on a mobile device and see if you have the grey “Mobile Friendly” label in front of your meta description.
Pass or Fail
Which leads us to the final point: You either have the grey label or you don’t. Being mobile-friendly in Google’s eyes is a pass or fail – there is no sliding scale.
This seems like another attempt by Google to help webmasters out; there is no ambiguity, unlike the other algorithm updates which target the perceived quality of content or naturalness of link profiles.
So, if you’ve left it a bit late and are feeling the effects of Google’s latest shake-up, what can you do to rectify the situation?
Optimising Your Site
When running a URL through Google’s Mobile Friendly Tool, up to five issues could be flagged along with suggestions for how to fix them:
1. Text too small to read
If you are using small font sizes in a large portion of your content, then your page will fail this test. This can be rectified by simply increasing the font size for mobile devices or by setting the mobile viewport as per the next point.
2. Mobile viewport not set
The viewport is an important element of responsive web design, which gives the web browser instructions on how to scale the page depending on the width of the screen that the user is viewing on. If you haven’t included this in your website’s code, then your site might look tiny on a mobile screen with your text too small to read.
3. Links too close together
We all know how frustrating it is to accidentally press the wrong link, so make sure your navigational links are easy to tap with a thumb, and that any long lists of text links are spaced well apart. However, Google this point appears to be the least important to Google, as it is more difficult to implement than the others.
4. Content wider than screen
This is another issue that can be solved by specifying the viewport width, but you could be tripped up if you have un-optimised images or tables that don’t scale down when viewed on mobile devices. Always make sure you manually test all your pages to ensure that everything is readable on a small screen and that the user doesn’t need to scroll sideways or zoom to view any of your content.
5. Uses incompatible plugins
This is mainly referencing the use of Flash since it’s not supported by mobile browsers, but any kind of fancy animation is going to inhibit the users’ experience of your website. YouTube doesn’t count though (probably because it’s owned by Google, go figure.) The answer to this is simply to stop using Flash. If your site is built using Flash or contains some Flash elements, then get rid of them now!
Have You Been Affected?
If you see a noticeable drop in your mobile traffic over the next few days and weeks, don’t panic! The above guidelines should help you fix the main issues, but if you are still struggling then get in touch and we’ll see what we can do for you.
It’s still too early to say how big the impact has been on a whole, but we’ll be keeping an eye on things over the next few weeks and months, so stay tuned for a full analysis after we’ve had time to collate the data from all the sites we are tracking.