When it comes to search algorithm changes, Google has gone from making official announcements to a “this is something we do every day so don’t expect to hear from us” attitude. With this in mind, the upcoming mobile-friendly algorithm change is a very big deal. As background, here is a high-level history of events:
- June 11, 2013: Google announced specific recommendations for developing mobile-friendly websites. It listed common configuration mistakes and explicitly called out faulty redirects and smartphone-specific errors (incorrectly served 404s, Googlebot Mobile and unplayable videos).
- September–October, 2014: Google tested several different mobile-specific indicators, using both mobile-friendly and non-mobile-friendly icons.
- November 18, 2014: Google officially launched mobile-friendly designations to results in mobile search.
- February 26, 2015: Google announced that, on April 21, it will be expanding its use of mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal.
Google has gotten very serious about mobile search and is taking a primary role in improving the experience. In other words, we’re on notice to clean up our site(s). The good news is that Google is providing instructions and tools to help us do this. Here are the top three things that every website owner needs to do in anticipation of the April 21 deadline:
1) Make use of Google’s guide to mobile-friendly websites. Google provides a 60+ page guide that discusses why and how to build a mobile-friendly website. There are dedicated guides for several open-source CMS platforms (WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, etc.), as well as a specific guide to mobile SEO, with special emphasis on avoiding common mistakes.
2) Test your site using Google’s Tools. Users of Google Webmaster Tools (WMT) are already familiar with Google’s emphasis on mobile, as WMT has been alerting users to “fix mobile usability issues found on site xyz.” Clicking on “View details” brings users to a three-step process: 1) Inspect mobile issues, 2) Follow these guidelines and 3) Fix mobile usability issues. For those just starting out or who don’t have a WMT account, Google provides the ability to test a single page. This report groups all of the errors in one page and links on how to fix the errors, based on how the site was built (I built via CMS, I built myself, I had someone build the site).
3) Fix your errors. Once your errors have been identified, build a plan to fix them. Some of these issues are systemic (affect many/all pages), while some are specific to a small number of pages. Some problems will be harder to fix than others, so the earlier you can begin working with your technology team/agency, the better. At this point, Google is telling you whether or not your site is mobile-friendly and if not, why not. Unless you’ve recently and intentionally built a site with this in mind, your site isn’t mobile-friendly. If you don’t fix these errors, you will see a negative impact for the most competitive (i.e., unbranded, high value) terms. Maybe you’ll even get the dreaded, red “slow” label.
Starting on April 21, Google’s changes will have significant impact on your mobile search rankings. If your site is mobile-friendly, expect to see an improvement. Sites that aren’t mobile-friendly will see a drop in rankings.
For now, Google is ranking pages on a page-by-page basis rather than site-wide, and it’s doing its part to improve the mobile experience by rewarding the best pages in search results. Google understands that redesigning a site will take a larger budget than most companies have, so it’s willing to accept page-by-page fixes.
To make sure this is possible, Google itself has invested a significant amount of its resources to provide testing tools and guides on how to fix your pages. It is up to us to take advantage of these resources and fix our sites. We may have finally reached the point where “mobile first” goes from popular buzzword to crucial business strategy.