Is Your Website Ready For The Mobile Update?

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Craig Smith  |  Founder & CEO

On April 21st, Google will roll out the largest change to their ranking algorithm in recent memory. In fact, the search engine said that their impending mobile update could affect more than 40% of global searches. To put this into perspective, Panda and Penguin only influenced 12% and 4%, respectively.

This change is the company’s latest attempt to keep their results relevant to customers who are increasingly initiating their inquiries from their mobile devices. The scope of this update is unique, however in that it will be the first time where results can vary greatly depending on a customer’s device. While traditional SEO tactics will continue to work, sites that do not display properly on mobile could see their organic traffic drop as Google lends greater weight to their optimized competitors.

This isn’t the first time we’ve talked about implementing a mobile strategy, but with the mobile update merely weeks away, it’s important to review what we know about this massive shift in strategy from Mountain View.

Google Is Looking To The Future

Thanks to the popularity of the iPhone, iPad, and other smart devices, consumers are increasingly turning to their mobile screens for searching, entertainment, and eCommerce. In fact, according to ad network InMobi, the time global customers spend on their mobile device now exceeds any other form of media consumption.

AdWords, Google’s venerable ad network and primary source of revenue, is the undisputed leader when it comes to advertising on your desktop but the search giant is struggling to maintain that same dominance in the mobile space. Startups and competing networks from social giants like Facebook are making handheld devices a competitive market and this update is one way the company hopes to keep users engaged and searching from their homepage instead of a new app or through services like Siri and Cortana.

The future of the web is mobile. Google knows it, and this isn’t the first time we wrote on the importance of having a mobile strategy. With Google’s shift just weeks away, here’s what we know about how Mountain View plans to dramatically change its handheld strategy.

What We Know About The Mobile Update

It’s Big. We mentioned this earlier, but it bears repeating. Panda threw SEO and eCommerce communities into chaos, pushing some previously big players out of the market entirely, and it only affected 12% of search queries. This mobile update is nearly four times larger.

It’s not meant to be punitive. Unlike Penguin or Panda, Google is not pushing this change to target companies exploiting their current algorithm. Instead, the search engine hopes to provide a better experience for users on mobile devices by offering results that render well on smaller screens. This is why, unlike those previous updates, Google announced when this update would rollout, giving webmasters time to make their domain’s ready for it.

The rollout will be ongoing. Google’s mobile ranking algorithm will officially roll out starting on April 21st and the company expects it to hit all relevant search terms by the end of the following week. Unlike Panda or Pigeon, this new update will be part of the official search algorithm, ranking pages every time they are crawled. Once a company updates their property to be mobile friendly, they should see their rankings improve shortly after their domain is crawled again.

The update will not impact tablet results: Despite technically being mobile devices, Google said that tablet search results would not change due to the algorithm update. This means that results on a tablet should match those displayed on desktop searches.

Mobile-friendly is pass/fail. Google will not assign a value to websites that may only be partially mobile friendly. Mobile compatibility is a yes/no question in the algorithm.

Mobile friendly is determined per page. Having a mobile friendly landing page will not automatically make the entire domain rank well in mobile results. Instead, Google determines mobile optimization on a per page basis and ranks accordingly.

Impact On Ranking

Previously, ranking number one for specific keywords on the desktop meant that you would rank number one from a phone for these same terms. This made things like keyword optimization simple since every term had the same list of competitors.

After the update, however, rankings on devices will differ drastically. If a site ranks number one for a given term on the desktop is not mobile optimized, it may not rank at all from a smartphone. Popular ranking tools such as SEMRush currently display a single ranking list for key terms. This makes researching mobile rankings a time consuming endeavor until reporting systems implement mobile specific crawlers.

Google said that a site being compatible with mobile would only affect that website’s ranking on handheld devices. Despite this, companies that do not have optimized sites may find their desktop organic rankings slip as customers continue to browse and convert from their smartphones.

These mobile sessions will increase the relevance of mobile friendly sites, which is a ranking factor that could affect desktop results in time. This could cause rankings between desktop and mobile to normalize after an initial period of upheaval, as sites that do not appear in mobile results begin to lose their position on desktop results as well.

Determining What Makes A Domain Mobile Friendly

When wireless application protocol (WAP) browsers started appearing on those early PDA’s and cellphones, most mobile sites functioned independently from the rest of the domain. Most importantly, these mobile versions (known as m. or “MDot” domains) often didn’t offer users the full functionality afforded by the desktop site.

With the advent of advanced mobile browsers like those found in Android and iOS devices, companies found that their customers wanted to access everything their site had available. Google will still recognize MDot sites as being mobile friendly, but it strongly encourages companies to implement responsive design.

Responsive Design allows webmasters to build a single site for every screen, one that adapts dynamically based on what type of device is accessing it. This means that instead of creating an exclusive mobile only MDot domain, users can access your full website from their smartphone and the content will display itself in a logically consistent way.

The easiest way to determine if your design is mobile friendly is to look up your website in organic results from a smart device. Underneath your title tag you should see a small grey tag that designates the result as mobile friendly. If you don’t see this tag, the update on April 21st could cause your site to vanish from mobile search results.

Google also provides a mobile friendly test that will crawl your site to determine if it is optimized correctly. If you manage your domain, Search Console allows you to identify errors preventing the company’s mobile crawlers from accessing your site.

A Sign Of Things To Come

The mobile update represents the search engine’s largest change to its ranking algorithm to date, but it will not be the last. While the company will continue to target webmaster’s seeking to manipulate search results through updates like Penguin and Panda, Google’s mobile move is one that appears to be solely about improving user experience. The web is swiftly moving to mobile and this is Google’s way of ensuring that customers still turn to them whenever they want to find something online.

In the short term, updating your domain to be compatible with mobile browsers will ensure that you maintain your rankings in SERPS no matter what device customers use to search. In the long term, mobile traffic will continue to increase as customers turn to their hand held devices, and not their desktops, when it comes time to start shopping for the holidays.

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