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Smartphones and tablets drive the future of search rankings

Few business owners have the date Google will start using mobile-friendly factors in its mobile search results marked in their diaries. But the effects of this algorithm change, which is being introduced on 21 April 2015, will be as dramatic for small businesses as the Wall Street Crash was for world economies.

Smartphones and tablets

But unlike 29 October 1929 when Black Tuesday took everybody (except financial expert Roger Babson) by surprise, Google has given brands advance warning that it will start penalising websites if they deliver a poor user experience on a smartphone or tablet.

While previous algorithm updates, such as Penguin and Panda, pushed large companies that produced poor quality content down the search rankings, Google’s mobile first strategy will have a catastrophic effect on SMEs that have yet to make smartphone performance a priority.

So how do you ensure 21 April 2015 is not your brand’s Black Tuesday? In a recent webinar hosted by John Mueller, the Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google in Switzerland answered many of the questions surrounding the search giant’s decision to make mobile-friendly factors the most important ingredient of its ranking algorithm.

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Here are Art Division’s six take-away tips from the live advice session:
1. Why is Google introducing this algorithm change?

Google wants to deliver a better user experience for the rapidly growing number of people who now use a mobile device to browse the internet rather than a desktop PC.

In the UK alone, more than 46% of all browsing is now done on a smartphone or tablet, while mobile transactions have grown 70% year-on-year to account for 28.8% of all online revenue.

Google has noted this significant switch from desktop browsing to mobile devices. “People use their smartphones all the time, and they’re unhappy with some of the non-mobile friendly search results,” according to Mueller.

2. And why should I care?

The key point to bear in mind is that this algorithm update only affects mobile search. In the words of Mueller: “If you don’t care about smartphone users, and you’re really, really certain that nobody’s ever going to use your site on a smartphone – which I think is probably questionable – then you’re not going to be visible in search so this update is not something you need to workaround.

“On the other hand, if you see that people go to your site with a smartphone but tend not to return, then that’s usually a sign they’re unhappy with what they found on your website. Therefore, making your website mobile friendly would be a good idea.

“And even if you think that making a mobile-friendly website isn’t worth the time at the moment, in the long run more and more people are going to be using smartphones, so it definitely makes sense to jump on that.”

We couldn’t have put it better ourselves.

However, Gary Illyes – Mueller’s fellow Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google in Switzerland – dropped a bombshell earlier this month when he revealed that the search giant has a team already working on its plans to introduce a completely separate mobile index. This will mean that as mobile search becomes the norm, Google’s mobile index will drive the future of search rankings.

3. In Google’s eyes, what makes a website mobile friendly?

Google says its mobile-friendly algorithm will run on a page-by-page basis and in real time. This has two consequences. First, even if most of your pages pass the search giant’s mobile-friendly test, that does not mean your entire website will.

Second, once each page on your site is judged to be mobile friendly, it will benefit from the algorithm immediately. But if your pages are updated only occasionally, Google will not assess your site on a regular basis and will not update its algorithm immediately. Therefore, it is prudent to make your site mobile friendly before 21 April.

Pages that are considered to be mobile-friendly will invariably be built using responsive web design. They will also…

  • Avoid using software that is not common on mobile devices, like Flash
  • Uses text that is readable without zooming
  • Sizes content to the screen so users don’t have to scroll horizontally or zoom
  • Places links far enough apart so that the correct one can be easily tapped

The easiest way to discover whether the pages on your site meet Google’s mobile requirements is to go to its Webmaster Tools and request a mobile usability report.

4. What happens if Google gives my site the thumbs down?

Don’t fear. There are some easy ways of making your site mobile friendly –

if it uses a popular content management system, such as WordPress. But beware. As Mueller warns: “If you don’t have a lot of experience with HTML, then it’s easy to sink a lot of time into this. Get some help from an expert.”

5. Do I have to update my website by 21 April?

Google admits it’s possible the search giant will not “push the button” exactly on 21 April.

It says that its aim in giving business owners a deadline is to encourage business owners to double-check what’s happening with their website and, if it is already mobile-friendly, make sure it’s being recognised as such.

However, the majority of pages that fail Google’s mobile-friendly test are contained on sites that are built with outdated technology. That means the quickest and most cost-effective solution is to build a new company website.

But if your site has a lot of content and the full upgrade is not live by 21 April, Google has hinted that it will not send your site down its mobile search ranking. As Mueller explains: “When we see that a site is moving, we’ll try to crawl a little bit faster to pick up on everything.

“I recommend moving everything in one go. But if you can’t do that due to technical or organisational reasons then we can live with that.

“Just make sure that when you have everything moved over to set the change of address setting in Webmaster Tools so that we know the old domain has moved completely to the new one.”

6. But will non-mobile friendly webpages eventually disappear from view on a smartphone search?

Google is adopting a wait-and-see stance. If a non-mobile friendly page answers a search query made on a smartphone, then Google will continue to rank such sites.

However, Mueller does confirm: “If we boost one set of mobile-friendly sites, then another set of non-mobile friendly sites will drop down a bit.”

It was understandable that sceptics ignored Babson’s warnings of economic catastrophe back in 1929, but Google’s heads-up that websites which fail to make their offering mobile-friendly will slip down the search rankings and lose customers cannot be ignored.

It comes from the horse’s mouth, not a third party, and paints a clear picture that user experience will shape the future of search. Those users are your path to prosperity, and we echo Google’s advice when it says customers will not contact you if your brand is wearing a cloak of online invisibility because your website doesn’t appear on search results.

And even if customers do come across your site, that visit will not result in conversion if your digital marketing tools deliver a poor experience. The best way to avoid this is to heed Google’s advice and double-check what’s happening with your website then take immediate action to address any faults.

In the words of Roger Babson: “The successful man is the one who had the chance and took it.”

➜ If Google’s advice has left you considering how well your website performs and you require some independent advice, please get in touch with us for a free, no-obligation chat.

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