In February 2015, Google sent the search engine optimization (SEO) world into a two-month panic when it published a blog post containing the following paragraph:
Starting April 21, we will be expanding our use of mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal. This change will affect mobile searches in all languages worldwide and will have a significant impact in our search results. Consequently, users will find it easier to get relevant, high quality search results that are optimized for their devices.
While that might seem fairly innocuous, there are two reasons why it tripped alarms for SEO insiders:
- Google rarely announces algorithm updates before they’re implemented, if at all.
- Any change to Google’s search algorithm is a big event in the SEO world, and the blog post’s wording (“significant impact”) left the door open for a wide range of potential outcomes.
Between the ambiguity and uncharacteristic two-month warning, the message seemed clear: your site better be mobile-friendly by April 21, 2015… or else. The SEO community quickly dubbed April 21 “Mobilegeddon,” which had enough panache to attract attention of mainstream publications, webmasters, and business owners.
But for those expecting an apocalyptic Mobilegeddon, 4/21/15 probably felt more like 12/21/12. After the dust settled, there were undeniable changes in mobile search results, but they was hardly earth shattering. According to Moz.com, the number of mobile-friendly web pages in mobile search results increased by two percentage points (from 70% to 72%) after the update rolled out.
Naturally, there was some confusion and outrage. Was Google pulling a fast one on us? Where were the four horsemen?
Mobilegeddon: Expectations vs. Reality
I would argue that Mobilegeddon wasn’t blown out of proportion by Google, but by the anxious build-up to the April 21 deadline and a broadly-held misunderstanding of how the algorithm change would actually affect search results. Let’s dive into some specifics:
- The update only applied to searches on mobile devices, so desktop and tablet searches were unaffected. While mobile searches now outnumber desktop searches overall, there are many businesses (especially B2Bs) who receive most of their search traffic via desktop. For these organizations, the effect of the update was probably negligible, especially if their websites don’t receive a large quantity of search traffic in the first place.
- We knew leading up to Mobilegeddon that mobile-friendliness was only going to become a ranking factor in mobile searches. Experts estimate that Google’s algorithm contains hundreds of rankings factors, many of which are more fundamental to a page’s usefulness (such as content relevance and domain reputation) than mobile-friendly design. In a sense, mobile-friendliness is (at least for now) just a tiebreaker in Google’s mobile algorithm. If Google is choosing between two pages of similar quality and relevance, it will choose the mobile-friendly page.
- Finally, it’s important to understand that a two percentage point increase in mobile friendly first-page results is significant, even if it sounds like a miniscule difference. That statistic doesn’t take into consideration the fluctuation within first page results between mobile-friendly and mobile-unfriendly sites. If your site ranked second for a competitive keyword phrase, and moved up to the first position on April 21 because the former top result wasn’t mobile-friendly, then your site could receive hundreds or even thousands of additional site visitors in the long run.
If you worked with a web design or internet marketing company to make your site mobile-friendly in preparation for Mobilegeddon, you might have expected a windfall of new search traffic as a result. If your traffic held steady, however, it doesn’t mean that you wasted your money. Becoming mobile-friendly might not have improved your rankings, but it ensured that you wouldn’t be passed by any mobile-friendly competitors. Another advantage of going mobile-friendly in 2015 is that you’re already prepared for Google’s next mobile algorithm update, coming in May…
Introducing: Mobilegeddon 2.0
As you might have guessed, that header is a little tongue-in-cheek. In fact, I’m sure everyone is getting tired of the term “Mobilegeddon” at this point, so it's banned for the rest of this post.
Now that we’ve dissected Google’s initial implementation of the mobile-friendliness ranking factor, let’s turn our attention to the sequel. On March 16, in a short blog post titled "Continuing to make the web more mobile friendly," Google doubled down on its preference for mobile-friendly sites:
Today we’re announcing that beginning in May, we’ll start rolling out an update to mobile search results that increases the effect of the ranking signal to help our users find even more pages that are relevant and mobile-friendly.
The post goes on to explain that sites that are already mobile-friendly won’t be impacted by the update. Essentially, this means that Google’s criteria for judging whether a site is mobile-friendly or not isn’t going to change. Instead, Google is turning up the volume, so to speak, on its existing mobile-friendly ranking factor. While we don’t know the extent of the amplification, it’s possible that mobile-friendliness will graduate from its current tiebreaker status to a more influential component in determining mobile rankings.
While that would be a significant development, response to this year’s update has been tempered. The collective mentality seems to be “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me,” especially from those who view last year’s update as a sham. While I maintain that Google wasn't trying to deceive us with the first mobile-friendly update, that line of thinking still carries some merit. The first update was less earth-shattering than most people expected, which is a helpful reminder that Google algorithm changes usually make a relatively small dent in the search engine result page (SERP) landscape.
What Do I Need to Do to My Website This Time?
I know what a lot of you are thinking right now: why should I care? For some of us, the minutiae of Google’s algorithms is important and interesting, but for most website owners it boils down to: A) How does this affect my website? and B) How does this affect my business?
The reality is that Google knows mobile-friendly websites are essential to a high-quality mobile web experience, and therefore the impact of mobile-friendliness in mobile search results is unlikely to decrease in the foreseeable future.
For those of you who already had a mobile-friendly website before April 21, 2015, I’m sorry to inform you that you’ve wasted five minutes of your life reading this blog post. You were ahead of the curve and your site will continue to benefit from being mobile-friendly. The same goes for websites built after the first update – you’re good to go and don’t need to do anything before May. Congrats!
If you’re a website owner who doesn’t know if your site is mobile-friendly, there’s a very simple way to find out. Visit Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test page, enter your website's homepage URL, and click Analyze. If your page isn’t mobile-friendly, Google will explain why. It’s important to note that this tool works on a page-by-page basis (just like Google’s algorithm), and it’s possible to have pages on your site that are mobile-friendly and others that aren’t. Make sure you check a variety of pages on your site before declaring it mobile-friendly.
Finally, there are websites that are completely mobile-unfriendly, and their owners know it. If you fall in this camp, you’re probably expecting to be scolded right now. Guess what? We’re actually empathetic to your situation. We understand that building a new responsive site - or even just a mobile version of your existing desktop site - is an expensive proposition. Organizations that don’t rely heavily on their website for generating revenue can probably survive with their mobile website permanently residing on the backburner. The same goes for websites who receive most of their visits from desktop users. Why spend a fortune improving your mobile experience if nobody’s accessing your site on mobile devices? Heck, one of the world’s top SEO companies didn’t have a fully mobile-friendly website until recently because such a small percentage of their visitors were from mobile devices.
While it’s true that having a mobile website benefits some organizations more than others, there’s a simple reason why every website should go mobile-friendly sooner rather than later: the percentage of mobile web searchers and the impact of Google’s mobile-friendly ranking factor are only going to increase. There’s no turning back – mobile is the present and future. You’re going to have to get on board eventually, so why delay?
There are also many reasons beyond mobile search performance to opt for a mobile-friendly website. The reason Google rewards mobile-friendly websites in the first place is that they deliver a far superior user experience for mobile users. Have you ever tried to look at a desktop-sized website on your phone? It requires a lot of zooming, squinting, and frustration, and it can lead to visitors leaving your site prematurely.
Earlier I noted that B2B businesses often forego mobile-friendliness because their sites have fewer mobile visitors. Another common trait of B2B businesses is that their individual transactions can be extremely lucrative. With that being the case, why would you want to alienate any potential customers or clients? What if your biggest potential client just left your website because she couldn’t view it on a mobile device, and went to your top competitor’s site instead?
These things add up. If you’re like most businesses, you’ve probably already had one or two website redesigns – and you’ll likely be due for another one in the next few years. Most web design and development companies build Google-compliant mobile-friendly websites, utilizing responsive web design or building separate mobile websites. If you’ve been putting off a website redesign, Google’s upcoming mobile update might be the motivational kick-start you need.
If you're looking for a web design and development company to make your website mobile-friendly, why not consider August Ash? We can upgrade your existing site to meet Google's standards, or we can build you a brand new custom responsive website that looks stunning on any device. Check out our work, then contact us for more information.