By now, most people know about Google’s new mobile algorithm update. Either you prepared for it, or you probably saw a drop-off in mobile rankings. If you did see a drop-off and don’t know why, here’s everything you need to know about what the update is and how to fix your site to boost your mobile rankings.
What It Is
According to Google’s blog on the subject,
“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.”
Essentially, Google recognizes that mobile is the most rapidly growing segment of the web, and it’s making sure its mobile SERPs prioritize pages that are mobile-friendly.
There are two points to note here. First, the algorithmic update is page-by-page. That means that if you have a few pages that are supposed to be desktop-only, that’s okay. You can avoid optimizing them without worrying that you’re killing the rankings of the pages you want to rank for mobile.
Second, the algorithm updates real time. So unlike manual Penguin penalties where you had to submit reconsideration requests and wait months to be let out of Penguin jail, the mobile algorithm should stop punishing your pages as soon as you make them mobile friendly and they are reindexed.
Becoming Mobile Friendly
There are three ways to create mobile-friendly pages. First, you can use the m. subdomain—just create new pages designed for mobile, and include the subdomain m. Your url will look like this: m.example.com.
The problem with this is that it involves making each page twice, and if not done perfectly can generate a lot of errors. The m. also means that you have two urls for each page, which makes it harder for users to link to and share your pages. Done well, m. can be fine, but it’s not ideal.
The second way to make pages mobile-friendly is by making content dynamic—so you load a different version of the page for mobile than you do for desktop. This path, like m., is error-prone. You need to handle the coding precisely in order to not accidentally engage in cloaking.
Google prefers that you simply make your pages responsive. This means using HTML5 to change how the user sees the page depending on the size of the browser.
From an SEO perspective, responsive design is elegant and prone to fewer errors than the other two options.
Using responsive design—or at the very least, dynamic or m. design—is key to making your site mobile-friendly. It’s Step 1 in recovering your mobile rankings. Now let’s dive into Step 2: how to rock Google’s mobile test.
Rocking Google’s Test
The first step is a mobile audit using Google’s mobile-friendly test tool. This tool functions at the page level, so if you use this you will have to manually enter one page at a time to test. You may only want to use this tool for important pages and reference Google Webmaster Tools for a site wide analysis.
Pages that aren’t mobile-friendly in this tool are marked as such, including errors that should be fixed, like this:
Sites that pass get a mark like this:
It’s important to fix any errors that Google’s test brings up. First, if you don’t, you’re probably irritating your mobile users—people don’t like trying to view a site that (for example) has miniature links so close together that they’re never sure which link they’re clicking.
The second reason to fix these issues is that Google’s mobile algorithm is a pass/fail test. If you pass their mobile-friendly test, you get a check mark and a boost in the rankings (or avoid a drop); if you don’t, your rankings could take a hit. So it’s important to fix any errors and make sure you pass.
Along with the mobile-friendly test, it’s important to check Google’s WMT (webmaster tools) usability report, which will alert you to mobile errors on your site. For instance, if you’re using Flash video, which doesn’t load for many smartphones, this report will tell you.
Finally, make sure your pages load quickly on mobile. Google’s PageSpeed Insight tool can test your site and provide recommendations for making it faster. This isn’t officially part of the mobile update, but Google incorporates site loading speed into its overall algorithm. Especially on mobile devices with less bandwidth than desktops, a quick loading site is crucial both for satisfying users and for staying high in the SERPs.
This is also important if you are choosing an out of the box responsive solution for a CMS like WordPress, Joomla, or Drupal. Some of these solutions can slow load speed and should be tested to ensure proper load speed.
Making Major Changes
Now, what if your site’s not mobile-friendly, and it’ll take major work to get it there? Google offers detailed instructions depending on your CMS. They even include recommendations on how to update the site if you built it yourself, or how to talk to your developer about the issues (or choose a new one to update your site). I won’t waste your time copying Google’s advice, so here are the links.
If you run a CMS: https://developers.google.com/webmasters/mobile-sites/website-software/
If you developed the site yourself: https://developers.google.com/webmasters/mobile-sites/mobile-seo/?hl=en-US&utm_source=MFT&utm_medium=incoming-link&utm_campaign=MFT
If you need a new developer to make your site mobile-friendly: https://developers.google.com/webmasters/mobile-sites/get-started/hire-developer?hl=en-US&utm_source=MFT&utm_medium=incoming-link&utm_campaign=MFT
Google’s new mobile algorithm is bigger than either Penguin or Panda, but it doesn’t have to be as scary. Even if your mobile rankings have tanked, it’s not too late to get them back. Just follow the guidelines above, optimize your site for mobile, and you could even see your traffic grow as you come out ahead of competitors still in love with desktops.
What else are you doing to optimize your site for mobile?
Chris Rodgers is CEO & Founder of Colorado SEO Pros, a boutique SEO agency providing a suite of inbound marketing services for small and mid-sized organizations. Chris has been working in the SEO and digital marketing industry for over 10 years and aspires to provide a better class of SEO and inbound marketing services to industry leaders across a variety of verticals. Connect with Chris on Twitter.