Understanding Google’s Mobile-Friendly Update

Earlier this year, Google announced that they would be rolling out a change to their mobile ranking algorithm on April 21st. This was significant because with previous updates, Google has generally made the change before the announcement. Google has stated that this change will be more impactful than previous algorithm changes, and as it involves possible development changes for many websites, they wanted to give time to prepare.

What is this Mobile Friendly Update?

You’re a builder. You have a website, but it’s not mobile. When someone searches for “new homes in Baltimore,” your website comes up first in a Google search on a desktop. Congratulations, you’ve done a great job with your SEO!

The same prospect searches the same phrase, only this time on their mobile device. Your website doesn’t show up on the first page. Instead, your competitors – who have mobile websites – show up.

What happened?

In order to provide the best user experience, Google works to deliver the most relevant results for any search. If I search for “new homes in Baltimore” from my phone, click on the first result, and am directed to a non-mobile website, my experience suffers. It makes more sense that Google show mobile websites in their results when I perform a search on my mobile device.

To get users acclimated, Google began displaying a “mobile-friendly” tag next to websites in mobile search results, to let users know which websites might be better optimized for their device. Come April 21, Google’s algorithm change will prioritize websites that are mobile over those that aren’t.

Myth: If My Website is Not Mobile, It Won’t Appear At All in Mobile Search Results

Google isn’t suggesting that non-mobile websites will completely disappear from the rankings in mobile searches, but they will most certainly be penalized for not being mobile. If your non-mobile site is on the top page today (mobile search), the drop after April 21 could be substantial.

This update will not affect your desktop rankings, so if you don’t have a mobile website, you shouldn’t see a drop in rankings for non-mobile searches.

How Can I Check If My Website is Mobile-Friendly?

Go here. Type in your website. The Mobile-Friendly Tool will analyze your site and report back to you. This is a Pass/Fail situation. No B’s or C’s, just A’s and F’s. Either you’re mobile, or you’re not.

The good news is that indexing will be in real-time, meaning that you likely won’t take a hit that takes a long time to recover from.

What Else is Changing?

If you’ve paid attention to search engine results over the past few years, you’ve certainly seen some changes. The number of results listed on a page has undoubtedly shrunk, ads take up more real estate, and in their attempt to answer your search, Google often provides neat answer boxes that bump organic results down even further. Make no mistake – while Google says it’s looking out for the user experience, their primary goal is to make money. You could have a mobile site and your mobile SEO could be dialed in, but with these changes your mobile traffic could still drop.

A question we’re often asked is about mobile apps versus mobile websites. That’s a lengthy discussion in and of itself, but it does seem that part of Google’s mobile update is to include mobile apps in its rankings. The impact of mobile app rankings will likely vary across industries, but it’s something else that may take up mobile search engine result space.

What Should I Be Doing to Be Successful in Mobile Search?

First, have a plan. April 21st is just a few days away, and in all likelihood if you don’t have a mobile site already, it would be a mad dash to get it done in time. When implementing a major change like this, it’s important to consider your long-term strategy. Is this a good time for a complete re-design? Could you benefit from additional functionality? Is your content management system outdated?

Doing something just to do it doesn’t always yield the best results. How are your prospects finding your website today? Mobile search? Paid ads? Social networks? Don’t know? That might be a great place to start. If you have an analytics tool set up on your site, use it to your advantage. If you don’t have it set up, do it right now!

For further insight into Google’s mobile update, Cindy Krum has an excellent post on Moz’s site.

Ryan McGrath is a Marketing Consultant at G.1440. He can be reached at rmcgrath@g1440.com or 410-843-3880.