Why the shift in emphasis on mobile search results? In the old days, you had one fixed layout. No layout differences between devices, because there WERE no other devices. Now, the average business website has to adapt to customer needs and to be honest, I’m glad Google has pushed the change. Giving your customer the best possible experience when search for your products and services helps all businesses.
You wouldn’t make a visitor to your shop tackle a booby trapped obstacle course or tap products randomly, hoping they touch the one they need, so why put them through that hell on your website? On a global average, 50% of search results are now coming in from mobile devices. So, in a cup half empty scenario, you’re alienating 50% of your audience.
Introducing the Google mobile algorithm update
So, we come to the latest round of search engine algorithm changes with the mobile friendly Google mobile search results and the possible penalties that surround it. With a rollout that started on the 21st April and estimated to take a few weeks, there’s going to be a seismic shift in the search results on mobile, with many sites likely to see themselves falling behind their mobile ready competition. This applies to mobile results only, but that, as stated, is a possible 50% of your customer base.
A lot of people reckon that Google would like to welcome you to the fabulous World Of Tomorrow by yanking the carpet out from underneath you. Unfortunately, these tend to be the same people with a website that remains a dusty relic from the dark days of the web, maybe running a modern framework yet structured in a ‘Let’s party like it’s 1999!’ fashion.
It’s not just the content that has to be fresh and inviting; it’s the underlying structure as well. Web design and development is a ferocious storm of new technologies, ideologies and techniques that the end visitor (or even the website owner) doesn’t see from the front end. What looks like a simple layout of images, links and text is underpinned by code, logic, styling and layout.
The last two really big search algorithm changes, Penguin and Panda, concentrated on weeding out those with a history of gaming the system with artificial linking strategies, thin content and spam content; an endless list of low quality back linking partners, link farms and keyword saturation.
Whether the result of a dodgy SEO firm using old-school tactics or an old-school self build using a ‘whatever sticks’ approach, the end result was the removal of all those websites that you wouldn’t want to land on in the first place. That’s a good thing!
The latest update is entirely about usability and experience.
What does Google consider as a mobile ready website?
Try viewing a desktop site on a mobile phone. You know the ones, we’ve all been there. Pinch and zoom hell, with touch elements so close together that the average mobile browser has to zoom them in yet again, to make sure you’re about to hit the right one.
A mobile ready website is based around a technique called ‘responsive design’. This introduces flexibility into a website’s layout and allows it to adapt to the screen size (and resolution) of the device it’s being viewed on. Typically, these are not set to specific devices and rely on pixel breakpoints, for example under 740px or above, to alter layout.
The main criteria of a mobile ready website are:
- A mobile viewport configured in the site theme or template
- Touch elements given enough space
- Text large enough to be readable
- Open source technology built on a mobile platform – no Flash, no Shockwave. HTML5 heralded the step forward.
This sounds really easy! But sorry to burst your bubble – beating the Google mobile search results algorithm is going to cost time and probably money. You can’t just drop these into a website and be done because you’re not thinking about user experience.
I recently had a client who uploaded a plugin to a WordPress install that did a fine job of passing the mobile testing tool yet looked a mess when viewed on a smartphone. Tables that vanished off the side, important information buried at the bottom of the page and a vanished call to action six feet to the right. The end result was a big loss in conversion, even over the pinch ’n zoom method.
Updating your website to be mobile ready requires a rethink
The conversion to a mobile ready website involves a total rethink of design and structure. In a lot of cases, internal logic needs to be rewritten to cater for those missing calls to action and design elements. It needs a mobile-first philosophy; design for mobile first and make progressive iterations in layout and design as the viewport grows larger. Also, bear in mind:
- Website optimisation – you can’t squirt desktop resources down the average UK 3G mobile network
- Non essential content – that slider might look fantastic, but on an iPhone 5 it’s going to be illegible
- Big thumbs – don’t make your visitor mash the touchscreen in frustration, Some of us have very blunt thumbs.
- Vital content needs to change position – don’t bury the content that sells your website
The good news! It’s page by page!
It’s not all doom and gloom – the good news is that you can beat the mobile search results penalty on a page by page basis. Google will only penalise pages, not websites. If you can produce a mobile ready solution for your most important pages, you’ve made a great start in the right direction.
Websites can be re-indexed in a matter of hours via the Fetch system within Google Webmaster Tools, so there’s no waiting for weeks as your customer base slowly dies a death. There is light at the end of the tunnel, and you can beat the Google mobile search results algorithm update.
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