Google’s Declaration of War on Non Mobile Friendly Websites

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Nick Dardalis

You may have heard about the upcoming update that Google is about to roll out. The original notification about the mobile friendly update came back in February, and it is due to be unleashed on 21st April 2015.

However you may not have noticed, but back in November 2014 Google started labelling websites as being “mobile friendly” and explained their intentions to ensure that their search results pages were returning sites that mobile users would find useful and useable.

Why is Google penalising non-mobile pages

image of mobile phone with search

Before going any further it is worth considering why Google is making these changes. All Search Engines have one primary concern: that is to return pages in their results that users will find useful, and then to display those pages in an order that reflects their likely usefulness against the user’s query.

Do not underestimate how important this principle is to the major search engines. If users do not find the results of their searches useful they will go elsewhere.

So basically Google wants to make sure that if you search for something on your mobile device you will find pages that you are able to easily read and interact with, rather than web pages that display a desktop-only version.

The existing algorithm is already incredibly complex and it is unclear how Google is going to index and rank pages for this mobile-friendly update. Gary Illyes of Google was recently interviewed and gave some very useful guidance about the update here.

Who will be affected by the mobile friendly update?

In the announcement on 26th February Google stated that the change on 21st April will

affect mobile searches in all languages worldwide and will have a significant impact in our search results

However even though this is undoubtably a significant change in the algorithm it is difficult to know in advance just how dramatic the changes will be. There are two obvious questions:
1. What is a “mobile search”

2. What is a “mobile friendly” website

The other less obvious question, but potentially significant, is how this update will affect the way that content from apps is returned in Google’s Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs). Anyone who maintains Apps will want to make sure that they are indexable by Google to ensure that they are returned. There is a step-by-step guide on Google’s developer site if this concerns you.

Does mobile only relate to Mobile phones? What about tablets, are they mobile? And what about laptops with very small screens e.g. notebooks?

This was not initially very clear and has lead to some confusion, with people claiming that Tablet users (iPad, Surface, eReaders etc) will only see mobile-friendly results. This would seem odd given that high resolution screens on an iPad are perfectly capable of displaying a desktop web page.

In early April Google confirmed (via Twitter) that the mobile-friendly change is for mobile users and not for tablet users. So for the time being it is clear that this update will only affect people using Google Search via a mobile (phone).

Google has offered some advice for webmasters to ensure that their sites are optimised for Tablets.

What is a Mobile Friendly webpage

Google has stated that in order to be eligible for the “mobile-friendly” label the following applies:

  • Does not use Flash
  • Text resizes and is readable without zooming
  • The page can be viewed without horizontal scrolling
  • Links are spaced apart so that they are easy to tap

To help website owners prepare for the changes Google has released a tool to test whether an individual page is mobile-friendly. But a word of caution when using this tool:

Firstly, the tool only checks individual pages and not an entire site. This is relevant because some content management systems will format pages differently, and secondly the content on an individual page could break the mobile friendliness of that page.

We have tested a number of pages against this tool and found some inconsistent results. i.e. pages that display poorly on an iPhone appearing to pass the test. Conversely pages that meet the above criteria failing the test.

So whilst the test is a useful tool is probably should not be relied on to guarantee that a website will be unaffected by the change on 21st April.

Does my Website need to be redesigned?

It is completely understandable that small business owners who perhaps built their own site, or paid someone to do it in the hope that it was a one-time cost, will be concerned about these changes.

Mobile users matter, they are important! A mobile user is more likely to be trying to find your business with a view to visiting or calling you. If you have access to your website analytics take a look at the number of visitors from mobile devices. You may be surprised.

There are so many variables at play it is difficult to recommend a generic course of action. It is hard to think of a business to which mobile traffic from search would not matter. How much work you need to do (if any) to ensure that your website is mobile-friendly will depend on a number of factors:

  • What platform the website is currently on (WordPress, Joomla, custom built, etc.)
  • Your level of skill & knowledge at editing websites
  • Whether the entire site needs to be mobile-friendly or just a selection of pages
  • What you want your mobile visitors to be able to do; place orders, contact you, consume information etc.

The best course of action is to check your homepage and a selection of your most important pages against the Google mobile friendly tool.

Next review your analytics and see how mobile visitors are using your site at the moment.

And then give some thought to either changing your site, or instructing someone else to change it for you.

When thinking about making changes it is worth bearing in mind that Google is unlikely to completely block a site from being returned if someone searches for a business by name.  So for example if you search for “ABC Double Glazing” it seems unlikely that Google would not return at least the homepage for that company’s website.  That would damage user experience.  However the same business would probably not be returned for more general “double glazing” queries.  That being said we won’t know for sure until after the change is implemented.

The one bit of good news is that the index is apparently going to be dynamically refreshed (much in the same way that the current index is).  This means that if on the 22nd April a website is not mobile-friendly, but by the 30th April it is, then once Googlebot has re-crawled the site the new status will be updated.  However, bear in mind that it can take considerable time for some websites to be re-crawled.

Because this change has not happened yet there is no way to be sure what to what extent it will affect website owners. You can be sure that there will be some impact and that this is not the end of the matter. Google always tweaks its search algorithms and this is sure to be the first of many changes affecting mobile.  So now might be a good time to review your website and online marketing activities.