To M or not to M: More Mobile from Mountain View

 In Blog

To the untrained eye, all of the hubbub around Google’s announcement that mobile-friendliness would officially be a ranking factor globally starting on April 21st might seem unwarranted. Agreeably, there is a certain “duh” factor in this announcement. It makes sense to rank the pages in mobile search results that are mobile-friendly over the competitors that aren’t. Right?

What makes this announcement unique requires a bit of historical understanding of SEO and the industry’s relationship with Google and other search engines.

Google Blackbox

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Google’s Algorithm: the Black Box

For many years, SEOs have dealt with very few overt statements coming out of Google. While we’ve had the Google Webmaster Guidelines and the public interactions with people like Matt Cutts and John Mueller, at best, we’ve seen the framework of the ranking algorithm and its changes. Never the complete picture. I’ve said many times in my presentations and classes that “it’s not so much what they say as what they don’t say that you have to pay attention to.”

And yet, here we are seeing two major explicit announcements from Google regarding ranking in the past several months. (The first announcement was regarding Google’s preference in ranking for sites that use SSL and that have URLs that start with https.) It’s really unprecedented.

So, if for whatever reason you feel like you can ignore this announcement, I urge you to reconsider.

What Enterprises Need to Know

Let’s go through the basics of this announcement first and then dig a little deeper based on some follow-up statements coming from Google and its public figures since the announcement.

Mobile-friendliness – What does it mean?

More specifics about what is meant by the phrase “mobile-friendly” came out of follow-up conversations with John Mueller as well as a conference appearance by Gary Illyes at SMX West.

SMX West 2015 Mobile Panel

seoClarity’s Mitul Gandhi (left) with Barry Schwartz, Gary Illyes, and Bryson Meunier

In short, if your pages pass Google’s Mobile Friendly Test, you are mobile-friendly. Gary Illyes from Google confirmed that there is a 1-to-1 relationship for the tests conducted as part of the mobile-friendly tool and what the search engine uses to determine whether or not the “mobile-friendly” tag is displayed next to certain results. (For specifics on what constitutes “mobile-friendly”, there’s a list on this Google Webmaster blog post.) But here are some helpful hints:

  • Images and page layout should resize so that the user doesn’t have to scroll left or right or zoom. Text should be readable without manual adjustment on the user’s part.
  • You can use mobile-responsive, a separate mobile experience, or a dynamic site. As long as Google can crawl it, they aren’t demanding a specific kind of mobile-friendliness … just that your site should render on smartphones.
  • This algorithm change is page-specific, so if some of your pages aren’t mobile-friendly, your entire domain won’t be tagged as mobile-unfriendly.

Technical Considerations

Further discussions on this topic have revealed a few key technical considerations to keep in mind as well.

  • Mobile-responsive sites are “easier for Google,” according to Gary Illyes, but there is no difference in how responsive and m. sites are treated – meaning, there is no ranking advantage to having a responsive site. It simply reduces the chances of errors with setups that are common with m. sites.
  • If you are using a separate subdomain or subfolder for your mobile pages, make sure that you have your canonical tags properly set to refer to your desktop pages.
  • Make sure that you are not blocking any of Google’s bot resources. Specifically, do not block Smartphone Googlebot or Googlebot-Mobile.
  • Google renders the page just like a normal browser would. Do not block JavaScript or CSS, especially if you are rendering your mobile experience dynamically. This could result in your pages being tagged as mobile-unfriendly.

And while Google says that mobile page speed isn’t a specific factor in this April 21st release, don’t ignore the importance of page speed. While it isn’t a specific factor related to this mobile ranking change, it is still a general ranking factor. If all things are equal between your page and a competitor’s page, but they’re faster, they will outrank you.

Learn More at our Webinar

Keep in mind that Google rarely pulls back the curtain to reveal explicit ranking factors. If they have felt that this change was important enough to announce, you should feel that it’s important enough to implement and optimize. If you’d like to learn more about this change and how seoClarity can help you prepare for it, join Mitul Gandhi and me this Thursday for our webinar. We’ll discuss the state of mobile search, how to prepare for Google’s algorithm change, and how we can help you.

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Keith Goode
Keith Goode is the Chief SEO Evangelist at seoClarity. With over nine years of experience in SEO, his expertise spans global enterprise SEO and enterprise technical SEO, and these fuel his fondness for SEO education and the spreading of SEO Consciousness throughout organizations.
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