April 21st. If your website isn’t mobile friendly, mark this date on your calendar. It’s the day that Google will release its impending mobile-friendly algorithm update. The SEO world is abuzz with talk about the update and what it means for site owners. This is the first time Google has actually warned the web community about an algorithm update, and everyone is busy trying to figure out what the impact will be and how to prepare.
If you’ve been keeping up with all things Google, this isn’t totally surprising. It’s been no secret that the search engine encourages mobile friendliness because it provides a better user experience, and Google has always been about providing its users with the best experience possible. There have been signs for several months indicating that mobile usability might eventually become a much more important ranking signal, including the mobile-friendly stamp in mobile search results and the launch of the Mobile-Friendly Test and Mobile Usability Report in Google Webmaster Tools.
What does the update mean and how can you prepare? Keep reading to find out.
The Warning Signs
As I said, this update has been in the works for a while, and Google has been taking steps to make site owners aware of the upcoming changes. Beginning in January, the search engine started sending warnings to webmasters of sites with mobile usability issues. These warnings came through Webmaster Tools and were also delivered to the email addresses associated with Webmaster Tools accounts.
The emails have the title “Fix mobile usability issues found on (insert website here)” and include links to inspect mobile issues in the associated Webmaster Tools account, as well as links to resources to help webmasters learn more about mobile-friendly sites and how to correct the issues Google encountered on their site. Most importantly, the emails note that pages not seen as mobile friendly will be “displayed and ranked appropriately for smartphone users.”
On February 26, Google officially confirmed that it would be expanding its use of mobile friendliness as a ranking signal beginning on April 21st. The announcement noted that the update will have a significant impact on mobile searches in all languages worldwide.
What We Know About It
In the weeks following Google’s official announcement, new details about the update began to emerge. Here is what we know about it so far:
- It will only affect mobile search results. This is an update to Google’s mobile ranking algorithm, so it will have no effect on desktop searches. That’s not to say that this isn’t far behind, though. If you have a site that’s not mobile friendly, expect a potential drop in rankings on smartphones following the update.
- It’s a page-by-page update. Rather than impacting sites as a whole, this update will evaluate pages on an individual basis, promoting those that are mobile friendly and demoting those that aren’t.
- It’s a real-time update. This means that if a page on your site is penalized and you make fixes for mobile friendliness, the page will be rewarded as soon as Google becomes aware of the changes, which likely means the next time it crawls your site.
- It’s big. According to Google’s Zineb Ait Bahajji, the update will have a bigger impact than Panda or Penguin. For more details on what exactly this means, check out Barry Schwartz’s analysis over at Search Engine Land.
What You Can Do
Now that you know a little bit more about the update, it’s time to figure out what you need to do to prepare. Here are a few things to do in the weeks ahead:
Check Your Mobile Traffic in Google Analytics. Take a look at your site’s analytics to get a feel for how much of your traffic comes from mobile devices. You can check the mobile percentage of your organic traffic (since this is what the update will affect) by going to Acquisition – All Traffic – Channels – Organic, then applying the Mobile Traffic segment.
To see the percentage of your site’s mobile traffic that comes from Google, select Source as the primary dimension in the Organic report. It’s also a good idea to get a sense of which landing pages are getting the most mobile organic traffic. To do this, select Landing Page as the primary dimension.
Review the Mobile Usability Report in Webmaster Tools. If you have a site that’s not mobile friendly and you haven’t registered it with Webmaster Tools, do that first. Then, check the Mobile Usability report to find issues that Google has encountered on your site and the pages on which it’s detecting these problems. This will give you a list of precise areas to target when going mobile friendly. You can also use Google's Mobile Friendly Test tool to help pinpoint mobile usability problems on a given webpage.
Check Your Mobile Rankings. In order to know how your site may be impacted by the update, you need to have a sense of how your site is currently performing in Google’s mobile search results. You can head back into the Organic report in your analytics and look at the top keywords sending traffic to your site to develop a list of ones to check. Of course, (not provided) will likely account for a lot of the keyword volume. If this is the case, consider looking at Landing Page as the primary dimension. Knowing where people are landing can sometimes give you an idea of what they searched for. Then, head to your smartphone and perform searches for your selected keywords and make notes of where your site appears.
Start Thinking About Mobile. Mobile is the future. It’s been growing, and it’s expected to keep growing. As the mobile experience becomes more important to users, the search engines are going to be giving increased preference to sites that are mobile friendly. We’re still in the relatively early stages, so there’s time to get on board before the going gets really tough. Whether you choose responsive design, dynamic serving, or a separate site, there is a mobile friendly option that will meet the needs of both your business and your site’s users. If you haven’t started thinking about it already, it’s time to start!
What do you think? Are you planning to go mobile friendly in the wake of Google’s announcement? Share you thoughts in the comments!