Preparing for Google’s mobile algorithm update

Google mobile update

Overview

Earlier this year, Google revealed that there will be an algorithm update on the 21st April, 2015 that will expand their use of mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal.

This will mean that websites not deemed to be ‘mobile-friendly’ will suffer from reduced visibility within organic search results. It’s also possible that this reduction in visibility may extend to desktop as an additional incentive to webmasters to improve mobile experiences.

Google has announced that this update will take place in ‘real-time’, meaning that if changes are made to make websites more mobile-friendly, as soon as the changes have been indexed by Google the benefits will be realised. Google has also said that this algorithm update will take place on a page-by-page basis, meaning that only those pages that are not mobile-friendly will be impacted, rather than the wider domain.

Why is Google implementing these changes?

At present, mobile search results are simply not good enough for the increasing majority of people now using Google on their mobile devices.

Despite the promotion of YouTube, Android and Google+, Google is still heavily reliant on AdWords to generate the majority of their revenue. If search does not offer value to users, then they may end up going elsewhere, representing a risk to Google’s revenue stream.

At the moment, mobile search results largely match desktop and are ranked based on the merits of the desktop site rather than their own. However, this is no longer acceptable with mobile traffic likely to outstrip desktop by Q2 2015:

Google does not want to be serving half of its users with sub-optimal search results and are therefore making efforts to mitigate this issue.

Case study:

Both desktop and mobile search results for the query [trains to paris] return Eurostar as the top result:

Eurostar search results

However, the user experience between desktop and mobile differs greatly. The desktop user lands on the Paris route landing page. The page provides the user with information about the route and offers the ability to start the booking process. The mobile experience, on the other hand, is much different. The search listing indicates that the user will land on the same, or at least a similar, page:

Eurostar UX

But instead the user is instantly redirected to a page where they must select their language, despite having arrived from Google UK. Furthermore, once the user has selected their language they are re-directed to the mobile homepage. Whilst this webpage does enable them to navigate to the page they ultimately require, overall it is a poor user experience.

This algorithm update was on the horizon

Over the past few months, Google has put some effort into informing webmasters about the performance of their mobile websites and alerting them to the issues they may have. These actions have included:

WMT - mobile usability report

  • Mobile-friendly snippet – Google start to signpost mobile-friendly websites in mobile lists next to the meta description

Mobile-friendly search result screenshot

  • Automated messages – Google has sent emails to webmasters with sites offering a poor mobile experience
  • Notification of update – it is rare for Google to confirm an algorithm update, let alone give advanced notification, and this provides an indication of their desire to give webmasters an opportunity to make improvements

How to prepare for the algorithm update

Here are five recommended actions to prepare for Google’s April mobile algorithm update:

1. Be mobile ready – make sure you have a mobile-friendly website and that the user-agent handling and redirects are handling Googlebot correctly

2. Have a view on mobile – evaluate your web analytics and understand what proportion of your traffic comes from mobile

3. Review behaviour metrics – analyse how your mobile traffic performs on your website. Benchmark key metrics including bounce rate and time on site to understand which pages require improvement

4. Check for notifications – check Google Webmaster Tools to see if Google has sent a notification about your mobile experience

4. View the Mobile Usability Report – with Webmaster Tools, look at what errors Google are reporting and what pages they apply to

Most brands know that they need to be ‘mobile-friendly’ but there are many ways to embrace mobile. Google prefers certain approaches over others so it’s worth exploring options that will prove a win-win for you and your customers.