Why the Google Mobile Algorithm Update is not as scary as you think

11 April, 2015

Google Algorithm Update AdviceIf you work in online retail, you’ve probably heard about ‘Mobilegeddon’.

Unless you and your team gave up the internet for Lent, the impending April 21 Google mobile algorithm update is not news to you.

Surprisingly, I’m not about to fan the flames of industry-lit rankings disaster panic.

Instead, this post will help you find your way through the screaming cluster of dramatically fearful marketers to help you understand what the Google mobile update means for your website without the frantic hyperbole.

Calm down, Mobilegeddon is not the end of your rankings world

Sure, Bruce Willis won’t save your website, but the Google update Armageddon forecast is not the approaching asteroid that industry scaremongers will have you believe.

Sorry, I couldn’t resist the obligatory inflammatory, dramatised horror spoof image…

Mobilgeddon Is Coming!

I’m here to tell you, this rankings update will probably be more molehill than mountain for your ecommerce site.

But I’m guessing, if you’re anything like the clients, partners, friends and colleagues that we gorillas have been talking to, you’re still a little bit confused by all the frightful hoopla around Google’s announcement.

  • You know you need to make your website ‘mobile friendly’ but you’re not sure about the cheapest and easiest way to make that happen.
  • You feel like you should be worried, but you’re not exactly sure how worried to be (but you think it should be a lot, because this whole thing sounds terrifyingly serious).

Most folks we have spoken to about the update have got these three dot points covered.

They know this Google update thing is a big deal, but they are not sure how big of a deal it is.

Exactly how much time, money and effort do you need to prepare for it?

I’m here to tell you – probably not as much as you think.

The furore surrounding Google updates is increasingly hysterical.

Now that Google has announced the changes before they are rolled out, it’s almost like every second online marketing blogger has turned into a crazed doomsdayer.

With every new “How to get ready for Mobilegeddon” article overwhelming your Twitter feed and flashing red in your inbox, you find your website anxiety levels creeping up towards meltdown.

The message is the same:

Does your site suck on mobiles? If it does, drop everything and fix it.

NOW.

AT ALL COSTS.

Yes, it’s expensive, but do you want to lose all your customers and get fired?

NO

So fix it RIGHT NOW!!!

It feels like an SEO apocalypse is approaching and you need to join the rush of crazed marketer’s clamouring over each other to stockpile the last cans of mobile optimisation left on the digital shelf.

Don’t worry about budget! We’ll pay anything! Just get our site optimised before the ruthless deadline of website rankings death”

BREATHE.

It’s okay.

Google is not internet god. Its wrath is not all conquering. Its mobile update is not soul destroying.

Your online store will be just fine.

So what exactly is happening with this Google mobile algorithm update?

On Feb 26, 2015 Google decided to tell us marketers about the changes to their algorithm and the exact day they will go into effect. Oh and for those of you who hear the phrase ‘Google algorithm’ bandied about and pretend to know what that means, here’s a little definition for you.

From Google. I know, so meta.

Google Algorithm Definition

Basically, Google’s algorithm is the system used to decide which content ranks where on their results pages for any given keyword. This update means that Google’s mobile search algorithm will now be taking mobile friendliness into account.

Here’s the all-important update direct from the Google announcement page.

Update: More mobile-friendly websites in search results.

Starting April 21, we will be expanding our use of mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal. This change will affect mobile searches in all languages worldwide and will have a significant impact in our search results. Consequently, users will find it easier to get relevant, high quality search results that are optimized for their devices.”

If you’re interested in the finer details and ramifications, check out this post from the SEO go to guys at Moz for some more specifics.

Why are Google giving us a heads up ahead of time?

It’s the first time Google has warned us all about their algorithm update. What this means is unclear.

Ecommerce CMS provider Volusion (check out their blog – it’s both helpful and fun to read) creatively explain Google’s announcement about turn with a particularly accurate analogy:

“They (Google) rarely pre-announce an algorithm update – changes in ranking factors are usually gifted to SEOs as a fun surprise, like a giant spider bursting out of a birthday cake”

The Google Algorithm Surprise

So why would Google announce this change rather than the tried and tested spider-cake method?

  • Because mobile optimisation is so hard?
  • Because changes require so much more time?
  • Because the impact will be so significant?
  • Because the impact won’t be very significant?

It’s probably not worth speculating on why this announcement was made. We won’t know for sure why Google has decided to put us on alert. So instead, let’s concentrate on why it’s happening and what it will mean for you.

Why is Google updating its algorithm?

To overcome the scary emotional hyperbole, we need to keep in mind the reason this update is happening.

Google just wants to give their users the best possible result to their query.

Their primary goal is to improve searcher experience.

It’s clear that smartphone uptake is rising and mobile internet searches are increasing rapidly. Emarketer illustrate the gravity of this trend.

Mobile Internet Usage

This Ericsson Report forecasts that 90% of the global population over 6 years of age will own a mobile phone by 2020. That’s a lot of population. With internet accessibility opening up huge growth markets in South America and Sub-Saharan Africa, there’s about to be a whole lot more people searching Google on their mobile.

If you sell online, chances are people might want to use their mobile internet to buy your stuff. Mobile friendliness will now help you with your customers and your rankings.

Mobile unfriendliness will not.

You yourself would understand. When you search Google on your mobile and you on a page that’s so tiny you feel like you are operating a rubix cube just to scroll, read and click – you’re irritated.

Google wants to save you that hassle.

The update is intended to give mobile searchers positive online experiences.

It’s not about refining their algorithm, improving standards in website design or forcing companies to buy more advertising to hold their rankings.

Bottom Line: Content marketing Strategist Andy Betts sums it up in this piece for Search Engine Watch

“If your site has valuable information that performs well because customers find you helpful, they want you to continue to rank well. They simply want to ensure that their users have an optimal experience no matter what device they use.”

It’s about giving searchers better experiences. That’s what matters to Google.

Giving customers better experiences is what should matter to you.

If your customers want a better mobile experience on your site, you need to consider your options.

Separating the facts, the predictions, and the scaremongering

Swathes of ‘online marketing experts’ are having their say about the impact of Google’s mobile friendliness update. Some are forecasting the end of the mobile internet world as we know it, suggesting those without a responsively designed website will be banished to the deep dark depths of Google’s page 10+ forever.

I want to separate the calculated predictions from the wild speculation to isolate the most important information for ecommerce marketers to consider.

Before we go any further past this point, I want you to watch this short 6 min clip from the SEO mythbusting folks at Distilled. They are one of our favourite voices in the ever-noiser online marketing ‘thought leadership conversation’.

This video is a perfect summary of the situation (there’s a little techie SEO nerdspeak jargon, but you’ll get the gist).

We couldn’t have put it much better ourselves…

The Google hints you should be aware of

Gary Illyes, Google Webmaster Trends Analyst alluded to some of the factors that influence Google’s new mobile friendlieness testing at a recent Q&A during SMX West. Gary pointed to the following areas that marketers need to consider to ensure their mobile search rankings stay solid:

  • Responsive design does not have a ranking benefit in and of itself. Mobile (or ‘m.com’) sites can still rank well, and responsively designed sites may still fail the mobile friendliness test
  • Any CSS & JavaScript must be crawlable for Google’s spiders to get the mobile friendly green light
  • Tablet searches are not affected by the update
  • If you have a mobile specific site, your URL formation is – all of these URL prefixes work equally well for your mobile rankings – m.site.com, mobile.site.com,site.com/mobile, www.mobilesite.com
  • Because pages are analysed independently of the rest of your site, a failed mobile friendliness test on one page will not affect the rankings of any other page on your site
  • The algorithm update will determine mobile-friendliness in real time, meaning that newly optimised pages should receive updated rankings sooner than ever
  • Google is currently working on a dedicated mobile specific index

The ecommerce ramifications

One specific ecommerce repercussion is worth tabling.

Jill Kocher, writing for Practical Ecommerce, outlines the potential impact of the update on both retail brand specific product searches and manufacturer brand product searches.

“If a consumer is searching on a mobile device for a product sold specifically by your ecommerce brand, my prediction is that your brand will continue to rank at the top regardless of mobile friendliness. For example, for site-branded keywords, such as ‘macys formal dresses’, mobile search results are unlikely to change dramatically. There’s no way to know for certain until April 21, but logically Google should respect the searcher’s ecommerce brand navigational search intent.

The same would presumably not hold true for product brand searches, such as ‘UGG boots’, where many etailers sell that brand. We should expect the mobile-friendly update to impact product branded keywords in the same way as it would a completely unbranded keyword like ‘winter boots’.”

Basically, if you’re selling a product online that a number of competitors also stock, your mobile device search rankings will be affected if your site does not pass the Google mobile friendliness test. If you do pass, and your competitors don’t, you might find yourself with a stack more potential customers.

If you want to really get your hands dirty in the finer details of this Google update, mobile marketing specialist Cindy Krum has pulled apart the technical aspects in an article for Moz titled “9 Things You Need to Know About Google’s Mobile-Friendly Update”. Cindy makes some solid predictions, but a sneaky warning here – this post is for the SEO advanced.

Should you be worried about your online store’s rankings?

In Google’s words, the change will have a “significant impact” on search results for mobile searchers.

Zineb Ait Bahajji is on Google’s Webmaster Trends team. At SMX Munich, Zineb was quoted saying the new mobile-friendly algorithm change will have more of an impact on search rankings than either Panda or Penguin, two of the largest and most impactful search algorithm updates Google has ever launched.

The question is – how significant will the impact be?

For any ecommerce site that generates a decent amount of search engine referral traffic from mobile devices, this algorithm update will have an impact. If you don’t have a mobile friendly site, it might hurt.

Unfortunately, while past Google updates have primarily impacted larger ecommerce sites actively trying to game the system, this change will have an effect on smaller online storess who have not invested in mobile site design.

But before you start counting your dollars for a comprehensive site overhaul, remember this:

The update will only affect your rankings on mobile device Google searches

  • Your rankings are not impacted when a user searches on a desktop or tablet device.
  • Your paid search performance will not be impacted (any Google ads you have remain unaffected).
  • The update involves a black and white ‘friendliness test’. If you pass, your rankings will not be affected. If you fail, and Google deems your site not to be mobile friendly, your rankings on mobile device searches will be hit by the update.

The update is page specific

  • Each page will be individually run through the Google mobile friendliness test. If one page passes, it will not be negatively affected by the failure of another page on your site.
  • Each time you update your page, Google will retest it. If you pass, your rankings will be adjusted accordingly.
  • This means, you can recoup your rankings losses as soon as you pass the test.

The rankings changes won’t be immediate

  • It could take days or weeks for Google to make the adjustments to its mobile rankings.
  • Most analysts are predicting that updates will take at least a week from the April 21 date to take shape.

Google is updating rankings in real time

  • If your rankings do get hit, you can update your page to pass the mobile friendliness test and recoup your rankings losses almost immediately.

Matt Southern, Senior Writer at Search Engine Journal explains this detail in his post on Search Engine Journal:

“When Googlebot crawls an individual page, it either passes the mobile-friendly test or it doesn’t. As a result, when you apply a fix to a template or a page or unblock files, Google’s algorithm will re-evaluate each individual page again the next time it crawls your site. So if you make a fix today and Googlebot crawls your site tomorrow, the pages affected by your change will be retested immediately and given a new pass or fail designation.”

So all this means:

  • Your desktop and tablet rankings will remain untouched
  • Each page is tested individually and rankings are calculated in isolation
  • You only have to pass the ‘mobile friendliness test’
  • Even if you fail, you can restore your rankings as soon as you pass
  • You have a little bit longer to sort things out before the doomsday deadline

It’s not that bad right?

I’m sure none of you generate 100% of your online store’s Google search engine referral traffic from mobile devices. So a chunk (probably the majority) of your SEO generated sales will be unaffected.

And you don’t need a site-wide redesign to haul up your rankings after the update. You can fix your high priority pages one at a time.

At the very least, your site should retain its mobile rankings. It’s very possible — if the sites ranking higher than yours in mobile search results are not mobile friendly — that your ecommerce site could rank even higher than it does today. For mobile-friendly sites, this algorithm update is all upside for organic search performance.

The very worst-case outcome of this update is that Google organic mobile search drives zero visits and sales starting April 21. If you can handle that, you don’t need to fret.

How to decide if your rankings are safe

If you’re selling online, chances are you are using an off the shelf CMS from an online retail specialist. The vast majority of these providers have responsive design built in to your webpage templates.

Jump on a call with your account manager, or flick an email through to your contact from your CMS provider. They’ll be well aware of the potential ramifications of this update on their platform.

If not, there’s a few ways to check your website’s mobile friendliness:

The Mobile Friendly Test

In the announcement, Google pointed us to the Mobile-Friendly Test tool. Simply add any URL from your site into the tool and a mobile friendliness test will be run against your page. If you fail, you’ll get an indicator of the issues you may need to fix.

While Google adds the caveat that some results may not be 100% accurate, it seems this tool is the best indicator of your success or failure come Google rankings D-Day.

Webmaster Tools Mobile Usability Reports

If you have your site set up with Google Webmaster Tools, you’ll be able to run mobile usability reports to give you deeper insights into Google’s perception of your site’s mobile friendliness.

Don’t get too swallowed up by any suggestions from these reports. Google SEO spokesperson John Mueller has pointed to the Mobile Friendly test as the primary indicator for the upcoming algorithm update. This post from Alan Bleiweiss for Search Engine Journal explains why the Webmaster Tools reports are still relevant, but more important for those wishing to optimise their site beyond the requirements of a Google mobile friendliness pass mark.

PageSpeed Insights Tool

The ‘PSI’ test gives you some indications around the speed and performance of your website across any device. Tread carefully with this test. As Alan’s fantastic Saerch Engine Journal article demonstrates, the PageSpeed Insight Tool is not the most accurate predictor of your rankings safety at the moment.

If you have to put your prediction eggs in one basket, make it the Mobile Friendliness Test.

Apart from Google’s supplied testing tools, there’s some red flags you need to look out for as baseline indicators of mobile messiness.

Oh – and just remember to test a broad smattering of your site’s pages. Because the algorithm will be applied to every page individually, as opposed to an entire site, you should test more than one or two URL’s. It’s possible for your home page to pass the test and your product pages to fail, for example.

As a baseline, test one of each of your product, category, shipping, returns and payment pages – and your homepage, of course.

How to make your site pass the Mobile Friendliness Test

Have a look at the following features of your site. if you’re confident you have these nailed, you should be okay come April 21:

  • Fonts that scale easily and legibly across a range of smaller and larger screen size
  • Easy to use and well spaced out touch elements (particularly links)
  • If you have any CSS or JavaScript styling, the Googlebots must be able to crawl it (if this sounds like another language, ask your developer to translate!)
  • If you have different mobile site URLs, you must redirect mobile users on each and every desktop URL to the related mobile URL
  • Make sure your mobile pages load nice and quickly
  • Avoid Flash – just in general (but mostly for your mobile users)
  • Use text that your mobile users can read without having to develop ninja thumb zooming capabilities
  • Your content can’t be wider than your visitor’s mobile screen – side-to-side scrolling makes reading your page more frustrating than watching a tennis match with a sore neck
  • For the technical fiends, make sure your mobile viewport is set (another one to run by your developer)

The 4 things you need to do to prepare for ‘Mobilegeddon’

Let’s face it – it’s probably too late to redesign your website before the 21st of April.

So what do you do to avoid losing your mobile search rankings ?

If you want the exhaustive step by step how to, this post from Amanda Gant of Orbit Media is the best I’ve come across – and I’ve come across a lot. She takes you through everything you’ll need to find, check and fix your mobile optimisation issues.

Obviously a newly minted, responsively designed site should get you a Google greenlight on the mobile friendliness test. But you don’t need to spend tens of thousands of dollars to get the mobile search rankings benefits.

So what is the boss-friendly, quick fix, get out of jail free card?

Here’s the practical approach that will help your online store keep its rankings and its budget.

#1. Fix your most important mobile pages first

If some or all of your pages are deemed mobile unfriendly, start by optimising your most important pages first. Pages are analysed independently so you don’t need to drop everything and fix them all at once.

Start working on your product pages first to make sure you’re still ranking well for those sales-ready customer keywords. Research your pages with the highest Google referral traffic from a mobile device. Optimise these as a priority.

#2. Target high traffic mobile search keywords to own the post-update rankings

Remember that mobile searches are on the rise. You can’t just assume that your current performance will be indicative of future trends in your industry.

Now’s the time to review your keyphrase targeting. What are the terms you want to rank for? What is the percentage of mobile and tablet searches for these terms? You don’t want to miss out on the mobile shoppers of the future.

You have a great opportunity to leapfrog your competitors who have neglected to adapt a mobile first approach. Create content to dominate these keywords and reap the future online sales rewards.

#3. Long term – optimise your site with responsive design

Google is recommending responsive design over mobile sites or apps. That means, if Google rankings and search engine traffic is important to your company, you need to work towards this goal.

Right now, responsive design is not compulsory for rankings success. But the punters of the SEO world have their money on this approach as the odds on favourite to win out. In future years, as devices evolve and usage is fragmented further, it seems likely that search engines may start to prioritise sites with responsive design. Regardless, a separate mobile specific site will become more costly and time consuming to maintain.

#4. Just think about what your customer wants!

Remember to design your site with your customer in mind. It’s not just about dimensions, scalability and visual design. Think about the practicalities. Make your website fingerswipe and eyeskim friendly

Optimise your site for mobile based on all the possible actions a customer might take. Use these ideas to inform the planning of your site and its navigation menu. Your online store should be easy to use without a mouse. Make sure the average user can go from Google search to sale with the simplest of thumb pushes.

Remember why it matters – don’t over invest

The only traffic and online sales you are placing at risk are those generated from organic search via a mobile device.

Just like with SEO, content marketing, and social media – don’t just chase the algorithm like a digital marketing lemming. Do stuff that improves your customer’s experience. The rankings update only matters if you think your customers will care. If you can meet, greet and keep more customers by investing elsewhere, don’t just update your mobile design for the sake of it.

Don’t believe me?

Moz, THE go-to resource on all things content optimisation, is not mobile friendly. Presumably because their level of organic mobile search engine referral traffic (and perhaps mobile traffic in general) is low. The Mozzers know and understand the significance of this impact more than most, so any rampant, unfiltered panic is quickly dispelled by careful, educated reasoning and analysis.

On the other hand, keep in mind the potential opportunity that ‘Mobilegeddon’ throws up for you. Just because you are receiving a low percentage of visits and sales from mobile search doesn’t mean that more and more purchases will be made via Google searches on a mobile device in the future.

Before you dismiss mobile search as an important referral channel, consider the long term benefits of owning a page one rankings slot for high volume keywords. Some prudent work today could bring you competitive advantage in the tomorrow.

Take a strategic look at the consequences and set up your plan of attack, defence or inaction. Whatever you do, just don’t get caught up in the hype.

By James Dillon
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