A usefully-sensible guide to mobile and SEO

Posted by Dave CollinsSEO

Google have recently made mobile more important for SEO. Here’s what to do about it. Note: I’ve tried to keep this as brief as possible, but I recommend that you read the whole thing. Skimming may result in a less-than-optimal experience!

STEP 1: Don’t panic.

You may think that you have the only website that isn’t ready for mobile, but you’re wrong.

More importantly, Google’s announcements should never constitute an emergency.

For example we saw too many businesses drop everything and frantically apply HTTPS to their websites when Google announced the importance of this in August 2014. I don’t know of anyone who’s benefited from this so far – including our own company.

I’m not saying that you should ignore the issue of mobile, but there’s nothing to panic about.

STEP 2: Understand what Google actually said. (Not what people said Google said.)

Here’s a direct quote from Google’s announcement:

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.

Google pick their words carefully, and there are a few semantic choices that the masses are missing.

When Google say “This change will affect mobile searches” they don’t necessarily mean searches on all devices.

Here’s the good part; the part that most panic-merchants are missing:

John Mueller from Google was recently asked whether the update would have any effect on desktop search, and his answer was “as far as I know – no“. You can see the Google Hangout here.

While I’m not disputing the impact that the update may have on mobile search results, Google’s use of “will have a significant impact in our search results” is deliberately vague. It’s also worth noting Google’s terrible history when predicting the impact of other updates in the past.

STEP 3: Understand what “mobile ready” means. 

A website isn’t mobile-ready if it merely loads onto your iphone.

If you have to zoom in and out, it isn’t mobile ready. And if you need a magnifying glass it definitely isn’t mobile ready.

Gary Illyes, another Google employee, defines mobile friendly as having three characteristics:

– available
– legible
– usable

I’m not going to dig any deeper into this, as I think all the information we need is right there. From a mobile perspective, if the pages on your website can tick all three boxes, then (broadly speaking) you’re good to go.

STEP 4: Understand whether you need to fix your whole website or just specific pages.

Eventually we’re all going to have to make sure that all of our website content works on all devices. But not today.

As confirmed by Google, the mobile-friendly test works on a page-by-page basis.

So the boost that you may get from having mobile-friendly content will be applied to individual pages that are being searched for from mobile devices.

And non-optimised pages?

John Mueller has made it clear that non-optimised content will not be removed from the search results; just that content that accommodates mobile users would be given an additional boost.

Most interesting is the fact that in the previously mentioned Hangout, John actually pointed out that websites that don’t offer a strong mobile experience could still rank highly on mobile devices if the content was deemed to be relevant enough.

Is this sounding a little familiar?

STEP 5: Taking a step back from the brink of madness.

Mobile matters. We know that.

On our own website we’re seeing around 14% of our visitors using a mobile device. That figure will only rise over time.

And for the record, we’re not set up for mobile either. We’re working on it, but it’s not ready just yet.

My prediction is that over the coming years we’re going to see the lines between different device types blur, and I think that Google realise that too.

So yes, mobile matters. And yes we all need to make sure our websites are mobile-friendly. But I recommend against emergency-meetings, knee-jerk responses or frantic emails to website designers.

STEP 6: All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.

Good SEO strategies involve putting the human visitor first. Always.

If you’re creating mobile-friendly content so that your visitors have a better experience on their mobile devices, then this is healthy. Doing so primarily for Google isn’t.

I suspect that within a few years “mobile friendly” will more or less become the norm, and therefore offer no real SEO advantage. The tail-chasing SEOs will move onto the next thing, and so the cycle continues.

The ramifications of a poorly thought-out or sloppily-executed mobile solution could be far more damaging than a slow and careful response. Work out the best solution for your website, and then how you’re going to apply it to your content.

If you’re interested in digging a little deeper:

Google Guide to Mobile Friendly Sites

Google’s Mobile Friendly Test

Google Search Console Mobile Usability Report

Be careful; be smart.