Mike Hanbery April 13, 2015

Upcoming Google Mobile-Friendly Algorithm Update – What Does it Mean?

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With news that Google is rolling out a substantial mobile-friendly algorithm April 21, many site owners are curious how this change may affect them and what impact it may have on their business’ bottom line.

There is a lot of speculation as to what exactly this algorithm update entails, but here is what we know so far from Google:

  • This will be a significant algorithm update, larger in impact than Panda and Penguin.
  • This update affects organic mobile searches only, all desktop/paid search results are unaffected by this change.
  • The algorithm will take a few days to a week to rollout, and is a global update affecting all languages.
  • The algorithm assesses mobile-friendliness on a page-by-page and real-time basis.
  • There is a yes/no vote as to whether your site is mobile-optimized or not, there are no bonus points for having “partially” mobile-friendly pages.

There are two ways to check if your site is mobile-friendly:

  1. See if you have a mobile-friendly label in the live mobile search results; and,
  2. Run Google’s mobile-friendly test tool (should match with live search results)
  • Google’s official recommendation is to have a mobile-friendly responsive site, as opposed to a dynamic-serving site or a separate mobile website (usually with a subdomain “m.”)
  • Google will also begin to use information from indexed apps as a factor in ranking for signed-in users who have the app installed.

This helpful video shows two Google engineers during a Q and A session discussing the mobile-friendly algorithm update. Google’s official mobile-friendly websites guide can be found here: https://developers.google.com/webmasters/mobile-sites/get-started/.

Additionally, we have put together a list of common questions and answers to help webmasters more clearly understand what to expect on April 21:

Q: What will happen to my organic rankings if I don’t have a mobile-friendly site by April 21?

A: Your site’s mobile rankings will decrease or cease to move forward in the mobile search results. Sites who are mobile-friendly will get a promotion, sites who are not mobile-friendly will get a demotion in mobile search results.

Q: What if I don’t have time or resources to update my site by April 21 but can update my site at a later date?

A: If your site remains non mobile-friendly after April 21 (give or take a week for the rollout to finish), then your site will be demoted in the mobile search results pages and your organic traffic from all mobile devices from Google.com will likely decrease.

If your site becomes mobile-friendly at any time after the update, then the next time Googlebot crawls the pages your site will likely get a boost in mobile search rankings.

Q: Is this really important? Is this something I need to do?

A:  Yes. To clarify, if almost no one searches for your business from a mobile device (which is becoming less commonplace), then it may not be as urgent for you to have a mobile-friendly site. But if you receive any kind of organic traffic from mobile devices through Google.com, then it is very worthwhile to make your site fully responsive and mobile-friendly, with the goal being to provide the best user experience possible for your site visitors.

Q: When I run Google’s mobile-friendly testing tool, the image Googlebot shows is quite different than how I see the page on my smartphone. Why is this?

A: Google accesses each page using its Googlebot crawler and as a part of that process it accesses the sites’ robots.txt file when it performs the mobile-friendly test. So if you have any resources blocked in the robots.txt file, such as images, css, javascript files, etc, then you may be preventing Googlebot from accessing the files necessary to render a “Pass” score on the test.

So, if you’ve done everything possible to make the page mobile-friendly and you feel it is indeed mobile-friendly, then unblock any resources in the robots.txt file and run the test again. Google has made it clear that you are only deemed mobile-friendly if Google says you are. So far, Google’s test has proven to be very accurate, so it is essential that your site passes that test to truly know you have a mobile-friendly site.

Q: If I don’t have a mobile-friendly site by April 21, will I suffer from branded searches (people searching for my company name)?

A: Generally, a site, despite not being mobile-friendly, should still show up in the first few positions for a branded search term. This mobile update will not (should not, in theory) knock companies off page one on mobile searches for their own brand name.

Q: With mobile searches becoming a larger part of all searches in the future, are there plans to add “mobile” search figures to Google’s Keyword Planner tool?

A: As of now, there are no official plans to add mobile-specific search figures to the Keyword Planner tool. It would seem likely that this will be included at some point in the future.

Q: If I have two versions of the same page, one m. (mobile) page: m.example.com and a desktop page: http://www.example.com, am I going to be hit with a duplicate content penalty for having the same content on both pages?

A: No. Even if you are not using proper annotation tags such as rel=alternate and rel=canonical to tell Google which pages are desktop vs. mobile, Google generally will understand that those two pages are the same and will not downgrade your rank because of that. It is still best practice to properly mark your pages with rel=alternate and rel=canonical tags to guide Google along the intended path.

Q: What if I have a desktop and mobile version of a page, and they each have separate backlinks pointing to each page. Will the mobile page still benefit from the desktop page’s backlinks?

A: Yes. Google uses what is called shared (consolidated) ranking signals to be able to score a set of desktop/mobile pages which is essentially one page shown on different devices. This is another reason why it is best to have a responsive site with all the same URLs in which a page just gets reformatted when loaded on different devices.

Q: Can my mobile site be on a separate subdomain (or unique domain altogether)?

A: Yes. Usually when a site has a separate mobile URL structure, it is on a subdomain such as “m.domain.com.” It is also possible to have a mobile site on a completely different domain using proper annotation tags, but this practice is not recommended as it can be confusing to users and is not the recommended Google practice.

Q: Will I receive a ranking boost if my site is responsive vs. dynamic or a separate mobile site?

A: No. If a site is completely mobile-friendly, regardless if it is responsive, dynamic or a separate m. site, the site will likely receive a rankings boost. A responsive site is simpler for many reasons and provides a better user experience, but in this update, it will not directly perform better than other kinds of mobile-friendly sites.

Q: What other resources can I use to test and improve my site as it relates to mobile usability and user experience?

A: Within each Google Webmaster Tools account, there is a drop-down under Search Traffic labeled “Mobile Usability.” Here you can find what pages have mobile errors and what Google recommends to fix the problems.

There is also Google’s PageSpeed Insights which allows you to see how fast your site loads and how to increase the loading speed. Rest assured, if your site has unique content, is mobile-friendly and loads fast on mobile devices, you are in great shape and are way ahead of the competition.

For any additional questions about the April 21 mobile update, call us at 303-300-2640 or contact us online today to learn more!

What are your concerns about Google’s algorithm updates?

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