Surviving the Mobilepocalypse

iPad explosion - mobilepocalypse

If you’re reading this, I can only assume that the world did not come to an end. Predictions of imminent doom have been circulating around as a result of Google’s algorithm change this spring, which has promised to upend search engine ranking as we know it. Hopefully you’ve escaped the destruction, but if your site is scattered amongst the ruins of the “mobilepocalypse”, I may have a rope to pull you out of the debris.

OK, I’m probably taking a few dramatic liberties here. If you’re not a nerd like me and don’t keep up with search engine news, the biggest story of 2015 has been the change that Google has made to its search engine ranking “signals” (basically, the various factors that are fed into their formula to determine ranking). That update is a simple one, but it’s unfortunately a change that many web site owners are unprepared for.

What is it? Essentially, Google has added “mobile-friendliness” as a substantial ranking signal to its search algorithm. At a very basic level, that means that if your site is “friendly” to mobile users, you may see a ranking boost; conversely, if you don’t have a mobile-friendly site, you might see your ranking decline.

I use the terms “may” and “might” because Google doesn’t really explicitly state when and where the mobile-friendly assessment will directly impact ranking. Google has made it clear that mobile-friendliness should affect mobile rankings (in other words, a search from your phone or tablet), because they want to make sure that a mobile user gets to a page that is friendly. But Google has also made it clear that mobile-friendliness won’t trump good content – in the words of a Google spokesperson, “if a page with high-quality content is not mobile-friendly, it could still rank high if it has great content for the query.”

What all that means is that you might see a ranking drop if your site isn’t mobile-friendly, and that you’re probably more likely to see a ranking drop for mobile searches, assuming your content isn’t otherwise more compelling than your competitors’. For any given business, it’s hard to tell whether this will have much impact, but you shouldn’t ignore it. It might even affect you more than you think it could.

Why? Because, whether you’re aware or not, a big chunk of searches for your site are likely coming from a mobile device. Worldwide, mobile web usage averages anywhere from 40–50 percent, depending on whom you ask. For our clients, mobile usage isn’t quite that high, but it’s getting there – 35–45 percent mobile traffic is not unusual for a promotional products web site.

That means that a third or more of your users are likely coming from mobile devices, and if those users are doing their searches on those devices, your ranking for 30–40 percent of your prospective customers could suffer as the result of this change. So while I recommend against a full-blown freakout, you should absolutely be aware of what’s happening, and assume that this will become even more important in the future.

What is Mobile-Friendly and How do I get it?

Of course, regular readers know that I’ve been pushing mobile-friendliness for quite a while. Just two columns ago, I noted “mobile-friendliness” as one of the four most important improvements to your website going forward, and that article includes a good primer on what you should consider for mobile-friendly design.

Since you might be in panic mode, though, I’ll give you a quick rundown of how to achieve mobile-friendliness. You might want to attack this with a “quick-and-dirty” retrofit to your site, or you might want to upgrade to a platform that has mobile layouts built-in. Either way, here are some tips for getting back in the good mobile graces of Google’s search engine:

  1. Find a provider that includes mobile-friendly layout(s) in their package – Many web and e-commerce providers now include mobile-friendly design in their packages. Your provider might include this as well; make sure you ask. If they don’t, ask them when they’re going to have it. Nearly every web provider worth their salt will soon have a mobile-friendly option, because, well, that’s the way the world is heading. Yours should too.
  2. Retrofit your site – For a stopgap solution, you can probably find a web designer or developer that can “bolt on” a mobile version to your existing site. Sometimes this strategy can actually be a beneficial first step because it forces you to work with a designer or developer to define exactly what you want to show to mobile users. For example, you might want to just show product information and pricing on the mobile version of your site and disable or hide features that are unlikely to be used by someone on a smartphone.
  3. Start simple – Mobile-friendliness, as mentioned above, doesn’t necessarily mean that everything needs to be right there for smartphone users. Remember, Google isn’t checking to see if you kept everything but the kitchen sink in your layout; it just wants to make sure that a mobile user can get around easily. Don’t hesitate to keep the mobile version simple.
  4. Cut out the fat – I also mentioned a couple months ago that speed is becoming more and more important in ranking. This is part of mobile-friendliness as well; often, smartphone users are on slower connections than a desktop computer or laptop on wifi. All of which points to the gradual slimming down of web sites – removing Flash, big images, animations and so on. It’s time to trim out those little darlings that you’ve held on to for so long.
  5. Think touch – Speaking of little darlings, many websites have menus and navigation that do certain things when a user “hovers” their mouse over links, image or menus. You know the feature – you move your mouse over an “Apparel” link and it expands to show you all the subcategories underneath apparel, without ever even clicking on the link. There’s only one problem with that – mobile devices don’t use a mouse, and a smartphone or tablet can’t tell when your finger is hovering over something. So, you’ll need to get rid of those hovering actions, along with any other animations or interactions that don’t work in a touch interface.
  6. Prepare for fat fingers – Fingers are unfortunately a much less precise pointing device than a mouse. Therefore, your tiny text links and buttons may be infuriatingly difficult to tap successfully on a smartphone or tablet. Make your buttons and links bigger overall, or at least increase the size and spacing between them when your site is on a mobile device.

Finally, don’t forget the most important piece of advice – Google will help you with this! That’s right – if your site is set up with Webmaster Tools (something I recommend everyone does), Google will actually let you know how you’re doing. For instance, if your buttons are too small, Google will send you an email letting you know that you need to make them bigger. Google ultimately wants a great mobile experience, because it sees that the world is heading rapidly in that direction. So, whether you retrofit your existing site or build an awesome new responsive one, make sure you take advantage of the tools Google offers to make sure that your mobile experience is as smooth as possible.

A version of this article also appeared in Identity Marketing magazine.

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