Businesses Brace For Major Google Update

Chris CrumSearch

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About two months ago, Google announced two mobile-related algorithm changes. While it was somewhat surprising that Google announced them so clearly, the actual changes were not all that surprising. The first one was based on app indexing, which Google has been getting off the ground for the past year or so. It was already in effect the time of the announcement. The second was the use of a site's mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal. Google had also been hinting at this for quite some time before the announcement, but this made it official.

At the time, Google said the mobile-friendly signal would take effect beginning on April 21. The time is now at hand.

Have you made changes to your site to prepare for the algorithm change? Did your site require any change in the first place? Let us know in the comments.

This is not an update that should be taken lightly. It's one that is bound to affect a pretty large number of websites. Some are referring to it as "Mobilegeddon". That's probably going a little far, but it is something that businesses must take into account if they rely on search engines for traffic at all.

Search Engine Journal reminds us that the update will have a greater impact than either Panda or Penguin. Matt Southern recalls:

This was confirmed at SMX Munich this year when Zineb Ait Bahajji of Google’s Webmaster Trends team stated that the mobile friendly algorithm will have a greater impact than Panda or Penguin.

There was no estimate given as to what percentage of search queries might be impacted in total, but it wouldn’t be unreasonable to predict, given this information, that over 12% of mobile search queries will be impacted.

Keeping with the "Mobilegeddon" theme, Business Insider's Jillian D'Onfro says the change "could crush millions of small businesses," illustrating this point with a photo of Larry Page standing in front of a mushroom cloud. The article makes the case that small businesses will be hurt most by this because they're the ones most likely not to know about it.

Despite the sensational, apocalyptic imagery, it does make a good point. As one recent survey illustrates, many small businesses simply don't have the time to get their online marketing efforts right. You have to assume this includes keeping up with the latest SEO trends and Google updates.

As BI points out, however, there are plenty of larger businesses who may be taking a hit soon as well. It points to research from Somo, finding a bunch that seem ill-prepared. Among them: Nintendo, Windows Phone, American Apparel, Versace, and Channel 4, to name a few.

We recently looked at a survey from gShift, which found that over half of digital marketers across the retail, travel, and automotive industries, believe their business will be affected by the update. 20% said it won't impact their business, and 28% were unsure.

More than 65% answered “affirmatively” to the question, “Is your company factoring in mobile strategies for SEO and content marketing in order to accommodate mobile search since learning about this change from Google?” At the same time, 20% said they are going to wait and see.

It’s worth noting that Google has indicated that the mobile-friendly ranking signal will run in real time, and will run on a page-by-page basis. In other words, if only some of your site is mobile-friendly, the parts that aren’t won’t necessarily hurt the entirety of your site. Also, as soon as you make a page mobile-friendly, that will be reflected in Google’s algorithm.

On the other hand, Google is also currently being called out for giving webmasters contradicting information about this kind of things, so who knows what to believe?

35% of the survey’s participants said mobile makes up between 11-50%of their website traffic.

In response to the question, “Do you think your website is currently mobile friendly?” over 68% answered yes. About half said they don’t use any tools to track their keyword rankings on desktop versus mobile.

How Do I Get My Site Mobile-Friendly?

Make friends with Google's mobile-friendly test. Use it to enter URLs, and hit "analyze,". It will tell you if your page is mobile-friendly, and if it's not, it will give you reasons why.

If the page is deemed mobile-friendly, Google tell you how Googlebot sees the page. It might say something like, “This page uses 9 resources which are blocked by robots.txt. The results and screenshot may be incorrect.”

It will give you a link to expand such resources and get a look at what they actually are. It also gives you a link to learn how to unblock them for Googlebot.

If your URL is not deemed mobile-friendly, Google will tell you specific reasons, as well as info about how Googlebot sees it, and resources to help you fix issues. Reasons a page isn’t mobile friendly might include things like: “content wider than screen,” “uses incompatible plugins,” “links too close together,” “text too small to read,” “mobile viewport not set,” etc.

You'll also want to make friends with Google's Mobile SEO guide. Much of the following information comes from there.

Google recommends the following platforms for creating new sites, and chances are you’re already using one of them: WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, Blogger, vBulletin, Tumblr, DataLife Engine, Magento, Prestashop, Bitrix, and Google Sites. Google provides a dedicated guide for each one of these platforms for making your site mobile-friendly. You can find each of these here.

Google also gives the general guidelines of backing up your site before making any changes, updating your CMS to the latest version, making sure any custom themes you’re using are mobile-friendly, and reviewing support forums for the CMS to see what issues people might be having with the mobile versions of their sites.

To make sure a custom theme is mobile-friendly, view the theme from the admin panel of your CMS and look for words like “mobile” or “responsive” in the documentation, and if there’s a demo template available, put the URL into Google’s mobile-friendly test tool. Google also suggests making sure the template is fast by checking the Speed section of PageSpeed Insights and making sure the Speed section has no issues marked as “should fix”.

To get into the technical details of making a site mobile-friendly, you’re going to want to take a look at the documentation on Google’s Web Fundamentals site. Here, you’ll find options for your first multi-device site and starting your site with the Web Starter kit.

The former delves into creating your content and structure and making it responsive. The TL;DR of content creation as Google breaks it down, is: Identify the content you need first; Sketch out information architecture for narrow and wide viewports; and Create a skeleton view of the page with content but without styling. The TL;DR for making it responsive is as follows: Always use a viewport; Always start with a narrow viewport first and scale out; Base your breakpoints off when you need to adapt the content; and Create a high-level vision of your layout across major breakpoints.

The Web Starter Kit section is broken into three parts: Set Up Web Starter Kit, Development Phases, and How to Use the Style Guide.

Of course even though these documents are long, you’re probably still going to want to read them.

The Mobile SEO guide is separated into four parts: Choose your mobile configuration; Signal your configuration to search engines; Avoid common mistakes; and Configure for other devices.

The “Choose your mobile configuration” section deals with understanding different devices and key points in going mobile, selecting mobile configuration, and answers frequently asked questions. The “Signal your configuration to search engine” section talks about responsive web design, dynamic serving, and separate URLs.

The “common mistakes” part talks about blocking JavaScript, CSS and image files, unplayable content, faulty redirects, mobile-only 404s, app download interstitials, irrelevant cross-links, and slow mobile pages. That last part talks about configuring for tablets and feature phones (when Google says mobile, it’s referring to smartphones).

This whole mobile SEO guide is far too extensive to get into here, but you do need to know about it, and you’re going to want to go through it and make sure you’re not overlooking anything.

“Design your site to help make it easier for your customer to complete their most common tasks: from task conception, to visiting your site, to task completion,” Google says. “Outline the potential steps in your customers’ journey to make sure the steps are easy to complete on a mobile device. Try to streamline the experience and reduce the number of user interactions.”

“Making a mobile site requires prioritization,” it says. “Start by working out what the most important and common tasks are for your customers on mobile. Being able to support these tasks is critical and this is why the measure of your mobile site is how well customers can complete their objectives. There are ways to make the design of your site support ease of use too. Focus on consistency in your interface and providing an unified experience across platforms.”

Many site owners are simply going to have to get outside help. Google knows this, and also offers advice for working with developers. While Google elaborates here, it recommends asking to see your developer’s references and portfolio of mobile sites, making sure they understand your mobile customer, asking them to make a commitment to speed, having them install web analytics, making sure they’re aware of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, and making sure the contract includes improving the mobile site after the initial launch.

It’s entirely possible to make a site mobile-friendly for no extra money. This is the case if you have skills required to implement the steps from Google’s guides discussed above or if you are able to use a responsive theme. Things can get more expensive if you have to hire the developer, so some sites are going to have to make a big choice.

Google says the top three mistakes beginners will want to avoid when it comes to creating a mobile-friendly site, are: forgetting their mobile customer; implementing the mobile site on a different domain, subdomain, or subdirectory from the desktop site; and working in isolation rather than looking around for inspiration. In other words, keep an eye on what others are doing.

Google also has this hour-long Q&A session on the topic available:

Google has additional resources available with its Mobile Playbook, Think with Google for the Mobile Platform, and its Multi-Screen Success Stories.

Are you ready?

Keep in mind that while the update is supposed to begin now, it might take a while to complete.


While the update won't impact AdWords ads yet, there have been some "mobile-friendly" labels spotted on ads, so that might be coming in the future.

And in case you missed it, Bing also looks to mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal, so if you prepare for Google’s algorithm change, it’s bound to help you in Microsoft’s search engine as well.

It's also worth noting that Google has expanded on its other mobile-related ranking signal. It announced last week that it will now show Android users apps in search results even when the user hasn't already installed them.

“You’ve invested time and effort into making your app an awesome experience, and we want to help people find the great content you’ve created,” said product manager Lawrence Chang in a blog post. “App Indexing has already been helping people engage with your Android app after they’ve installed it — we now have 30 billion links within apps indexed. Starting this week, people searching on Google can also discover your app if they haven’t installed it yet. If you’ve implemented App Indexing, when indexed content from your app is relevant to a search done on Google on Android devices, people may start to see app install buttons for your app in search results. Tapping these buttons will take them to the Google Play store where they can install your app, then continue straight on to the right content within it.”

“With the addition of these install links, we are starting to use App Indexing as a ranking signal for all users on Android, regardless of whether they have your app installed or not,” he added. “We hope that Search will now help you acquire new users, as well as re-engage your existing ones.”

Interestingly enough, this news came just after the EU announced an investigation into Android.

Are you worried about the impact of Google's new mobile signals? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Images via Google

Chris Crum
Chris Crum has been a part of the WebProNews team and the iEntry Network of B2B Publications since 2003. Follow Chris on Twitter, on StumbleUpon, on Pinterest and/or on Google: +Chris Crum.