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How Google’s mobile-friendly update will affect you (and what you can do about it)

By Andrew May Posted Apr. 16, 2015 Reading time: 4 minutes

If your website, or your clients’ websites are non-responsive, then you only have until April 21st 2015 to make them mobile-friendly.

On Tuesday 21st, if your sites aren’t mobile-friendly you can kiss goodbye to Google search engine rankings, and say hello to clients banging on the door demanding to know why their sites just dropped down to page 23.

Think we’re exaggerating? Sadly not. Although nothing is certain when it comes to second-guessing what Google will do next, it’s fair to say that the search giant has dropped some hefty hints about its next update.

You thought the Penguin and Panda updates were bad? This time Google is warning us in advance, providing tools to get us ready, and advertising the update; Google thinks this is going to cause a major shakeup.

 

What has Google said?

Back in February, Google didn’t so much drop a hint, as issue a clearly written statement in plain English about their intention to penalize any site that they do not deem to be mobile-friendly.

Starting April 21, we will be expanding our use of mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal.

And if that wasn’t clear enough, they added:

This change will affect mobile searches in all languages worldwide and will have a significant impact in our search results.

Of course you’ve got your finger on the pulse, you probably saw this coming. But hey, we’re all busy, maybe you haven’t got around to updating your site yet. And besides, who knew exactly what Google would deem to be mobile-friendly?

 

Why is Google making the change?

Love Google, or hate it, you have to admit its messages are consistent. Cynical thoughts about advertising revenue aside, the search engine giant repeatedly states that it wants users to have a fantastic online experience. It expects — or perhaps demands — that Web users should be able to easily find relevant, useful content, in response to a clearly defined search term.

The impending update to Google’s algorithm places greater emphasis on users navigating easily on a mobile device. Why? Because Internet use from mobile devices has been rising sharply year on year.

A cynical person might suggest that Google’s commitment to the mobile web is largely due to the relative success of its Android program compared to its Chromium program, but that would be a cynical person.

Last month, at the SMX West conference in California, chief architect of SEO Clairity, Mitul Gandhi, demonstrated that 30% of organic traffic originates from mobile devices — and that data is valid across a range of industries. Those stats could even be on the conservative side; there’s a raft of data out there showing that the percentage of traffic from mobile devices is, in some cases, as high as 70%.

We know that the mobile web is growing, if not exponentially, then certainly rapidly. In light of that fact, Google’s decision seems fair and rational.

 

What’s the worst that could happen?

Taking Google at its word, any website that is deemed by their definition to not meet responsive standards will plummet in their rankings. And because a specific date has been provided, could the change happen overnight? Scarily the answer seems to be “yes”.

So, although a non-responsive website could still appear to be useful to a human being after April 21st, Googlebot will be unimpressed.

Does this mean that you have to make your website responsive? No, you don’t; and Google doesn’t have to rank you. Google is not the Internet, but let’s face it, failing to rank well on Google — and therefore every other search engine out there — is not a great way to ingratiate yourself with clients, or to run a successful website.

There are some obvious new restrictions, and some that aren’t so obvious: you cannot, for example, use software that isn’t commonly found on mobile devices, such as Adobe Flash; you cannot display text that can’t be read without being zoomed; you cannot force users to scroll horizontally; you need to ensure there’s adequate space between links.

There are other consequences that are harder to predict: for example, a lot of advertisers still use the SWF format, will hosting SWF-based adverts on your site damage your rankings? We’ll have to wait for the coming weeks to find out.

 

What should you do?

The good news is, finding out whether to meet Google’s definition of mobile-friendly is easy.

Anticipating the uproar, Google have provided a useful tool that will check the responsiveness of your website in seconds. Just enter the URL of the site you wish to check into Google’s mobile-friendly testing tool and cross your fingers.

If the site is responsive, Google gives you the thumbs up. If not it will tell you why not. You’ll also get some extra detail about how Googlebot sees your pages; the only sugar-coating comes as Google offers you a series of links explaining how to solve the problems specific to your website.

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Whether you code sites from scratch, or rely on a web builder, Google has supplied a range of resources to help get you up to speed. Its guide to creating mobile friendly websites includes sections on:

 

How bad is it going to be?

It’s impossible to predict how big a shakeup Google’s new update will cause. Some people will notice no change, some will see their sites drop out of the rankings altogether.

And the impact on rankings will naturally depend on just how much mobile traffic you receive.

What’s good is that this provides an unassailable piece of ammunition to persuade clients to adopt a responsive approach to their web presence. What’s bad, is you only have a few days to address the issue, tick tock tick tock…

 

Featured image uses business icons, retro computer image, devices image, vintage devices image, and skull image, via Shutterstock.

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