Practical Ecommerce

SEO: Google to Make ‘Mobile-friendly’ a Ranking Signal

Do you have a mobile or responsive site? If not, on April 21 you may find it harder to rank in Google’s mobile search results.

Google announced algorithm updates that will have a “significant impact” on mobile search results worldwide for mobile searchers. The update improves rankings for sites that provide a mobile-friendly experience to searchers on mobile devices, and, by association, demotes sites that do not.

Google announced algorithm updates that will have a “significant impact” on mobile search results worldwide for mobile searchers.

Note that the mobile-friendly update only affects mobile search results — i.e., searches from smartphones and tablets — not searches conducted on a desktop or laptop computer.

In addition, the algorithm is applied worldwide, page by page, on a real-time basis. “Worldwide” means that the algorithm update affects mobile searchers and search results in all countries at the same time, rather than just rolling out in the U.S. first.

“Page by page” means that each page’s mobile friendliness is judged separately. That’s good news if your ecommerce catalog is mobile friendly but your forums or other content sections are not. The unfriendly sections will not cause your entire site to be ranked as unfriendly.

“Real time” means that you can expect to see the mobile ranking benefit of making your site mobile friendly right away. The next time Googlebot crawls your pages and determines that they are newly mobile friendly, the mobile-friendly ranking algorithm would kick in for those pages. This is especially good news because some algorithm updates have been processed on a monthly or unknown time cycle and applied to the algorithm in batches.

Beware, though, because real time also works both ways. If an update were made to your site that makes pages unfriendly, the mobile-friendly ranking algorithm would kick in for those pages the next time your site is crawled.

In addition, content from indexed Android apps can now be ranked in search results for searchers who are signed in to Google and have that Android app installed on their mobile device. Since Google would have no access to Apple’s iTunes database, iOS apps would not be included in this app ranking improvement.

Google’s stated goal is to improve searcher experience. It’s frustrating to search on a phone and land on a page that’s so tiny you can’t accurately click the links without pinching and zooming and scrolling to find the right text or links.

Google is converting that frustration into an improvement in its search results, so that more mobile searchers will land on sites with positive mobile experiences. It makes sense from the searcher’s perspective, which is what matters to Google.

But from an ecommerce perspective, it could possibly be a very costly update in terms of lost mobile traffic and revenue.

Example of Mobile Impact

Say you use your smartphone to search for “formal dresses.” Starting April 21, the results on your smartphone will be reordered based on the relative mobile friendliness of the sites. The image below shows my mobile search result for “formal dresses.”

Sample mobile search results on Google for “formal dresses” on a smartphone.

Sample mobile search results on Google for “formal dresses” on a smartphone.

Keep in mind that the mobile search result is probably personalized in some way. Your mobile search results may vary. The important thing to note is that the first, second, and fifth organic search results are already deemed “Mobile-friendly,” as I have highlighted above.

Google has already been annotating mobile-friendly pages for searchers, in an effort to help influence mobile searchers toward a better mobile experience.

On April 21, the annotation will become part of the ranking algorithm, affecting the order of search results directly. In Google’s words, the change will have a “significant impact” on search results for mobile searchers.

The burning question is how significant the impact will be.

Will the fifth ranking site move up to the third place, ahead of the non-friendly sites so that the new ranking order becomes 1, 2, 5, 3, 4? Or will the sites that rank third and fourth today disappear completely from the first page of results, so that only mobile-friendly sites grace the first page? There’s no way to know until April 21.

Ecommerce Impact

Maybe it’s easy to dismiss the example above. It’s one keyword, likely not even related to your industry. How many people even search for formal dresses on their phones anyway?

It turns out that searchers want to find “formal dresses” over 100,000 times a month, according to Google’s Keyword Planner, and nearly 300,000 more want some variation of formal dress keywords, such as a semi-formal dress.

Of all those nearly 400,000 searches on average per month in Google in the U.S., only 39 percent of them happen on a computer. That means that 61 percent — about 240,000 searches a month — occur on smartphones and will be significantly impacted by Google’s mobile-friendly algorithm update on April 21.

Sixty-one percent of searches for keywords containing “formal dresses” happen on mobile devices.

Sixty-one percent of searches for keywords containing “formal dresses” happen on mobile devices.

If a consumer is searching on a mobile device for a product sold specifically by your ecommerce brand, my prediction is that your brand will continue to rank at the top regardless of mobile friendliness. For example, for site-branded keywords, such as “macys formal dresses,” mobile search results are unlikely to change dramatically. There’s no way to know for certain until April 21, but logically Google should respect the searcher’s ecommerce brand navigational search intent.

The same would presumably not hold true for product brand searches, such as “UGG boots,” where many etailers sell that brand. We should expect the mobile-friendly update to impact product branded keywords in the same way as it would a completely unbranded keyword like “winter boots.”

Impact on Your Ecommerce Performance

First, determine if Google sees your pages as mobile friendly. It doesn’t matter if you think they’re mobile friendly or your agency tells you that they are. What matters is what Google determines algorithmically because it has 100 percent control over how your site ranks.

Google has provided a mobile-friendly testing tool that analyzes each page that you enter and tells you whether it’s mobile friendly or not. The image below shows a page that is not mobile friendly, and the resources that Google recommends to resolve those issues.

Google considers this women's dress page not mobile-friendly.

Google considers this women’s dress page not mobile-friendly.

Resolving the issues could be as simple as asking your developer to update your robots.txt file to remove a block on certain files (your developer will know what this means). Or it could be as difficult as a redesign to implement responsive design or mobile site best practices.

How this affects your ecommerce business depends a great deal on your mobile search performance today. Remember that the only traffic and sales at risk here is organic search driven via a mobile device (smartphone and tablet).

Analyze the risk in any change that will impact search engine optimization in terms of worst-case scenario.

The worst-case scenario is that all of the sales-driven organic search traffic via a mobile device disappears instantly when the change happens. That’s the worst case. It can’t get worse than losing it all. In all likelihood, the worst case won’t actually occur, and the decrease would be more like 80 percent, or 50 percent. But measuring the worst case helps you decide if the issue really is significant enough to act on immediately.

Start by measuring the amount of affected traffic and sales today and determine the real impact of losing it all. Remember, filter the visits and sales so that the data only contains organic search-driven traffic via a mobile device. Then determine the impact to your ecommerce business if those traffic and sales disappeared completely on April 21.

That’s how to determine the actual cost. What’s more difficult to measure, however, is the opportunity that this algorithm update represents.

How many of your competitors will be boosted by the mobile-friendly update? How many will be demoted? Can you capitalize on their loss? Is this an opportunity to surpass the competition?

Keep in mind, receiving few visits and sales via mobile search today does not in any way indicate the true size of the opportunity.

Head to the Google Keyword Planner and identify the actual opportunity that mobile search represents. Test your assumptions using keyword research and determine the true size of the mobile search opportunity before dismissing it as a useless channel.

I was skeptical, for example, that “formal dresses” would drive any real mobile search traffic. I was wrong.

Jill Kocher

Jill Kocher

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Comments ( 24 )

  1. RKINFO March 16, 2015 Reply

    After a long season of testing mobile factors and adding the tag ” optimized for mobile ” (Mobile Friendly) search results, Google has finally announced that as of April 21, 2015 will expand the use of factors adaptation for mobile phones in their search algorithm.

  2. Brad Bauer March 16, 2015 Reply

    With all the variation in screen sizes across devices, what is truly a mobile device and what is not? Is my iPhone 6+ a mobile device and my iPad mini not? Maybe this is just me being pedantic.

    • Jill Kocher March 17, 2015 Reply

      As a human consumer of mobile technology, I agree that what’s mobile and what isn’t is debateable. However, the only definition of “mobile device” here that matters is Google’s definition. Your pages will get a ranking boost from this algorithm update or not based entirely on Google’s definition of mobile. Test your pages at https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/mobile-friendly/. It’s the only way to be certain that your “mobile-friendly” pages are indeed mobile friendly by Google’s standards, and are therefore eligible for the ranking boost.

  3. Simon Dadia March 18, 2015 Reply

    Aweome mobile tester – of to test I go.

  4. Ted March 22, 2015 Reply

    I’m a hobbyist with my two websites. I use code to direct from my “classic” desktop website to my dedicated mobile websites and it works really well. (Google’s testing tool gave me an AWSOME ranking) I like the fact that I can be creative with both websites and don’t have to follow the “cookie cutter” format of a dynamic website AND I didn’t have to re-do all my hard work I put into my “classic” websites.

    Now with Google set to punish rankings of non-mobile friendly websites I can see how this technique is going to be very helpful to small businesses who can’t afford to have their old non-mobile websites rebuilt. What if a website designer just builds a “mobile friendly front end”, i.e. a second dedicated mobile website at 320 px wide? Google won’t show the “classic” non-mobile website in searches using mobile devices. Google will only see the “new” second mobile website in mobile searches and the business won’t lose any traffic because the “classic” website is not mobile friendly. Then in the mobile dedicated website which will be seen when people are searching with larger devices like desktop computers as well as mobile devices, you add some code that says if a device with a larger screen is searching you re-direct that device to the “classic” website.

    Mobile websites can be smaller and don’t need to have as much information as the “classic” website and you can always link it to the “classic” website if there is specific detailed information a user might want. I think in most cases there are distinct user needs between those using mobile devices and those using larger devices. Building a small mobile front end website will be easier/cheaper than a whole over haul of the complete website. For a small business or organization this is going to really help them out. For web designers this could be a competitive advantage to beating out the competition with lower costs.

  5. Isha Edwards March 23, 2015 Reply

    This is a great post Jill!

    As with anything, businesses need to be aware of their target audience and how their audience engages before rushing to make costly adjustments that lack strategy. After all, Google may be able to change rankings, but it cannot ensure value!

    Using the example provided in the article, I’d be interested in knowing if consumers will actively bypass a site that ranks 3 or 4 because they are not mobile friendly and skip to site 5 solely because it is mobile friendly. If Google’s new search standard removes or displaces a branded or popular link from the top 10 or the first page, as suggested, that will put a world of pressure on competitors and “junk sites” to outshine name, or previously featured, brands in customers service, price, distribution, quality, quantity, usefulness, content, etc. In other words, differentiation is critical.

    So yes, make your website mobile friendly, but focus on the customer first. If anything, it is a great time to run some tests (as Simon says) to verify if mobile site traffic actually increases, to talk with existing customers about their preferences, or to evaluate what customers look at first and most when they do visit your site. The latter will help web designers create pages, which guide all visitors to the final step: conversion!

    Since conversion is the end goal, all new and existing search and promotional efforts (even the one Ted suggested) should support that end. Don’t adapt to a new format without developing a new strategy!

    ~ie http://www.epicmeasures.com

  6. Sanjay Singh March 23, 2015 Reply

    It had to be so. Some time ago when I reached to my site via google search on chrome for android it opened my website like a responsive webiste mentioning that this is an experiment to use less data and to make browsing faster althoough my website is neither mobile friendly nor responsive. It is time to take mobile traffic seriously.

  7. Charles March 24, 2015 Reply

    Thank you for the article, Jill. This third-party informations helps solidify my claims as a Web developer.

    Our clients will be happy to see the reality of what I’ve been telling them for the past couple of years – one more reason to consider their mobile experience of high importance to their end users Not only in a a UX sense, but now in consideration of their SEO.

    If anyone needs help with their Web dev, or mobile friendliness, visit jonesen.com

  8. Jacqueline Syliva March 24, 2015 Reply

    I am all for responsive design moving forward, but I disagree with Google imposing this with a deadline. I have many, many clients who are small businesses or non-profits with limited budgets, time and manpower. Some of these invested in websites before the dawn of responsive design. They put a lot of time, effort, energy and resources into it. They are now back in the business of running their business with their budget for internet tapped dry. Although these sites may not be considered “mobile ready” they deliver valuable information nonetheless. Some of these clients provide vital community services. They simply can’t afford the expenditure. The ideal and expectations of expecting all sites to comply with responsive demands is a valiant notion. However, reality is many just don’t have the means and resources… including manpower. And, unfortunately it is the hard-working small businesses and non-profits with limited budgets that are going to suffer for this. While the commercial giants once again prosper. Its a Goliath beating down the small hardworking Americans… and the rest of the small organizations worldwide for that matter.

  9. Reginald Cummins March 24, 2015 Reply

    Good News

  10. Darshan Thakker March 25, 2015 Reply

    Oh yes, Thanks Google this time to warn world about their new algorithm before one month, in last algorithms, google never warn like this time.

    If we talking about new Algorithm, it is Good move by Google by Looking Latest Trends On Mobile and Tablets.

  11. na March 25, 2015 Reply

    Am I the only person who finds the inability to pinch and zoom on mobile sites incredible unfriendly. (Not to mention the frequent lack of full features.) I am always selecting “Request Desktop Site”, even when reading Google News, and use Goigle Chrome on iOS over Safari solely because of that feature.
    Why would I want more of these inflexible and limited mobile sites fnoisted upon me in their search results?
    The only reason I ever switched to a touchscreen phone was to pinch and zoom (albeit on maps as well as websites) – without that, I might still be on BlackBerry, typing ten times faster – that platform will benefit the most from this, having the most constricted screen space.

    • John March 25, 2015 Reply

      Exactly!

    • Jill Kocher March 26, 2015 Reply

      I’m with you there, na. There’s no reason that mobile customers should be excluded from deciding which sized screen experience they have. I should be able to pinch and squeeze to expand/contract my screen size from mobile to tablet to desktop at will on any mobile site I want. Having to navigate to settings to reload the page in the desktop version, which doesn’t always work, is a terrible experience.

    • Anthony April 17, 2015 Reply

      na, i am with you. ALSO, Google wants our mobile viewers to view a “mobile friendly” version of the site, but Google will only allow one display ad on mobile pages vs. allowing three display ads and two text ads per page on desktop versions of the site. How is this mobile push good for revenue (for Google or us)?

  12. John March 25, 2015 Reply

    I hate mobile sites. I bought a good phone because I want to experience the web just the same as I would on a computer. Thanks for nothing Google!

  13. Jayr March 27, 2015 Reply

    Awesome! very nice mobile tested. Just tested my site http://www.pinoyshowbiz.net/ in mobile view.

  14. Andrea Anderheggen March 27, 2015 Reply

    Great article. I especially can’t agree more with the statement that it doesn’t really matter, what an agency or a developer says: It’s all about what Google thinks is a mobile friendly site.

    However, what I believe is not very well known in the ecommerce community and is also not mentioned here, is, that there are a number of services, that allow a fast and convenient way to go mobile, including SEO friendly mobile site and apps. Mine (Shopgate) is an example of such services for ecommerce merchants.

    Another mistake that we hear a lot when speaking to merchants, is that Google prefers responsive design. Actually, Google itself almost never uses responsive design for it’s websites, but almost always goes for a dedicated mobile strategy including dedicated mobile websites and apps. So do the large players like Ebay, Amazon, Alibaba: They respect every single (relevant) mobile platform.

    Ultimately the question is: How do you generate more revenues in mobile? And the answer is always: By respecting the specific needs of mobile users, that are different than desktop users when it comes to speed, information needs, checkout experience, apps etc.

    In the long term, I believe that Google will prefer those mobile strategies that convert best, because that will make their own mobile ads business more valuable. In some cases (e.g. news pages) responsive might work best. In other more interactive use cases (ecommerce) a full dedicated mobile strategy with mobile websites and apps is the way to go.

  15. seo services April 8, 2015 Reply

    if i do not make my site responsive mobile users friendly will it visible in rank or not.. ?

    • Jill Kocher April 10, 2015 Reply

      Hi seo services. Responsive sites are NOT required. Building mobile sites works just as well for this algorithm update, as long as they follow Google’s mobile-friendly guidelines.

  16. kdolliver April 16, 2015 Reply

    Thanks for the information. My site is mobile-friendly, but I have direct outbound links that go to non-mobile friendly sites. Do you think this will affect my mobile search results?

    • Jill Kocher April 16, 2015 Reply

      Hi kdolliver,
      That shouldn’t matter. Content value doesn’t hinge on mobile, if it has value for desktop. As long as the content is valuable to your users, you’ll be fine.

  17. Michael July 9, 2015 Reply

    Would you or anyone be interested in building my website in WordPress? I need to duplicate my existing site so that it’s “responsive” and I understand that WordPress is the way to go. If so, what would be the charge?

    Thanks,
    Michael
    240-447-8527

  18. Ruth Anitha June 7, 2016 Reply

    Trying to focus on too many different keywords is another big mistake people make, as the content on their site becomes compromised as a result; when you are working with keywords, your best bet is to simply pick out two primary keywords you want to focus on – centering your content around these two keywords, and allowing the rest of the secondary keywords to take care of themselves. http://www.webfire.com/free-training