Marketing & Advertising

SEO: How Google’s ‘Mobile-friendly’ Update Affects Performance

Google’s “mobile-friendly” algorithm update is big news. But how will it impact your ecommerce performance?

On April 21, Google will begin rolling out a worldwide mobile-friendly algorithm update that will have a “significant impact” on mobile search results for mobile searchers. In essence, if your ecommerce site does not pass Google’s mobile friendly test, there’s a real possibility that Google will send you fewer mobile search customers after April 21.

To learn more about Google’s “mobile-friendly” algorithm update, read my article “SEO: Google to Make ‘Mobile-friendly’ a Ranking Signal.”

Naturally, the top questions circling the minds of ecommerce marketers revolve around how the update will affect sales.

Does Google’s Mobile-friendly Update Affect All Sites?

That depends entirely on whether your site passes the mobile-friendly test on April 21. Head to Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test and enter a URL. In about 60 seconds, the tool will give a definitive and easy-to-understand pass-fail response like the one shown below.

Google Mobile Friendly Test Result

Mobile test results for two sites: a passing site on the left and a failing site on the right.

The test results page will also specify reasons that the page has been deemed unfriendly, such as small text, link spacing, horizontal scrolling, and other mobile usability issues.

How Does Google’s Mobile-friendly Update Affect Ecommerce Performance?

A positive test result means that your ecommerce site will benefit from the mobile-friendly algorithm update. At the very least, your site should retain its mobile rankings. It’s very possible — if the sites ranking higher than yours in mobile search results are not mobile friendly — that your ecommerce site could rank even higher than it does today. For mobile-friendly sites, this algorithm update is all upside for organic search performance.

A negative test result means that your site will not benefit from the update, and that competitors’ sites that are mobile friendly could push your site down in the rankings.

This algorithm update is bad news for sites that Google does not see as mobile friendly. But how bad?

Google is calling the update “significant,” which is a big deal for Google. Other similarly labeled updates include the Panda and Penguin algorithm updates of the past few years. The amount of emphasis that the Google Webmaster team is putting on education around this update highlights further the expected impact.

How Hard Will Your Site Get Hit?

How it will impact your existing ecommerce performance depends mainly on two things: How many visits and sales mobile search drives for your business today, and the percentage of brand versus non-brand keyword traffic mobile search drives.

There’s no way to know for sure until after the algorithm is released. But we can do some worst-case analysis to estimate the damage.

The update will impact neither paid search performance, nor desktop organic search performance, nor Bing and Yahoo mobile search performance. This update is Google-specific, and specific only to mobile organic search.

Therefore, the very worst-case outcome of this update is that Google organic mobile search drives zero visits and sales starting April 21.

Start your analysis by determining the amount of visits and revenue driven by Google’s organic search. What percent of your total organic search channel does that represent? And what percent of your total site performance does that represent?

If that chunk of performance — the visits and revenue driven by Google’s organic search — disappeared on April 21, what impact would that have on your business overall? This is the worst-case scenario. The more likely scenario is that visits and revenue driven by Google’s organic search will decrease by some percent smaller than 100 percent.

Mobile friendliness is not the only ranking factor, just a new and “significant” one. Relevance and authority still play large rolls in the mobile ranking algorithm, along with more than 200 other ranking signals. Again, the balance between mobile friendliness and the other 200 or so ranking signals is an unknown. But we can make some educated guesses.

Branding will remain a strong ranking factor. The mobile search visits you receive from branded search phrases will likely remain fairly steady, because branded phrases are more navigational. The searcher is looking for your site. Google wouldn’t be acting in the searcher’s best interest if it excluded your site from the results. Product brands that are sold on many ecommerce sites may face more of a challenge, however, because the searcher’s intent behind those branded keywords could be well served at any number of retail sites.

Check Google Webmaster Tools’ “Search Queries” report to get an idea of the percentage of branded versus non-branded keyword traffic Google currently sends you. If the percentage of branded keywords is high, the impact of the upcoming mobile-friendly update may not have a huge impact on your performance.

Likewise, if mobile search doesn’t play a significant role in your organic search performance today, the mobile-friendly update represents a continuing loss of opportunity rather than an abrupt loss of existing visits and sales.

Jill Kocher Brown

Jill Kocher Brown

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