There are around 24 hours to go now until Google’s ‘Mobile Friendly’ update to their search algorithm. When this was announced on February 26th 2015 webmasters and SEOs alike took notice as this has been labelled as the most significant change to their algorithm since the Hummingbird update in 2013. In fact, Google’s Zineb Ait Behajji said recently that this will have a wider impact than both the Panda update in 2011 and the infamous Penguin update in 2012. So where does that leave us?
The writing has been on the wall for a while…
Let’s get one thing straight, this is not the evil side of Google trying to maliciously catch out websites. Much like Matt Cutts’ denouncing of spammy guest posting in early 2014 this update should come as no surprise. In fact, although webmasters could arguably be excused more than their SEOs for not identifying the trend of spammy guest posting, we all know that smartphones have seen a meteoric rise in the recent years. I was at a conference 2 years ago where Mark Read (CEO of WPP Digital) was predicting what to prepare for. His absolute priority was to “be ready for mobile”. Whilst great advice, two years on and you do not need to be chief exec of a global digital firm to realise that being mobile friendly is essential. Search traffic from mobile devices has been increasing rapidly and anyone who owns a smartphone would have likely understood this just from observing their own personal use. As such, it takes a minimal amount of common sense to realise that Google would want websites to display correctly on mobile devices and they have been explicitly saying this for a number of years. Google is simply making sure that their algorithm is falling in line with consumer trends and demands.
What will the effect be?
This update will not affect desktop searches. Therefore, if your website is not mobile friendly you will be able to forecast potential losses by viewing the percentage of web traffic coming from mobile devices. Worst case scenario: you lose all of your mobile traffic but retain traffic from desktops. If your business relies on mobile traffic then one would presume that the website is already mobile friendly! It must be said that it is unclear as to whether tablets are considered mobile, but for the sake of argument let’s focus on mobile phones as mobile devices. Short term effects then are limited to mobile search. However, it would not surprise us if in the future a website that does not display correctly on mobile will be considered of lower quality by Google and therefore affect its ranking on desktop search.
Panda and Penguin gained infamy through their active penalisation of websites. The threat of being de-indexed was, and is, very real and acts as a particularly strong deterrent (albeit it one that some still choose to ignore). Being penalised by Google usually results in a high percentage of search traffic to a website disappearing, often overnight. Understandably then, when Google announced the scale of this update, many of those with websites that were not optimised for mobile began to perspire a little bit more than usual! The fact that it is being dubbed as #mobilegeddon probably doesn’t help.
This ‘mobile-friendly’ update will not place active penalties on websites for not complying, which may come as a relief to some. The more pessimistic amongst us may consider this semantics. You may not be placed in Google’s digital penalty box, but losing rankings on mobile search could have the same impact. Whilst we cannot predict how quickly the algorithm will react to updated sites, it does seem that this absence of active penalisation is beneficial. For instance, if your website is not mobile friendly and subsequently loses rankings, making it responsive should result in a speedy return whereas a return to previous ranking from a penalty can be much, much slower.
Why is everyone telling me to take deep breaths?
Prominent websites such as Search Engine Land and Econsultancy have been telling people to relax and not to panic. The main reason for this advice is so that website owners do not attempt to throw money at the situation or to rush through half baked mobile optimisation for their site in time for tomorrow’s rollout. It is good advice. Google will not be actively penalising websites for not displaying correctly on mobile, and this update will only affect SERPs for mobile devices. As such, although it might have a wider impact than Panda or Penguin it might not necessarily be as devastating to those that have neglected to prepare, especially in the mid term.
Furthermore, this is not the first ever mobile-friendly update, it is just the most publicised and the largest one yet. They have been tweaking their mobile algorithm for some time now, seen in part by the mobile friendly tagging presently included in the algorithm. Whilst this update can be expected to be more effective at identifying mobile friendly sites, if your website is not mobile friendly it is likely that your rankings (and therefore mobile search traffic) is not great anyway, or your conversion rate was painfully low. Couple this with the fact that the update will only affect mobile search and this points to a less dramatic impact on conversions. Rushing design and development can be a treacherous route. Not only is it likely that the first rollout of a rushed responsive design and development will be severely ‘buggy’ but the lifespan of the design will be significantly shorter than one that is more considered. Look at the numbers, consider the potential worst case scenario and the pitfalls of half arsed mobile optimisation in order to make a decision. But do take a breath and mull it over first!
Google is offering advice and tools to help those that do not have mobile ready websites. Like a giant shepherd using his crook (in this case the update), Google is attempting to usher the non mobile friendly websites back in line with the herd (in this case consumer demand for mobile friendly results in SERPs). As already mentioned, this update appears to be very much consumer driven. Google has realised that mobile search now makes up a significant portion of their traffic and therefore as a business they need to provide the best results for this demand. Unlike updates such as Penguin this is not in reaction to those attempting to manipulate the SERPs through spam. To give an example, Penguin can be viewed as an update akin to a teacher giving a detention for a student being naughty, whereas this mobile friendly update could be viewed as the teacher offering encouragement and providing the necessary information for a student to improve their grades. Enough of the analogies…
How quickly will we know the scale of the update?
Data is compiled pretty quickly in regards to major updates such as this. The fellows down at Moz do not yet have a mobile optimised site. They claim that they are going to measure the results before ‘going mobile’ which is very generous of them. Whether they are using this as an excuse for not being ready or truly believe that the data will be of more use it pure speculation. What it does mean is that they will definitely be active about the impact on their own site. Other websites and the SEO community in general will be measuring the effects very closely and you should be able to see the impact from your own analytics if your website is not yet optimised.
This should act as a rather large cattle prod.
In the end, although Google tends to release titbits of information in the run up to a major update the real proof is in the pudding. Whatever the impact of this mobile friendly update, if your website is not mobile optimised then it should spur you into action. As already said, the writing has been on the wall for quite some time now. With all the publicity around this update and the potential impact, this should be considered the final warning. Get mobile friendly or be left behind. We have included some useful information at the bottom of this article for those that are looking to make their website more mobile friendly.