The Lowdown on the Mobile Ranking Algorithm Update

April 1st, 2015 by Eva Martin
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The mobile ranking algorithm update is just around the corner: Google will start rolling out its update on the 21st of April. As this is a major update we’ve decided to give you the hard facts here and now.

What is the mobile ranking algorithm update, and how does it affect my site? (Or: Why should I care?)

Each time a user makes a search query through Google, Google decides which pages to show in the organic search results, and in which position to rank them. This process is based on a complex ranking algorithm that aims at showing the most relevant pages to the user.

So far, search results on desktop and mobile devices were fairly similar. That means, if a user performed a search on their laptop, they were likely to get the same or at least similar results on their smartphone.

Desktop results

Until now organic search results on mobile and desktop were usually the same or at least very similar

 

Mobile results

 

However, this is about to change as Google is focusing ever so more on websites’ mobile usability. The algorithm update means that mobile and desktop search result pages will look significantly different from each other.

The update to Google’s algorithm sees the inclusion of mobile usability as a ranking factor in organic mobile search results. In other words, mobile-friendly pages will be rewarded with a ranking boost.

If your site passes Google’s mobile-friendly test you will benefit from this update, particularly if your competitors are not mobile-friendly. However, if the opposite is true, and your site offers users on mobile devices a bad experience, you may lose out against competitors whose mobile usability is high.

How do I know if Google decides that my site is mobile friendly?

Several months ago, Google rolled out mobile-friendly labels in the mobile search results. If Google deemed a page’s mobile usability high, a little label saying ‘mobile-friendly’ would appear next to it, indicating to the user that this page would be easy to use on their mobile device.

mobile friendly label

The mobile-friendly label is given out on a per-page basis and indicates whether a page will benefit from the algorithm update

 

Mobile-friendly labels are given out on a per-page basis, meaning that some pages on your website can benefit from the ranking update, whereas others don’t.

Sad is sad

The mobile ranking algorithm update is ‘yay or nay’ – there is no greyscale

It is very much a yay or nay situation: you can only benefit from the ranking algorithm update if you have the mobile-friendly label, but you won’t be penalised if you don’t have it. And there are no nuances: you’re either mobile-friendly or not – if your page is just a little bit better than your competitor’s but still not easy to use on mobile devices, tough luck, because you still won’t receive a mobile-friendly boost.

 

The mobile-friendly label and Google’s mobile-friendly test are one and the same: they both show you what Google thinks of your site’s mobile experience. There are two ways how you can check whether your pages pass the test:

  • Log into Google Webmaster Tools and navigate to your profile > Search Traffic > Mobile Usability
    Here, Google gives you an analysis of what’s wrong with your pages on mobile devices. Or, if everything is great, you’ll get two big thumbs up.

    Google Webmaster Tools Mobile Usability Test

    Google Webmaster Tools can tell you what’s wrong with your mobile usability

    Google Webmaster Tools Mobile Usability OK

  • If you don’t have Google Webmaster Tools set up, or simply want more insights, go to Google’s Mobile Usability Test  and enter a web page URL.

    Google Developers Mobile Friendly Test

    Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test

Just keep in mind, the test works on a per-page basis; just because your homepage receives the mobile-friendly label, doesn’t automatically mean all your pages do.

Will Google rank other sites above mine in the mobile search results – even if someone is googling my brand?

Potentially. Brand related search queries can be affected by the algorithm update. It is likely that search queries with a heavy intent for a specific brand will still show the brand’s website first, even if it isn’t mobile-friendly – but this isn’t guaranteed.

Will Google prefer responsive design over mobile or dynamic sites?

Responsive design is not a ranking factor – mobile usability is. A page can be mobile-friendly even though it is not responsive. So if you have a mobile site (m.site.com), this can be totally fine, as long it is actually offering your users a good experience on their mobile devices.

Google does not officially recommend one design over the other, as no one site is the same. For other ranking factors such as links, of which some go to the mobile site (m.site.com) and some to the desktop version (site.com), Google will consolidate these factors so that they count for both.

However, if you do have both a mobile and a desktop site, you might want to use canonical and alternate tags to indicate to Google which one is the mobile and which one the desktop site, so they can serve the correct page to users depending on which devices they’re using.

My website works perfectly well on smartphones! Why does it not pass the mobile-friendly test?

Yes, this will happen. Unfortunately, an automated test can only see so much and go so far. There are bound to be losers of this update, whose sites offer a great experience on mobile devices, yet Google still deems them mobile-unfriendly. My advice is:

  • Take the test and find out what exactly Google thinks is wrong with your site, perhaps they’re right.
  • Try accessing your pages on various mobile devices, perhaps it works great on a smartphone with a large screen but what about smaller devices?
  • Put your users first. If you, your designers, your developers and your users are absolutely convinced that your site is mobile-friendly, don’t go fiddling around with it just for the sake of Google. Rather, flag it up with them and wait for a better mobile-friendly test. Google continuously work on improving their automated algorithms, so there’s hope!
Google Robot

It is likely that the mobile-friendly test will evolve over time

 

How will the algorithm update affect organic search results on desktop?

The algorithm update will exclusively affect organic mobile search results. It won’t have an impact on desktop search results.

I’m advertising with Google AdWords, how will the update affect my paid search ads?

Ads in the search results will not be affected by this update. The ranking algorithm only affects organic search results, not paid search results, thus the algorithm update is of no significance to AdWords. We can’t eliminate the possibility that AdWords will reward mobile friendly pages at some point, e.g. with a higher Ad Rank, but there are no indications for such a change at this point.

Have something to add? Leave a comment below, we’d love to hear your thoughts on the mobile algorithm update!

Didn’t pass the mobile-friendly test? Get in touch to find out how we can help improve your website’s mobile search visibility.


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