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Google's Mobile Algorithm Update is Coming April 21. Are you Prepared?

Merkle|RKG is hosting a webinar today at 1pm EDT on Google's mobile-friendly algorithm update. Click here to register or to view the webinar on-demand afterwards.

Google’s Announcement

rkg-mobile-friendly-exampleGoogle recently announced that it will be expanding the use of "mobile-friendliness" as a ranking signal starting on April 21, stating: “This change will affect mobile searches in all languages worldwide and will have a significant impact in our search results.”

The change will begin on April 21 but may roll out for the week following the release date . Mobile-friendliness has been a consideration in the SERPs before with “mobile-friendly” and “slow” labels but this update is supposed to have a significant impact in the results being served to searchers worldwide.

So what does “significant” mean? According to Google's Zineb Bahajji, it will have more of an impact than Panda (which affected 13% of English queries) or Penguin (which affected 4% of global queries).

This is huge news to brands because mobile makes up a large (and growing) segment of site visitors. In the fourth quarter of last year, Merkle|RKG’s Digital Marketing Report showed that mobile devices drove 39%  of paid search traffic and over 42% of organic search visits. Mobile visitors have already surpassed desktop visitors for many sites.

App indexing is another important, but much less discussed, issue in this area. In a February 26th post on the Webmaster Central Blog, Google stated that: “Starting today, we will begin to use information from indexed apps as a factor in ranking for signed-in users who have the app installed. As a result, we may now surface content from indexed apps more prominently in search.”

This appears to be Android specific for now and while we won’t get into the details of preparing for this piece of the algorithm here, the idea of tracking and optimizing can be applied to identify app opportunities as well.

So what is Google Looking for Anyway?

Google’s aim with this update is to “get the most relevant and timely results.” They’ve identified a few areas that impact usability on mobile phones and appear to be reviewing mobile friendliness based on that list. Remember, just because your site has a mobile solution in place doesn’t mean it will pass Google’s mobile usability tests. Google will be looking for the following when assessing your site:

Viewport Not Configured – A viewport meta tag tells browsers how to display a page different screen sizes. If I view a page on my phone, I need the content to be more compact than if I’m looking at it on a widescreen monitor.

Content Not Sized to Viewport – When content isn’t sized to a mobile viewport, it requires mobile visitors to scroll horizontally, potentially creating a poor user experience.

Touch Elements Too Close – This means buttons or other elements on the site are too close together for mobile visitors to use without touching other elements. This means users would have to zoom in and out of the page to take an action on the site.

Small Font Size – Small font size implies that content is too small to read without mobile users zooming in and resizing the page.

Flash usage – Most mobile browsers don’t render Flash content. If your site relies on this to display content or navigation, it could be creating a poor mobile user experience.

Resources blocked by robots.txt – This isn’t part of Google’s original list but some sites block crawlers from resources that help to render content on the page. Addressing this, for some sites, can make the page appear to be mobile friendly to Googlebot-Mobile.

How does the Algorithm Work?

Page by page - The algorithm evaluates mobile-friendliness on a page by page basis. This means some pages on your site can pass as mobile friendly without your entire site being optimized for mobile.

In real time -  It also runs in real time. While we’ve had to wait for other updates to run to integrate site changes into the SERPs, Google will assess and update mobile-friendliness at the same pace that it crawls and indexes your site.

On a pass/fail system - A page is either considered mobile-friendly or not. This algorithm does not include degrees of mobile-friendliness.

Choosing a Mobile Solution

If your site doesn’t have a mobile solution in place, your first priority should be choosing the right mobile solution for your site. There are three options you can choose from:

  1. Separate mobile URLs - Using a separate site for mobile and desktop visitors.
  2. Dynamic serving - Using different content for mobile and desktop visitors served from the same URLs.
  3. Responsive design - Using the same content from the same URLs but displaying it differently based on the browser size
Responsive design is Google’s preferred solution, but each option above has its own advantages and disadvantages to consider when choosing your solution. Merkle|RKG’s webinar on Google's mobile algorithm changes will touch on pros and cons of different mobile solutions.

Preparing Your Site for the Mobile Algorithm Update

Even if your site already has a mobile solution in place, brands can’t be sure what impact the algorithm update might have. Just because your site has a mobile solution doesn’t mean you’re algorithm-proof.

Merkle|RKG has kicked tracking into high gear to make sure we catch and address any unanticipated impacts from the update. Prepare for the algorithm with the following tactics to monitor the impact on your site so you can quickly react and address any changes that result from the update.

Assess the mobile-friendliness of your site - Use the “Mobile Usability” report in Google Webmaster Tools to find particular issues Googlebot has picked up on when crawling your site. This report will alert you to site wide patterns in mobile usability problems as well as issues on individual pages. The Google Mobile Friendly Test also allows webmasters to test mobile-friendliness on a page by page basis. Issues identified through these reports will directly impact the mobile-friendliness designation of the pages on your site and should be addressed to prepare for the update.

Track mobile SERP presence - Benchmark your site’s mobile performance before the update and monitor any changes after the update to understand how much your site is impacted and which parts of the site need to be optimized. Keep an eye on impressions and clicks for mobile queries and pages. Find top mobile pages and queries through Google Webmaster Tools’ “Search Queries” reports.

Track overall SERP presence - Though this update is mobile-focused, good webmasters should be keeping an eye on their overall SERP presence as well. We don’t know what will happen when the update hits so keep an eye on overall landing pages, queries, and user behavior as well as any interesting changes in desktop behavior to find areas of opportunity for mobile-optimizing the site.

Check out mobile crawl errors on your site - While this isn’t expressly what Google is looking for as a ranking factor, it can alert you to problems Googlebot is having crawling your site and potentially finding your mobile pages.

Track mobile behavior on your site with Google Analytics - Get a bigger picture about mobile traffic and behavior with Google Analytics. You can slice and dice data in a variety of ways to see how mobile users are finding your site and what they’re doing once they’ve found it. This can alert you to any problems mobile visitors are having on your site as well as the overall amount of mobile visitors coming into your site.

In addition to individual client performance, RKG is also tracking trends across clients so we can point to unexpected results of the algorithm. Stay tuned for future observations about the mobile update.

Mobile is Not Just an SEO Initiative

More than just a consideration for brands’ SEO teams, mobile-friendliness should be an cross-channel initiative. Shoppers are finding your site from every channel and context with their mobile phones. They may enter through an email, a search while in your brick and mortar store, or from the SERP. While Google’s mobile algorithm update has prompted webmasters to pay closer attention to this issue, mobile-friendliness should be a usability consideration for all marketers.