Mobile SEO: Google Raises the Bar
Google recently announced that it will soon be making changes to how it ranks websites based on their mobile behavior.
As always with things Google, the details of how mobile website behavior will affect search results is impossible to discern, since the company provides only very selective disclosure about its algorithms. Let’s step back and look at Google’s motivations.
Smartphones are now a huge part of the browsing world. According to one widely referenced source, mobile browsers now account for more than 16% of all web accesses. This fraction has increased 60% in the past 12 months. More than 3.6 million smartphones are activated every day.
Many businesses that weren’t ready to invest in a fully mobile-optimized site have created simple mobile sites, sometimes only a single landing page. While this approach may have been acceptable in the early days of the mobile web, it has serious drawbacks and is hard to recommend today.
With simple mobile sites, people searching the web on their phones will find links are redirected to a mobile landing page (bad behavior), or that deliver a non-mobile-friendly page (not-quite-as-bad behavior).
From Google’s perspective, redirects to limited mobile sites reduce the quality of the search experience for a phone user — the visitor did not get the page that the search results referenced. This is what Google calls a ‘faulty redirect’. Google has said that it will, at some time, begin penalizing sites that exhibit this behavior.
This ‘faulty redirect’ is just one of the behaviors Google is targeting. Google has also published a list of common mistakes in smartphone sites.
Responsive vs. Separate Pages, Revisited
As we have noted previously (see Responsive Design is Not the Only Good Answer), there are strong benefits to using separate mobile pages, rather than a responsive site. With separate mobile pages, it is much easier to fully optimize the mobile experience, in terms of both coding and content.
A downside of the separate pages approach is that you probably won’t have a mobile equivalent for every single desktop page. Google is not saying that you must have a mobile-optimized page for every desktop page, however; only that if you don’t have a mobile-optimized page for a given request, you should deliver the desktop page, not redirect to a mobile ‘catch-all’ page. (This is how the Webvanta system behaves when using server-side mobile detection.)
That said, it clearly would be better to have a mobile version of every page of your site, especially as more and more web usage moves to mobile. This has led us to start moving away from separate pages, where practical, and to use responsive design to make all pages mobile-optimized. With a large site, it simply becomes too burdensome to keep a separate set of pages up-to-date, unless you are able to derive all the content from a common database.
One More Nail in Flash’s Coffin
Google also notes that ‘Many videos are not playable on smartphone devices.’ This is a thinly veiled reference to Flash video players. Google doesn’t say that it will down-rank sites with mobile-unfriendly videos, but the implication is there.
Is Google Mandating Full Mobile Optimization?
Many observers have interpreted Google’s posts as implying that sites that aren’t fully mobile-optimized won’t be ranked as well, even in desktop search results. As far as we can tell, Google has not said that — but they’re not exactly clear and explicit in what they say.
Google has enormous power to influence the web, since getting good placement on Google search results page is of enormous interest to nearly every site owner. In this case, Google seems to be using its power reasonably.
Another approach that Google could have taken, however, would have been to maintain separate indexes for the desktop and mobile webs. Since Google already has separate spiders that crawl the mobile web, to some degree separate indexes already exists. Giving mobile index results to mobile devices would have enabled mobile sites to evolve separately from desktop sites.
What Google has made clear, however, through this and other statements, is that it wants one web, and sites that don’t play along may be penalized.
Topics: Mobile Web