Another Google Game-Changer: How Going Mobile Friendly Will Boost Your Search Visibility

From Panda to Penguin to Hummingbird, Google has rolled out a series of major changes to its ranking algorithms over the past three years that have sent major shockwaves echoing through world of SEO.

While its latest announcement hasn’t been met with the same level of fanfare as these previous updates, it heralds an important turning of the tides in the future of search and signals to any business that depends on web traffic that the time has arrived to pay heed and take action.

So what is this latest game-changer from Google? In an article released November 18 entitled “Helping Users Find Mobile-Friendly Pages”, the search giant announced that it is now adding an eye-catching “mobile-friendly” label in front of its mobile search results.


How does Google define mobile friendly? According to the article, a page is eligible for the “mobile-friendly” label if it meets the following criteria as detected by Googlebot:

  • Avoids software that is not common on mobile devices, like Flash
  • Uses text that is readable without zooming
  • Sizes content to the screen so users don't have to scroll horizontally or zoom
  • Places links far enough apart so that the correct one can be easily tapped

Okay – so what's the big deal about mobile friendly?

On the surface, this may seem like a relatively minor aesthetic enhancement to Google’s search results pages. However, it’s the reasoning driving this modification that portends even bigger changes ahead. In Google’s own words:

“Have you ever tapped on a Google Search result on your mobile phone, only to find yourself looking at a page where the text was too small, the links were tiny, and you had to scroll sideways to see all the content? This usually happens when the website has not been optimized to be viewed on a mobile phone…We see these labels as a first step in helping mobile users to have a better mobile web experience.”

It’s those last few words – “a first step in helping mobile users to have a better mobile web experience” – that should prompt smart marketers, SEOs and webmasters to sit up and pay attention. While Google has long recommended the use of responsive web design for mobile device support, they are now taking proactive steps to draw attention to those sites that deliver an optimal mobile browsing experience in order to ensure that they are providing the best search results for mobile users.

What this means for you is simple: if your site is not yet optimized for mobile devices, now is the time to change that!

Will “mobile-friendly” sites receive higher ranking on search results pages?

As you can see from the example above, the new “mobile-friendly” label will certainly capture the attention of users searching on mobile devices over results listings that are not given the same designation. In that way, mobile-friendly sites will automatically receive a boost in visibility in mobile search results.

But the question on everyone’s mind is whether having a mobile-friendly site will actually affect where their listing is ranked on the search results page. The answer: quite likely. In the article, Google states that the labels are a “first step” in creating a better mobile web experience, but they also conclude by saying that they “are also experimenting with using the mobile-friendly criteria as a ranking signal.”

It has long been speculated that Google does, in fact, give extra weight to sites that offer quality multi-device support by employing a responsive design framework, but this statement is the first official acknowledgment of this practice. What this means is that in the months ahead, you may see websites that create an experience optimized for smaller-screen, touch-based devices start to climb the rankings over others that do not offer the same. Who knows – maybe Google will even start exclusively displaying mobile-friendly sites for mobile searchers, a move that could really shift the balance in favor of those that provide an optimal experience for mobile users!

If your company is searching for ways to rise above the competition and increase your exposure in search engine rankings, this could truly be a game-changing development – one that should absolutely be capitalized on immediately. Not only will optimizing your site for mobile improve the experience for a growing percentage of your users, but a responsive site is also very likely to be your ticket to improved Google rankings in the future while also earning you their new “mobile-friendly” designation today.

How do I get started?

Google offers a number of tools to help you determine whether or not your site is mobile friendly, starting with their “Mobile-Friendly Test.” Simply plug the URL for any page of your website into this tool, and if it fails the test, Google will offer some suggestions and recommended links to more information about how you can improve your site’s support for mobile users.

You can also use the Mobile Usability Report in Google Webmaster Tools, which highlights major mobile usability issues across your entire site, not just one page.

These tools are a good start, but there is a difference between “mobile friendly” and “mobile optimized.” A site that scales down to better display on small-screen devices and features navigational links that are easily usable on those mobile devices is “friendly”, but there are many other considerations that go into creating a site that provides a truly optimized experience for users on those devices. If your site fails the Google tests, evaluate the suggestions they offer and also be sure to speak to your web design firm about how best to address mobile device support on your site.

The bad news

So optimizing your site for mobile is going be awesome, right? It will improve the user experience for many of your customers, and now that Google is taking a firm stand on this issue, mobile optimization can actually mean greater visibility in search and improved rankings. Those are great reasons to jump aboard the responsive bandwagon, but the bad news is that making a site responsive is no small task.

Responsive web design is not a feature you can simply tack on to an existing site, especially one that is quite old and outdated. Responsive design often requires rethinking how a site’s content is presented, and it almost always involves rebuilding your site from the framework up. This means that to make your site truly mobile ready, you may be looking at a complete redesign.

As 2014 nears its end and 2015 is on the horizon, your company is likely in the midst of budgeting for the coming year, including planning your marketing expenses. Mobile optimization for your website, even if it will require a full site redesign, should be on your agenda because as Google has so clearly stated in their recent announcement, support for mobile devices is no longer just a nice-to-have luxury. Rather, to compete successfully on the Web of today and tomorrow, optimization for mobile devices is an essential element.