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Malcolm Slade, Head of Technical SEO

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Malcolm Slade

Head of Technical SEO

For as far back as I can remember, I have been hearing the same generic statements being thrown around: “Content is King!”, “SEO is dead!”, “The year of the mobile”.

While nobody is doubting that things are changing (imagine how boring our jobs would be if they didn’t) and content is becoming more and more important, SEO is becoming more a blend of other things etc., all of these statements seem rather abrupt and are normally just used as sensationalist click bait headlines. Well, one may now actually be true.

2015 is the year of the mobile

We are now at a point where:

  • Mobile browsing technology has evolved to be useable by everyone. The transitions from desktop to mobile on browsers such as Google’s Chrome are seamless
  • Enough sites now render in a mobile appropriate fashion to make people comfortable that they can do what they need on a mobile device
  • Many informational sites are seeing in excess of 50% of their traffic coming from mobile and transactional sites are starting to see noticeable growth in this area
  • The words “mobile first” are regularly coming up in development meetings and RFPs

By now, everyone should at least be considering their mobile audience and taking appropriate steps to ensure that the user experience they have worked so hard to improve on their website translated to mobile devices. There are many ways to easily check this from simply browsing on your phone or using the “View Responsive Layouts” option on a Chrome plugin such as Web Developer Toolbar.

"It looks OK" was an appropriate response when viewing a site on my 1st generation Apple iPod Touch, but that is no longer going to cut it. Users expect a tailored experience and have adopted such things as hamburger menus as the norm.

Why 2015?

I could have written all of the above late last year, but something big has happened in 2015 that really hit home. Google, in its normal subtle way, has waded in to provide support to mobile.

Google, in no uncertain terms, told us that the importance of being correctly optimised is going to be ramped up as a ranking factor for mobile search. This makes perfect sense as ultimately Google’s goal (other than making money) is to ensure its users have a good experience.

They put together a mobile friendly test, as well as some detailed guidelines on common faults and how to optimise various platforms (nothing really enterprise level though).

They also hinted that the April 21st update (“starting April 21st”) will be a major shake-up, akin to Panda or Penguin, for mobile search. If that doesn’t give you the nudge to get your site optimised for mobile in 2015, I doubt anything will.

What is “mobile optimised” in Google’s eyes?

In a nutshell, Google just wants you take basic steps to ensure mobile users have an appropriate experience of your site. There are not asking for the moon-on-a-stick (that reference will be lost on many) but expect that mobile users are catered for.

I doubt very much that there will be any preference towards responsive, dynamic serving or plain old m. domains. However, spacing, content layout, navigation, page speed and overall UX are going to be inspected and graded.

The important thing to realise is that  Google is subtly forcing a certain set of rules which we hope are grounded in common sense best practice. The “mobile friendly” evaluation will be automated based on various renders, segmentation and analysis rather than a human’s opinion so there will be an obvious road to success.

Key considerations:

  • How close are your clickable elements?
  • Does you content fit to the available view port?
  • Is your chosen styling readable on mobile?
  • Are you using any tech that may not work on a mobile?

How can you quickly fix your site?

Well I’m sorry to say that for most big sites there are no simple fixes, especially if mobile hasn’t already been considered. A switch to responsive can be a daunting task - as can developing a separate mobile domain.

I have looked at various options for quickly making mobile sites and short of having someone turn some PSDs in to a passable mobile layout, there is nothing out there that comes close to being a viable interim solution for most site.

Even when one of these converter tools works, you still have to consider the fact they are going to host your mobile site and this in itself can lead to a world of pain and problems. I’m not even going to link to any of them due to how bad they are.

At March’s SMX West conference, Google’s Gary Illyes discussed the upcoming update. He said that the assessment would be carried out in real-time and on a page by page basis rather than a “your site is not mobile friendly” approach.  An interim solution would be to gradually role out a mobile optimised solution starting with your key traffic driving pages, rather than waiting for a fully responsive site.

How bad is the impact of the April update going to be?

Nobody knows. Nobody! I doubt very much that there will be an impact on brand search as, let’s face it, if you are the brand you are the best fit - no matter if your site isn’t great on a mobile.

It all comes down to how much traffic you are potentially putting at risk from not being considered “mobile friendly”. If 25% of your traffic comes from mobile but it is pretty much all brand then you are not likely to see much of a change. However, if you rank for a load of high value generic terms you may want to be doing everything you can to get your mobile site development prioritised, using the Google stick as a lever.

Whether we are looking at a “mobile friendly | not mobile friendly” scenario of a more granular scale, we may never know. For now, having the “mobile friendly” label and not having Google Webmaster Tools shouting at you, seems to be a good sign you have it right.

At the end of the day, mobile optimisation just makes sense - whether Google is backing it or not.

As always, please feel free to comment on the above and I would be especially keen to hear from anyone who has found a simple interim solution for use prior to the development of a fully mobile site.