Google Mobile Algorithm Update Checklist

By now you’ve probably already heard the stirrings. Google recently announced that on April 21, it will update its ranking algorithm. As a result, mobile search engine results pages (SERPs) will be impacted by the mobile-friendliness of a website. What made this announcement especially anxiety-provoking in the industry is that this is an unprecedented move by Google: giving webmasters a specific date (in advance) of an upcoming algorithm update. The speculation is that this means the update will have a significant impact on the web. Indeed, even Google’s own language points to this.

Google has always made it clear that its ultimate focus is on the user’s experience. In this vein, Google wants to make it easier for people using mobile devices to access websites that have been optimized for use on that device.

It’s 2015. Your Website Should Already be Mobile-Friendly.

Recent statistics show that there are currently 1.5 billion mobile Internet users and 60 percent of Google searches are from a smartphone. So, while Google’s announcement of a specific date for the upcoming algorithm change and the use of strong language was surprising, its push for mobile-friendly websites is not. Over the past two years, we have seen pretty clear signals pointing to the importance of optimizing websites for the mobile user experience. First, Google rolled out its mobile-friendly guidelines, followed by updated reporting features within both Google Webmaster Tools and Google Analytics. Next, Google took a bolder step by experimenting with mobile-friendly site labels on search results conducted from a mobile device.

With all of this recent activity from Google around the mobile user experience and SEO, we are fairly well positioned to not only weather this update, but to come out ahead in the long term. I would suggest that the ultimate goal is to improve the overall performance of mobile sites in general (higher conversion rates, average order values and improved user experience) to stand up to desktop performance.

With that in mind, here is our Google Mobile Algorithm Update Checklist.

 

Step 1:  Make Sure Your Site is Mobile-Friendly

Google is constantly looking to rank web pages that show high relevance, trust and a great user experience. To rank for a target search query, Google needs to deem your web page the most relevant and “least imperfect” option for that query, based on specific factors within its algorithm. So, whether the site “seems” to work just fine to you on your mobile device, take advantage of the transparency and the great toolset that Google has made available for you:

  1. Analyze specific site URLs with Google’s Mobile-Friendly Testing Tool.
  2. Audit the mobile usability of your entire site with Google Webmaster Tools.
  3. Fetch your site as Google to see how Google views your site vs. a user.

The goal is to ensure the mobile version of your site is active and functional. Responsive designs are the most popular, but you can also have a separate hosted mobile version of your site. Google doesn’t have a preference, as long as the mobile user’s experience isn’t interrupted. Remember, this means that if you do have a separate hosted mobile site, each page on the desktop site must have a mobile equivalent.

Three options to create a mobile-friendly site include one (or a combination) of the following:

  1. Responsive Web Design
    Serves the same HTML code on the same URL regardless of the users’ device (desktop, tablet, mobile, non-visual browser), but can render the display differently (i.e., “respond”) based on the screen size. Responsive design is Google’s recommended design pattern.
  2. Dynamic Serving
    Uses the same URL regardless of device, but generates a different version of HTML for different device types based on what the server knows about the user’s browser.
  3. Separate URLs
    Serves different code to each device, and on separate URLs. This configuration tries to detect the users’ device, then redirects to the appropriate page using HTTP redirects, along with the Vary HTTP header.

There are pros and cons to each method. You will need to review your current infrastructure and resource availability to determine the best method for your organization. The key takeaway is not which method you use, but rather that you create a mobile-friendly version of every page on your website and implement it correctly. BrightEdge, an enterprise SEO platform and Noble Studios’ technology partner, reported that 62 percent of search results vary from mobile to desktop, and that misconfigured websites lost 68 percent of smartphone traffic. Which brings us to our next topic.

 

Step 2: Make the Necessary Technical Updates

To achieve top ranking, the search engines must be able to find, crawl and index your website properly. This is the foundation of all SEO work. And, while content is extremely important, it is equally important to make sure that content is found and indexed as effectively as possible. This is true for both desktop and mobile search. To prepare for the Google Mobile Algorithm Update, you’ll need to pay attention to several specific elements, some based specifically on the type of mobile-friendly site you’ve created.

For all mobile sites:

  1. Make sure to allow the Googlebot-Mobile user-agent access your site.
  2. Update your Robots.txt file to allow for JavaScript, CSS and image files to be crawled and indexed by Google. Directly from Google: “If your site’s robots.txt file disallows crawling of these assets, it directly harms how well our algorithms render and index your content. This can result in suboptimal rankings.”
  3. Correct mobile 404 errors. Oftentimes desktop sites will have content that does not have a mobile counterpart, providing a “Page not found” error. Either create the equivalent content for mobile or 301 redirect the link.
  4. Optimize your images for mobile. Various reports have shown that mobile users expect a mobile site to load as fast — if not faster — than a desktop site. Optimizing images for mobile provides an excellent opportunity to decrease the file size of your site while maintaining the image quality needed for the screen size of the user.

For separate mobile sites:

  1. Address any faulty redirects. According to Google Developers, you must redirect mobile users on each desktop URL to the appropriate mobile URL. Redirecting to other pages (such as always to the homepage) is incorrect.
  2. Create a mobile XML sitemap with a <mobile:mobile/> declaration after each URL listing.
  3. Submit your mobile site and your mobile XML sitemap to Google Webmaster Tools.
  4. Never design your mobile site using pop-up windows or lightboxes that cannot be discovered through a sitemap crawl.
  5. Make sure to implement rel=canonical, rel=alternate media and Vary: User-Agent HTTP Header tags as needed to tell Google when it should deliver a desktop version of your web page and when it should deliver a mobile version.

Rel=Canonical/Alternate Updates

On the desktop page (http://www.example.com/page-1), add:

<link rel="alternate" media="only screen and (max-width: 640px)"
      href="http://m.example.com/page-1" >

and on the mobile page (http://m.example.com/page-1), the required annotation should be:

<link rel="canonical" href="http://www.example.com/page-1" >

This rel=”canonical” tag on the mobile URL pointing to the desktop page is required.

Rel=User Agent Updates

The Vary HTTP header is part of the server’s response to a request, like this:

GET /page-1 HTTP/1.1
Host: www.example.com
(...rest of HTTP request headers...)

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Content-Type: text/html
Vary: User-Agent
Content-Length: 5710
(... rest of HTTP response headers...)

In addition to SEO technical components, Google will be looking at UX elements such as:

  • Whether or not the fonts scale for easy ready on smaller screens.
  • If the touch elements, such as buttons, are easy to use and spaced away from other touch elements.
  • If the website relies on Flash, which tends to not play well in mobile browsers.

 

Step 3: Analyze and Optimize

In order to improve anything, the first step is to develop a thorough knowledge of current results. With this is mind, it is absolutely essential to make sure that you have properly installed Google Analytics (or your preferred analytics platform) on your mobile site and have created thoughtful goals and events to track both the site’s macro and micro conversions. From there, we recommend you:

  • Make reporting easier by setting up a custom mobile campaign dashboard.
  • Frequently monitor mobile site speed in Google Analytics by navigating to Content > Site Speed.
  • Create individual segments for mobile, tablet and desktop users to analyze their performance in isolation. Looking at top pages, conversion rate, bounce rate, etc.

While site analytics will provide you a detailed view of what happens on your site, you’ll still need visibility into your mobile search rankings and share of voice within your competitive set. Tools like BrightEdge’s mobile SEO reporting allows users to track and measure mobile device performance with things like:

  • Measuring true rank by device in Universal Search (image, video, social).
  • Visibility into local SEO performance by keywords and keyword groups across cities.
  • Tracking and reporting on keyword trends and rankings across device type.
  • Optimizing mobile campaign performance for ecommerce.
  • Understanding the competitive SEO landscape and “share of voice” for a brand across mobile devices.
Sample BrightEdge Mobile Dashboard

Sample BrightEdge Mobile Dashboard

By leveraging both onsite analytics and competitive intelligence data, you’ll be able to not only survive the “Mobilegeddon,” as it has been called, but leverage it as an opportunity to gain additional market share and improve the user experience on your site.