In June of this year, Google announced it would be adjusting search rankings appearing on smartphones based on how well the site in question handled the mobile user experience. The company didn’t say exactly when these changes would be rolling out, but only said it planned “to roll out several ranking changes in the near future that address sites that are misconfigured for smartphone users.”
These smartphone misconfiguration errors include faulty redirects like app interstitials or homepage redirects, and smartphone-only errors such as unplayable videos, smartphone-only 404 pages and serving 404 pages or redirects when equivalent content exists on the desktop site.
How Soon Will We Start To See These Penalties?
It’s anyone’s guess how far away “the near future” is; so at SMX East, I presented results of a random sample of about a hundred queries where sites that exhibited these smartphone misconfiguration errors showed up in smartphone and desktop search results. The point was to get a sense of whether Google was enforcing these new rules then, four months after their announcement; and furthermore, to see if they were rolling them out selectively, rather than enforcing all of them all at once.
What I found was that Google didn’t seem to be enforcing the new changes based on the sample that I tested. There were very few differences between desktop and smartphone ranking for the queries tested, and the differences that existed often favored the pages with the smartphone errors that Google called out.
Obviously, fixing all of these issues could help search engine users and potentially, your business. But if a webmaster is growing their business significantly by using app interstitials, in spite of Google’s recent advice, it’s hard to say that they should stop the transgression immediately because it probably wouldn’t hurt them immediately in Google’s search results.
The First Evidence Emerges
That was a little over two weeks ago. Today, I tested the results again to see if anything had changed and found the first evidence I’ve ever seen of Google applying this smartphone ranking penalty.
GM uses smartphone-only error pages on their mobile site as a substitute for their brand landing pages, which require Flash to display the content. Hat tip to Brian Klais for alerting me to their existence at SES San Francisco.
Two weeks ago, these pages ranked for a number of brand keywords, including Cadillac and Buick. Of the ten keywords I tested, there was only a minor difference between smartphone and desktop ranking in Google for each, with the smartphone error pages actually outranking the functional desktop pages by 5 positions in aggregate.
Today, the error page only shows up for one of those keywords. All of the others have been eliminated from the first five pages. In some cases, Google swapped the brand-specific landing page in search results for a higher-level landing page. For example, for the query [gm buick], the Buick landing page on GM.com used to rank second. Today, the ranking is the same, but the listing is GM.com — making it less likely that a searcher will encounter an error page via Google.
If you are using smartphone error pages, this is your incentive to stop. It’s no longer just a worst practice and bad for your user. It will now make you less visible in Google search results.
Go Ahead And Fix All The Smartphone Errors Cited By Google
Theoretically, all of the issues Google mentioned will reduce your visibility in Google search. But, when I checked rankings for the other types of misconfiguration errors, the rankings differences were negligible.
Fix them anyway, because Google has pointed out that they are bad for users and eventually it may enforce its guidelines by downgrading sites in results like they have GM. But unlike GM, unplayable videos, app interstitials, home page redirects and slow loading pages don’t appear to have the same negative impact on sites in Google smartphone results as smartphone-only 404s do.
It may be tempting to think of this as a victory for responsive Web design, whose advocates frequently champion content parity across devices and platforms. However, it’s important to remember that responsive sites can also have these issues.
Take for example, Disney.com, whose responsive site I looked at in detail in April of this year. Like many children’s sites, many of their games were created in Flash and unusable on mobile devices. They have since redone most of their games in HTML 5 to make them accessible to smartphone browsers; but, there are still some applications on the responsive site that require Flash and are subject to these smartphone ranking demotions.
If you’re interested in seeing a more in-depth audit of a responsive site, one will be published soon in Smashing Magazine.
For now, don’t think so much about any of your mobile configuration options as being a silver bullet for SEO. All of them have their own issues and some are more appropriate for certain businesses than others. Think instead about what Pierre Far said at that session at SMX East: “Users first!”
If you make a site that’s great for users on all platforms Google will do its best to rank it above sites that frustrate users on certain platforms. I’m happy to say that with the discovery of the GM error page rankings downgrade, this is no longer just a threat — it’s a real problem your business needs to solve today. Do it sooner rather than later for your users, for your business goals, and for your visibility in Google smartphone search.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land.