What Do Google’s Smartphone Ranking Changes Mean For Marketers?

For nearly eight years now, I’ve been talking to marketers about the value of presenting usable content to mobile users. Throughout that time, there have been naysayers (of course) who were reluctant to recommend creating mobile-friendly content because Google didn’t seem to prioritize the experience of accessing content on a mobile device.

I’ve heard everything, from “desktop and smartphone search results are the same” to “the best mobile SEO strategy is not to have a mobile SEO strategy,” and everything in between — all because, to the average user, it didn’t seem like having content that provided a good user experience for smartphone users mattered to Google.

All this changed with Google’s announcement of smartphone ranking changes on June 11. According to Google, in the near future they will start demoting sites within mobile rankings that provide a poor user experience to smartphone searchers, starting with any sites that exhibit any of these common smartphone configuration errors:

  • Redirecting smartphone traffic to the homepage when an equivalent landing page for mobile does not exist
  • Redirecting Googlebot smartphone to a website optimized for feature phones
  • Serving a 404 or soft 404 to smartphone users if equivalent page for smartphone does not exist
  • Having smartphone landing pages that are excessively slow
  • Marketing your app through app interstitials on the way to Web content
  • Having links on your smartphone site to a desktop experience and vice versa
  • Serving videos that are impossible to play on a smartphone to smartphone users

App interstitials like these were never great for the mobile user experience, but now they can make you less visible in smartphone search.

App interstitials like these were never great for the mobile user experience, but now they can make you less visible in smartphone search.

Around the same time, Google’s Matt Cutts used his closing thoughts to go on the record as bullish about mobile usage as it relates to SEOs, saying, “Mobile matters, and it will matter a lot faster than people realize. It will surpass desktop traffic in the next 2-3 years, so don’t completely ignore mobile. Think about it and how you can do it well.”

What do these changes from Google mean for marketers?

1. Mobile User Experience Matters For SEO

It was never great for your business to put up content and hope it worked well for users on mobile devices as it wouldn’t necessarily hurt your rankings if it didn’t provide the best user experience.

In fact, just last year we tested smartphone search results for random queries and discovered that many of them were unusable on smartphones. (Of the sample of sites we tested, 66% of them scored a zero out of 100% on the W3C’s mobileOK test, which is used to determine probable usability of sites on mobile devices.)

We’ve known about blended mobile content and other changes in smartphone ranking, but if Google wasn’t going to exclude a result that makes smartphone users wait for hours or one that takes them to a different page than advertised, some asked if Google even cared about the mobile user experience.

But now, Google’s stance is clear: your website should provide a good mobile experience if you want it to rank well in mobile SERPs. This is great news for marketers, but even better news for smartphone users in general, as this will make the mobile search experience a lot easier for all of us.

2. Desktop Pages Served To Smartphone Users Could Be Next

Why does Google still display pages like this in smartphone search results, given the recent announcement about mobile user experience?

Why does Google still display pages like this in smartphone search results, given the recent announcement about mobile user experience?

Mobile optimization has been a factor in AdWords landing page quality score since September of 2011, but Google has thus far managed to keep it out of organic search. This is understandable, to some extent, as Google wants to surface the best content, and they don’t necessarily want to omit a relevant result just because it doesn’t provide the best user experience to a small percentage of the user base.

However, the days of mobile optimization as merely “nice to have” could be limited. Given that more people will be accessing search from mobile devices than desktop devices in the United States in 2-3 years, it’s becoming more important than ever for Google to provide a positive user experience for these users.

Given that it’s unlikely that Google will continue to make smartphone users pinch and zoom unnecessarily to access content that’s not made for them when a more optimized experience is likely to exist. In our research, we’ve shown that there is already a high correlation between having mobile-friendly content and top rankings in Google smartphone search, and these recent smartphone ranking changes could make the association more direct.

3. Mobile SEO Is Here

As I said, there are already naysayers who claim that mobile SEO doesn’t exist or that having a desktop page that works on smartphones will be just fine. Your definition of SEO may be slightly different from mine, but if we have separate rankings for separate devices — and things that we can do to increase rankings and traffic for mobile devices that don’t apply to desktops — that’s mobile SEO. As Google makes changes like these, it’s becoming harder and harder to defend the position that mobile SEO is unnecessary or doesn’t exist.

Google’s announcement in June isn’t the last word on mobile SEO, but it is more guidance in an area that is growing in importance but not getting any less complicated for webmasters. By focusing on the mobile user experience in search and reading this column regularly, you can be sure to be ahead of the pack when mobile SEO changes yet again.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Mobile Marketing | Google: Mobile | Mobile Marketing | Mobile Marketing Column | Search Marketing


About The Author: is the Director of SEO Strategy at Resolution Media, and a primary architect of Resolution Media’s SEO product and Clear Target Digital Behavior Analysis. You can follow him on Twitter @BrysonMeunier

Sign Up To Get This Newsletter Via Email:  


Other ways to share:

Read before commenting! We welcome constructive comments and allow any that meet our common sense criteria. This means being respectful and polite to others. It means providing helpful information that contributes to a story or discussion. It means leaving links only that substantially add further to a discussion. Comments using foul language, being disrespectful to others or otherwise violating what we believe are common sense standards of discussion will be deleted. You can read more about our comments policy here.
  • http://www.eyewebmaster.com Rosendo A. Cuyasen

    Yes I believe that Smartphone are taking to its place at this time. As web developer we see to it all development that we do will be mobile compatible. Sometimes this is called a responsive website. To some it is not important but to those who knew that mobile is now one of the source of good ranking they prefer to develop a website that are mobile compatible.

  • http://www.touchpointdigital.net/ David Deering

    Another interesting article, Bryson. But a quick question: can Google detect when a site is using responsive design and do they factor that into their mobile search results as well?

  • http://www.brysonmeunier.com/ Bryson Meunier

    Thanks, David. Yes, Google says they can detect when content is responsive. However, these smartphone configuration errors can affect responsive sites as well, particularly since they are generally much slower than dedicated mobile sites and page speed is a ranking factor here. If you focus on providing a good user experience, regardless of your mobile configuration strategy, you should be fine with these recent changes. Google won’t reward you for having a responsive site if it’s slow and doesn’t provide the content searchers are looking for.

  • http://www.touchpointdigital.net/ David Deering

    I see. Makes sense. So what is the page speed that a site should shoot for so that it doesn’t affect mobile rankings in a negative way? Is there a number (besides as fast as possible)?

  • http://www.brysonmeunier.com/ Bryson Meunier

    Google doesn’t say, but the faster the better. Not just for rankings, but for your business. According to Google, if your website doesn’t load in 3 seconds for smartphone users, 47% of users will abandon it, 80% will not come back and 50% will tell their friends to avoid the website. So use 3 seconds as guideline and view Google’s performance checklist for the mobile web video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0UNWi7FA36M) to make your sites as fast as possible.

  • Matt Sun

    Thanks for sharing. Totally agree with you. I also think the importance of webpages for smartphone aka web apps are underestimated. The marketers should get their web apps ready for both mobile users and Google.


Get Our News, Everywhere!

Daily Email:

Follow Marketing Land on Twitter @marketingland Like Marketing Land on Facebook Follow Marketing Land on Google+ Subscribe to Our Feed! Join our LinkedIn Group Check out our Tumblr! See us on Pinterest


Click to watch SMX conference video

Join us at one of our SMX or MarTech events:

United States


Australia & China

Learn more about: SMX | MarTech

Free Daily Marketing News!

Marketing Day is a once-per-day newsletter update - sign up below and get the news delivered to you!