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
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
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.
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