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Verdict is mixed on the effects of Google's mobile algorithm update

Verdict is mixed on the effects of Google’s mobile algorithm update

Google began rolling out it's most recent algorithm update on April 21st, to much fanfare. The change, hyperbolically dubbed Mobilegeddon, applies to mobile searches only. According to Google, it is now prioritizing pages it deems to be mobile-friendly in smartphone search results.

Google makes hundreds of adjustments to its algorithm every year, all quietly and mostly unnoticed. But Google took the rare step of announcing that this change was coming, which likely added to the general air of panic surrounding the update.

It was estimated that prior to the update, up to 40 percent of all websites did not meet Google's standards for a good mobile-friendly user experience. People speculated that the affects would be worse than those experienced after the Panda and Penguin updates. But now that more than two weeks have passed since the rollout began, the affects have not been as catastrophic as predicted.

What happened, really?

While changes in search result placement have not met the pre-update warnings, some movement can be seen. Websites that are not mobile-friendly at all or that have a high percentage of non-mobile-friendly pages have taken a small hit, usually around one to three places. Movement tends to be greater after you leave page one, but volatility is generally higher the further one moves down through search results. These types of adjustments are not a-typical, but could be the beginning of a wider trend.

YouTube, on the other hand, which has only 27.8 percent of it's url's categorized as mobile-friendly, actually gained some search engine placement share, according to Moz. The refresh is still recent, but so far it appears that there have not been dramatic swings in placement, either positively or negatively.

Google would like to take credit for forcing businesses to finally acknowledge mobile in order to prepare for the update. Many websites did update their pages before the 21st in order to avoid being punished in mobile results. Google has reported seeing a 4.7 percent increase in mobile-friendly sites throughout April and May. Some people have speculated that the effects were not more severe because so many businesses finally did much needed work on their websites in order to comply with Google's mobile-friendly standards.

Divergence between Smartphone and Desktop results

Since the changes only affect searches on smartphones, one noticeable result is increased divergence between desktop and mobile search results pages. SEO Clarity reported that desktop and mobile result divergence jumped from are 67 percent to 73 percent immediately after the April update. This implies that a one size fits all marketing strategy is becoming increasingly non-viable. Firms will need to monitor how traffic is arriving on their site and optimize for the types of searches people are making on smartphones and on desktops.

Websites are also now competing with apps in mobile search results. Google is displaying apps containing relevant content — often on page one — with an option to open or install the app from within the search results page. This trend will only continue to make mobile results distinct from desktop results.

What is Google looking for?

Google is looking at a number of factors to determine whether a site's pages are moblie-friendly.

1. How quickly does your page load?

Responsive design captures much of the focus surrounding talk of mobile-friendliness. Responsive design is a method for creating pages that adjust fluidly to the user's device and screen size. Different information can be served at different sizes using responsive design, but the desktop and mobile versions of the site sit on the same url.

Google has repeatedly indicated its preference for responsive design over a dedicated mobile site, but its Mobile Friendly Test Tool does not rate the two methods for serving mobile-friendly content differently. Both dedicated mobile and responsive sites are being rated as user-friendly. But responsive sites are less likely to pass Google's speed test. Having a high score for user-friendliness but a low score for speed can affect Google's opinion of a page's overall mobile-friendliness.

It is, in fact, somewhat difficult to pass Google's speed test, and this may be an area in which sites can begin to distinguish themselves. In fact, even big brands have trouble complying with Google's speed preferences. Here is how some large sites fare:

Sample page speed test results:

Google considers 85 points or above to be doing well.

amazon.com: 71/100
ebay.com: 64/100
target.com: 43/100
overstock.com: 63/100

Law Firms:
Baker & McKenzie: 59/100
White & Case: 52/100
DLA Piper: 59/100
Norton Rose Fulbright: 42/100

New York Times: 71/100
NPR: 57/100
Bloomberg: 62/100
Washington Post: 48/100
LA Times: 61/100

You can find out how your site tests for speed by using Google's Page Speed Insights tool.

Other factors that affect your website's speed include:

- Image optimization
- Server caching
- Hosting speed
- Presence of scripts and queries
- Compression

When you test your site, Google provides a list of items that you should fix and that you should consider fixing, as well as a list of the speed rules your site passes.

2. Is the page easy to read?

Google is looking at whether the text is big enough to read and whether the user has to zoom in to view content. Links should both big enough and far enough apart to be easily tappable.

3. Are all page elements visible?

Pages should not use technologies that most browsers no longer show. Flash is the most prominent example of such a technology.

Smartphone makers have been discouraging the use of Flash in website design for years. Apple famously decided in April 2010 that it would not display Flash on the iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch. Jobs' announcement sparked a good deal of controversy, but he was right. Flash is not necessary to view videos or other interactive content online. And now its presence on your site might cost you in mobile search results. Any use of Flash, including old YouTube embed codes that rely on Flash, will be seen as a negative ranking factor by Google.

While the immediate aftermath of April's update has not been tragic or drastic, Google is unlikely to stop its push toward a mobile-friendly web any time soon. Over 60 percent of online activity now occurs on mobile devices, and that number will likely increase. Monitoring your website's mobile performance, its traffic and Google's standards will help your firm avoid unexpected ranking changes.

Kristen Friend
Kristen Friend holds two bachelors degrees from Indiana University and an associates degreee from the International Academy of Design. As Art Director for Custom Legal Marketing, her work has been awarded Webby Honorees, WebAwards, Davey Awards, Muse Awards, W3 Awards, and many others. She is also a contributor to Entrpreneur Magazine through the Entrepreneur Leadership Network.