Five months ago, Google rattled the nerves of webmasters everywhere with its widely-publicized mobile algorithm update. The effects of the change were not immediately apparent; in the weeks following the update little movement was seen in search results.
Time is beginning to show that Google may — at least for the moment — be taking a gradual approach toward pushing sites to become mobile-friendly. Some movement is beginning to become apparent. According to Searchmetrics' 2015 Mobile Ranking Factors report, more mobile-friendly sites are appearing on the first three pages (the top 30 listings) of search results.
Prior to the update, 68 percent of the sites within the top 30 results were mobile-friendly. Since the update that number has increased to 71 percent. The average change in position for sites that are mobile -friendly is plus 0.20 positions and the average drop for those that are not is minus 0.21 positions. Movement seems to be steady but slow. Google has expressed a desire to use its influence to create an entirely mobile-friendly web; for now the push appears to be gentle.
While these results indicate that law firms have time to upgrade their websites thoughtfully and intentionally, they do not undermine the importance of mobile optimization. Mobile search share continues to increase. In the United States, more searches are performed on mobile devices than on desktops. Google may be moving slowly for now, but it has proven in the past with releases like the original Penguin and Panda updates that it is willing to quickly shake things up if necessary.
Searchmetrics' mobile report offers insight into steps law firms can be taking to help their sites improve in mobile rankings. Here are some highlights.
Discussions of mobile-friendliness tend to focus on whether a site is responsive or has a dedicated mobile url and layout. However, technical factors also affect both user experience and rankings. One technical consideration that impacts search rankings is page load speed. Pages that load more quickly rank higher.
According to the report, mobile page file sizes are approximately 25 percent smaller than desktop page file sizes. The average load time for urls with page one mobile placement is 1.10 seconds, and the average load time of pages within the top 30 is 1.17 seconds.
Google offers a page speed test, which is admittedly difficult to pass. Few pages score above 80 on their first try. However, with your score, Google offers a list of solutions and changes that you can implement to help increase page load speed.
The ability of a mobile browser to render page content is also an important technical ranking factor. For example, sites that use unsupported programs, like Flash, will rank lower. The web has moved away from Flash, with only five percent of mobile pages employing Flash design.
Google is putting more emphasis on user experience across the board and particularly when judging mobile pages. Users must be able to find information quickly and efficiency. Less screen real estate and processing power mean pages must be deliberately crafted for mobile consumption.
At the beginning of September, Google stated that it would start penalizing mobile pages that employ app interstitials as of November 1. Interstitials are the large, sometimes screen-sized banners, that pop up over mobile and app pages, covering most if not all page content. Even if all other aspects of the page are mobile-friendly, Google will not consider a page that uses interstitials to be mobile-friendly.
Overzealous advertising is one definitive strike against mobile pages. Other mobile user experience-based ranking factors include:
1. Number and optimization of images. Too many images will increase load times, increase scrolling and interfere with a user's ability to read a page.
2. Number of ads. Even if ads are not in-your-face irritating, Google still wants you to keep them to a minimum.
3. Internal links. All mobile pages ranking within the top 30 had considerably fewer internal links than pages in the top 30 desktop results. Links within text are difficult to click on from a small screen.
4. Font size. The bigger the better for mobile. Users should be able to read a page without zooming.
Overall, the report indicates that Google is looking for streamlined mobile pages that have been deliberately designed for display on tablets and smartphones. Firms should test their sites on Google's Mobile Friendly Test Tool and Page Speed Insights Tool and make a plan based on the results. Don't make updates in a panic; you likely have some time. Rushing to complete a mobile redesign can lead to more harm than good.