Post by Paul Stephani, SEO Specialist, and Erik Bergstrom, SEO Analyst
Google is making it clear that “mobile friendliness” is an important factor in determining how well your site will rank on the search results page. Previously, Performics noted Google’s announcement that ease of interaction with a mobile site will be a factor in organic mobile search rankings (it is important to note that these updates to the algorithm are only affecting mobile search engine results). We have also learned that app indexing will now take place for those who are signed-in and have the app installed on their device. These changes are all part of a push to cater towards the rapidly growing mobile audience, which can no longer be ignored. These days, an optimized site must have an intuitive mobile experience.
We now know sites need to optimize content towards a mobile audience or suffer a penalty in mobile search rankings. How can you ensure that your site is ready for these algorithm changes starting April 21st? There are a number of ways to optimize your site so that it stays safe from upcoming penalties. Starting with the most ideal to least preferred, here are three suitable options to ensure that your site is accessible on mobile devices:
This is the ideal solution to ensure that your site can be accessed on any device, whether it be a tablet, smartphone or any screen with an Internet connection. The idea behind it is to keep the elements on your page flexible to the medium accessing it based on its screen size. The resolution, orientation, size of images and other on-page elements proportion themselves on the fly, leading to the most ideal experience on any device. Using this method eliminates the need for separate pages catering towards different devices.
The only drawback to this strategy is the potential to slow down your site through heavy CSS use and imagery. This can be worked around as long as the site is optimized towards a fast experience. Pages can be analyzed for their mobile, as well as desktop, speed using Google’s PageSpeed Insights Tool.
Here webmasters can choose to serve different content and CSS for mobile specific devices via user agent detection. As with responsive design, the URL remains the same while the page’s content and style changes. The single URL and the possibility of serving lighter, mobile-specific content are the benefits in this configuration. Often, a mobile user’s intent is different and dynamic serving can accommodate with differing content. However, there are drawbacks to relying on dynamic serving of content. New user agents (mobile devices) are introduced frequently and create maintenance issues ensuring the list is to date and not excluding the latest devices.
Search engines must also be alerted to the serving of differing content by device so as to not inadvertently appear to be deceiving crawler bots. Dynamic serving can appear, like the black-hat SEO technique of cloaking. In order to explicitly convey that content is dependent on a smartphone request, the Vary HTTP header must include “Vary: User-Agent” in the server’s HTTP response to a request.
Another option is to create separate pages on a mobile-specific subdomain that serve whenever the user agent detects the use of a mobile device. The most common subdomain for a mobile site is to prefix the original domain with “m.” such as: “m.example.com” for the root domain “example.com.” These mobile pages will cater towards a slimmer design focusing on simplicity and functionality for a mobile audience. Duplication may seem like an issue, but adding Canonical Tags to show where the content exists on the original domain will alleviate any potential duplication problems.
If you are unsure how your website will perform on a mobile device, there are ways of testing your site for mobile friendliness. A couple resources from Google include the Mobile Friendly Test, PageSpeed Insights, as well as Google’s Mobile Guide which provides literature on how to optimize your site for a mobile audience, how to avoid common mistakes along the way and to answer any common questions surrounding Google’s preferences for mobile sites. Your Google Webmaster Tools (GMT) account can also come in handy to check if any errors are returned for mobile versions of your pages by using the Fetch as Google tool. Google also provides its opinion on mobile usability within GMT with their “Mobile Usability” error reporting on content sizing, size of touch elements and possible Flash usage.
If you are still unsure whether or not to put in the time towards mobile optimizations, there was an interesting post from searchengineland.com that shows a snapshot of a Google test that included putting a large red “Slow” box next to mobile SERP results indicating un-optimized pages:
Android App Indexing Alternative
An additional way to accommodate mobile users and search engines is the ability to serve Android mobile app pages in the SERP. The Android app pages specifically aren’t indexed like websites but rather mapped to their desktop or mobile equivalents. This, of course, will only be helpful to users who currently have the Android app and are signed in. Currently, this ability to surface app content is only available to Android users/apps, not to Apple apps.
This is accomplished via what Google calls “deep links” where a website must specify intent filters in the Android app’s manifest file that define how to reach specific content inside the app. This has the potential to direct a massive amount of organic search traffic away from the smartphone websites to the Android app instead.
Mobile usability is all the rage these days, specifically catering to the explosion of mobile device usage. Google is redefining its stance on website configuration and introducing ways to accommodate apps in search.
Making your website mobile friendly is now a necessity in this mobile-heavy world. Apps and mobile shopping are quickly gaining popularity, and in order to keep up with the demand of this market, make sure your site can be accessed quickly from any portable device. Ensure your site takes advantage of either responsive design, dynamic serving or has a mobile subdomain. If you are unsure of how well your site will perform on mobile devices, check out some great tools from Google starting with their mobile SEO guide.