Google's increased focus on mobile: why it's happening and what you need to know

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Andrew Steel of Equator.

It’s no great secret that Google has been putting a lot of focus on mobile and the mobile search experience this year, nor should it be surprising that it is. After all, the rise of mobile has been a talking point in the world of marketing for a number of years now – almost to the point that it has become like white noise.

However, when a juggernaut like Google – the dominant landscape owner when it comes to UK mobile search at 93.6 per cent – makes such a focus of an area, it’s worth considering what it is doing, why and what it means for the rest of us.

How has Google been focusing on mobile?

Over the past few months, Google has been rolling out a number of changes to both its search algorithms and how it displays search results with mobile users front of mind.

The first major change to be aware of was introduced relatively subtly and concerns how Google’s algorithms interpret web pages.

Algorithms executing Javascript/CSS

In May this year, Google announced that its algorithms were now executing JavaScript and CSS in order to view content more like modern web browsers (and therefore users) see it.

While this sounds fairly innocuous for most, the actual impact and potential developments spawning from this could be fairly significant for marketers reliant upon organic search.

Firstly, it means that sites that block JavaScript/CSS in their robots.txt file may see a negative impact on search ranking performance as Google won’t be able to see the site the same as users do, meaning any content reliant on JavaScript/CSS to be displayed won’t be indexed correctly. This is particularly important for mobile and responsive websites where resources such as CSS and JavaScript help Google’s algorithms understand that pages are optimised for mobile experience.

This also means that algorithms such as Panda, which focuses on how content is presented and on-site optimisation, could become even more sophisticated at identifying content and user experience beyond simply the content that is presented on a page and its position within the code for the page. This likely translates to even more refinements to algorithms focussing on UX beyond just mobile and resulting fluctuations in search rankings.

Mobile-friendly labelling

After testing a number of variations over the past few months, Google has now launched an official label for sites deemed 'mobile-friendly' within mobile search results.

The label is an additional line of text on the search result snippet for a site, highlighting it as 'mobile-friendly'.

Google recently reported that a recent study it conducted found 61 per cent of users are unlikely to return to a mobile site they had trouble accessing from their phone. Instead, 40 per cent of these users go to a competitor’s site.

Therefore, in addition to the advantage of Google highlighting your site as being a particularly suitable result for users within mobile search results, there are a few other benefits to consider that make having a mobile-friendly site worthwhile.

Mobile-friendly as a ranking factor

Google has been penalising sites for providing bad mobile search experience for a while now by lowering their position within mobile search results. However, following this recent change, Google has announced that it is also testing using mobile-friendly criteria as a positive ranking signal.

Effectively this means that having a mobile-friendly site could see you rank better on mobile search results pages.

How does a site get a mobile-friendly label from Google?

In order to be deemed mobile-friendly, sites should:

  • Avoid using software that is not common on mobile devices (e.g. Flash)
  • Use text that is readable without zooming
  • Size content to the screen so users don’t have to scroll horizontally or zoom/pinch
  • Place links far enough apart that the correct one can easily be tapped

Google released a number of tools and guides, including the Mobile-Friendly Test tool and Mobile-Friendly Guidelines to help website owners ensure their site is deemed mobile-friendly. Further to this, website owners with Google Webmaster Tools set up for their site will be able to make use of the Mobile Usability reports found here. These highlight pages identified with errors that make a site unlikely to be deemed mobile-friendly.

So why the focus on mobile in 2014 compared to previous years?

The growth in mobile traffic share

The share of organic search engine visits accounted for by mobile devices has doubled between Q2 2012 and Q1 2014, rising from 15 per cent to per cent. In the UK, the figures are broadly similar too.

Google, as the world’s most popular search engine, would be foolish to neglect to adequately cater for this kind of growth. However, the challenge for Google is that a good experience with the search engine on a mobile device goes beyond Google’s own properties working well, sizing correctly etc. on the device – the real experience comes from the sites’ users visit. Therefore much of Google’s recent focus has been centred on driving a change in behaviour from website owners towards considering how their sites cater for mobile traffic.

It has done so by attempting to educate through guides and resources, and by both penalising poor experiences and testing positively impacting sites that provide a good mobile experience.

The rapid growth of mobile commerce

Further to this, e-commerce interactions taking place on mobile devices have grown at a phenomenal rate over the past few years.

In the UK, Europe’s largest m-commerce market, m-commerce spending amounted to £660m in 2010 but is expected to rise to £8bn during 2014. By year end, it is expected that the UK will have witnessed a growth of 62 per cent in m-commerce, with mobile being identified as the key driver behind the overall growth of ecommerce year on year. By comparison, while generally still growing, ecommerce sales made on desktop and laptop computers are expected to grow at a much lower nine per cent.

Why does this matter to Google?

Well, increased market opportunity from m-commerce means a likely increase in marketing to target the space – which from a Google perspective means more competition within the paid advertising space.

Google as a business still rely on 68 per cent of its revenue coming from ads on Google properties (Google itself, YouTube, Maps etc). Obviously an increasing share of traffic is moving to mobile from desktop, however historically speaking, mobile has been a less competitive space for advertisers, meaning lower cost-per-clicks (CPCs).

In a simplistic view, by increasing the focus on mobile for marketers through the impact on organic search from Google’s recent moves, it follows that an increased focus and competition within the PPC space is likely to occur – increasing CPCs and driving increased revenue for Google.

In fact, Google have even been aiming to assist businesses in mobile-optimising their websites by providing a tool that helps build mobile-friendly landing pages for ads, aimed at those without development resource to produce pages themselves.

What does this mean for you?

More than ever before, the design and user experience of a website is having a direct impact on organic search performance. Simply put, if you haven’t paid much consideration to-date towards the mobile experience your site provides users, or even the design and content on your desktop site, then now is definitely the time to do so.

For SEOs, both Google’s relative transparency over what it is focusing on with regards to mobile and the decision to test positively rewarding sites for providing a good mobile experience are good to see.

With much of the focus from Google in organic search over the past 18 months centring on penalties, both algorithmic and manually applied, the suggestion of positively rewarding efforts to provide good user experience through better rankings within organic search is particularly refreshing.

However, in order to unlock these benefits and avoid the potential pit falls it is important for designers, developers and SEOs to work closely together to ensure appearance, technical implementation and marketable potential are all considered equally when creating your site and its content.

Andrew Steel is head of SEO at Equator.

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