The Google Mobile-Friendly Algorithm Update Is Coming. Are You Prepared?

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Google is rolling out their Mobile-Friendly Algorithm update in April. Learn how to see if you're at risk and how to make your site Google mobile-friendly.

# Full Post

In late February/early March, Google announced two significant changes to its search algorithm for ranking mobile results.

  • Starting on April 21st, 2015, Google will begin using mobile-friendly factors in its mobile search results, and the update will be “significant.”
  • Retroactive to February 26th (the article release-date), Google began adjusting mobile search rankings for mobile apps participating in App Indexing for signed-in users.

As we’ve gotten closer to what some SEO’s are calling “Mobilegeddon,” we’ve learned more and more about the update. Here’s what we know:

  • This change will affect mobile searches in all languages worldwide.
  • The change will not impact desktop or tablet-based searches – only smartphones (Source: SER).
  • The algorithm will run in real time, meaning that if a page is not mobile-friendly on April 21st, once it becomes mobile-friendly and gets crawled it will immediately be labeled as mobile-friendly and immediately benefit from the algorithm (source: SEL).
  • The algorithm will be applied to sites on a page-by-page basis, meaning that if certain pages of a site aren’t mobile-friendly it won’t impact performance of pages that are considered mobile-friendly (source: SEL).
  • The Google Mobile-Friendly algorithm update will impact more sites than Panda or Penguin (source: SEL). In the past, Google has tried to downplay the significance of updates and sometimes don’t even confirm them until after they’ve been released. However, this time they are openly saying it will be “significant,” so I tend to believe them.
  • The algorithm will take about a week to roll out (source: SEL).
  • Sites are either mobile-friendly or they are not. You’ll get a mobile-friendly label when you’re site is considered “mobile-friendly,” and you can test mobile-friendliness using Google’s mobile-friendly testing tool (source: SEL).
  • The mobile-friendly update will only impact the “10 Blue Links” according to Google, and will not other parts of the SERP such as the local packs (source: SER)
  • Google has provided additional advice about other mobile-friendliness issues to avoid such as: blocked JavaScript/CSS/image files, unplayable content, faulty redirects, mobile-only 404s, app download interstitials, irrelevant cross-links, and slow mobile pages (source: SEJ).

Is your site at risk?

If your site is not utilizing one of three Google-recommended mobile configurations for servicing mobile users, then you are at high risk of being impacted on April 21st by the mobile-friendly update.

These configurations are:

  • Responsive Design (Google recommended approach) – e.g. same URL, code across all mobile devices.
  • Dynamic serving – e.g. same URL, but potentially different code across mobile devices.
  • Mobile-separate site – e.g. totally different site/URL than desktop site, potentially a sub-domain.

I strongly recommend that if you don’t already have one of these three solutions in place, that you get started – even if you can’t get it in place before the mobile-friendly update.

For large brands, it’s likely already too late to make major movement prior to April 21st, but for smaller and more nimble sites it may be possible to turn on a dime.

How do you estimate potential traffic loss from the mobile-friendly update?

There are many ways to determine how much of your site’s traffic is at risk, and every site/brand will likely be at different levels of risk depending on both what percentage of the site’s pages are mobile-friendly and how much traffic that site receives from mobile devices.

In fact, Bryson Meunier wrote a really great article on Search Engine Land on estimating potential traffic loss, and detailed an approach the was slightly different than my own preferred method (but still a solid one).

Here’s my approach.

1.) Gather a list of all templates in use across your site, and at least one page using those templates.

2.) Once you’ve gathered all site templates and a representative sample of pages, run each page through Google’s Mobile-Friendly testing tool to validate if you’ve passed or failed. You’ll get one of these two screenshots:

Passed (+any issues)

Page passing Google's Mobile-Friendly Test
Failed (details issues)

Page failing Google's Mobile-Friendly Test

3.) Now that you have an idea of which templates pass and which templates fail the mobile-friendly test, you can begin to understand which URL’s on your site are at risk. I’d then recommend gathering a list of pages which are using the non-mobile-friendly templates.

4.) The next step is to cross-reference that list of pages against your analytics reports of pages driving organic search traffic. If you don’t have Google analytics, I’d recommend using the Google Webmaster Tools > Search Queries > Top Pages report.

You can segment by just traffic going to mobile devices. For Google, you can see the last 90 days, but if you have analytics, use whatever date range gives you the best information.

Google Webmaster Tools Top Pages Filtered by Mobile Report
Download the table of pages, and compare the list of non-mobile-friendly pages to the list of pages driving mobile traffic. It should look something like this:

Comparison of mobile-friendly and non-mobile-friendly pages
5.) From here, you can understand how many visits were driven by pages that do not pass Google’s mobile-friendly test. You should simply be able to divide the visits of pages that didn’t pass by the total number of visits to get a rough percentage of the mobile-sepcific traffic that should be consider “at risk.”

6.) When you’re done with just looking at the mobile-specific cut of the data, I’d recommend downloading the remainder of the data, aggregating it, and then applying what you know about the mobile-specific data to understand the implications at an overall traffic level.

Google Webmaster Tools Top Pages Filtered by Mobile Report
The output may look something like this. Feel free to use your own calculation methodology, but this method should give you a directional idea of the total percentage of “at risk” visits in relation to natural search traffic regardless of source.

At Risk Visits Excel Example #1

At Risk Visits Excel Example #2

Other things to consider when getting mobile-friendly

Although Google has come out and stated that you’re either mobile-friendly or you’re not, “Yes” or “No,” there is more to being mobile-friendly than just passing their test. You’re not quite 100% out of the water as soon as you pass the test.

Here are some common mistakes that sites make which impact mobile SEO:

Should you be tracking anything prior to the mobile-friendly update?

Absolutely you should! At minimum, I’d recommend doing the following prior to the update to get good pre-vs-post comparisons and properly assess how the algorithm is (or isn’t) impacting your performance:

  • Benchmarking organic traffic by device
  • Keyword rankings across desktop, mobile, and tablet – a tool such as Brightedge can help with this.
  • Any other KPI that you feel is relevant.

Let’s continue to discussion below. How are you feeling about your mobile strategy? What are you doing to get prepared?

Jacob Stoops

Jacob Stoops

Long-time SEO and podcast host. Senior Manager at Search Discovery. Husband. Dad. Mob movie aficionado. @jacobstoops