Google Just Made Mobile the New King

Murad Bushnaq | March 20, 2014

Murad Bushnaq
Google mobile-friendly web design

Google controls the way people discover content online. It controls nearly 68% of the U.S. search market, which means it plays a massive role in determining which sites people discover, and which get buried on the dreaded second page.

No one should be surprised, then, that the online world took such great notice when Google adjusted its search algorithm to account for mobile-friendliness.

What did Google change?

Google made two big changes to its search algorithm. The first change will boost pages that are “mobile-friendly” and punish pages that aren’t. The obvious question, then, is what does Google mean by “mobile-friendly?”

Fortunately, Google has already defined its criteria in a blog post. They define mobile-friendliness by four distinct criteria:

  • Avoids software that is not common on mobile devices, like Flash
  • Uses text that is readable without zooming
  • Sizes content to the screen so users don't have to scroll horizontally or zoom
  • Places links far enough apart so that the correct one can be easily tapped

The other big change Google made is to include information from indexed apps for signed in users. This means that, for people searching on smartphones, their search results will be impacted by the online apps they’ve used and their activity while using those apps. Google already adjusts search results based on a person’s browsing history, so this is just extending that concept to apps as well.

Overall, these changes signal a big push by Google to optimize its service for the mobile web. It wants to make sure that its dominance in desktop searches transfers to mobile.

Why did Google need to do this now?

Simply put, the way we use the web is changing. Desktop computers remain important, but mobile internet use is growing much more rapidly. In fact, mobile users surpassed desktop users in 2014 and are rapidly approaching 2 billion. Web companies have to prioritize mobile these days if they want to be prepared for the future.

Facebook learned this lesson the hard way. It was one of the biggest IPOs in history when it hit the market in 2012, but concerns over its ability to monetize mobile users helped drive the stock down over 50%. Since then, Facebook has committed itself to mobile, revamping its app and buying popular mobile applications like WhatsApp. Now, Facebook owns all the top three social apps in the world, and its stock has more than quadrupled from its lows in late 2012.

Google has recognized the need to prioritize mobile for a long time. It developed the Android operating system and gave it away for free in order to secure its mobile position. That move worked, as Google owns over 90% of the global mobile search market.

Still, it wants to secure its position and has been slowly making changes to its search results to better target mobile users. Last summer it began flagging sites that used Flash or other software that wouldn’t work on mobile devices. In November, it started adding a “mobile-friendly” label to its mobile search results. Now, it’s going beyond the tags to actually change the order in which sites appear in its search results.

What does this mean for your site?

Google’s new algorithm came into effect on April 21, 2014. If your site’s not mobile friendly yet, it needs to be updated immediately. The new algorithm works on a page-by-page basis, so if you don’t have time to update your whole site, focus on making the most public pages optimized for the mobile web.

The adjustment to make a site mobile-friendly is pretty simple. Remove Flash and other non-mobile friendly software, and make sure your website is readable on a mobile device and fits the size of the screen. That means either making a mobile version of your site, or making your website responsive so that it adapts automatically to whatever device it’s accessed from.

Google has promised that this update will have a significant impact on search results. It should affect even more search results than previous anti-spam updated Panda and Penguin, which impacted 12% and 3% of all searches, respectively.

If you do pay per click advertising on Google, the new algorithm won’t affect your paid search results just yet. For now, it will only apply to organic searches. Still, there’s a good chance that the change could move to the pay per click results in the future, so it’s best to get your site mobile-ready in any case.

The algorithm change only applies to mobile searches, so some business owners might assume they don’t need to update their sites. The numbers above disagree. No one can afford to ignore mobile anymore.

More and more of our online activity is happening on smartphones and tablets, and there’s no sign of that trend reversing. Google didn’t start the trend, it’s just adapting, and so should you.

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