Mass warnings sent out by Google at the end of January to webmasters of sites that aren’t mobile friendly have search engine optimization experts predicting that mobile user experience will soon become a ranking signal.
“This week, Google has provided what may be its strongest signal yet that it plans to introduce a new mobile usability ranking,” Tom Williams of ClickThrough wrote Jan. 26, saying he thinks “a new algorithm is inevitable.”
Last November, Google rolled out mobile-friendly labels in its search engine results pages, and confirmed that it was “experimenting with using the mobile-friendly [labeling] criteria as a ranking signal.” But it’s been difficult to determine to what extent this has been happening, and Google has yet to make an official statement.
Notifications were sent apparently only to sites with notable mobile usability problems, with critical mobile errors on 100% of the site’s pages. This means that the warnings are probably intended to serve as an impetus for webmasters who know their sites aren’t mobile friendly to recognize the importance of the mobile user experience, rather than to help mobile sites improve (a feature already offered by Google Webmaster Tools).
The sending of such notifications mirrors Google practices prior to other major algorithm releases in the past.
Google’s decision to add usability as a ranking signal in mobile SERPs could encourage rapid adoption of responsive or otherwise mobile-friendly sites. There’s been much debate in the industry lately as to how many sites are truly suitable for mobile use at present.
Last month, a survey put out by the Google Webmaster team on Google+ concluded that 82% of mobile sites use responsive designs, meaning they automatically recognize the type of device accessing them and configure themselves accordingly. About 4% of the respondents said they used dynamic serving, 6% said they had separate mobile sites, and a mere 7% said their sites were not mobile-friendly.
That 82% figure has been touted in the news for the last few weeks, but probably doesn’t reflect reality.
More comprehensive studies have estimated that the percentage of mobile-friendly sites is closer to 20%, and even then only in top-tier websites. But given that consumers express strong preferences for sites with good mobile experiences, a Google-initiated push to raise those figures could end up making customers happier and result in a positive effect on businesses.
“This change from Google is no surprise, although the response from the masses is. Google would be using mobile-friendliness as a ranking factor for mobile search – not desktop search. It makes sense if you want the public to use your website on a mobile device that you’d make it mobile-friendly, and therefore retain mobile rankings,” explains Andreas Huttenrauch, chief digital strategist for Globi Web Solutions. “On the other hand, if your visitors are all on desktops, then you need not worry because you wouldn’t care if your site shows up in the mobile SERPs. This all goes back to the core of what Google is and has been saying for years. Don’t worry about the Search Engines – worry about your users.”