google mobile friendly update copyWhen most marketers think about the impact of not having a mobile-friendly web site, the fears are usually around user experience and conversion. After all, search engines may label some sites mobile-friendly, but mobile-friendliness itself is not exactly a ranking factor for search – it does not affect the number of people on the site all that much.

On April 21, that line of reasoning goes away.

Google has announced for a while that they are taking mobile usability seriously, but in a few days, they’ll actually be rewarding pages that pass their mobile friendliness test.

Not only will not having good user experience for mobile affect your overall site usability once people get to the site, your visitor acquisition efforts will also be impacted – if your business needed another push to go mobile-friendly, fewer people finding you on search engines might just be enough to get everyone in the business to listen.

How big is this change?

By some accounts, the change is expected to be bigger than Penguin (spam links update) or Panda. (thin content update)

In other words, this will be pretty big.

That having been said, the impact is on smart phones – Google has repeatedly indicated this change will not affect desktop searches, including in the Webmaster Hangout they conducted. Additionally, this looks to be contained to smartphones at launch – it’s looking like tablet searches will not be affected, for now.

Is Responsive Web Design recommended to avoid impact?

Google is known to have said that they recommend RWD or Responsive Web Design. However, while it’s true that it’s easier to “consolidate” ranking signals like links when RWD is implemented, any properly implemented technology will work – there’s no RWD preference, at least as far as rankings are involved.

That means that to avoid penalties when Google rolls out the mobile-friendly update, you can implement any one of these:

  • Responsive Web Design – the HTML and the URL do not change across devices
  • Dynamic Serving – the HTML changes across different devices, but the URL does not
  • Separate URLs – both the HTML and the URL are different, and rel=alternate, rel=canonical, and redirects handle the transfers

From a usability standpoint, those solutions are very different. You can read through the advantages and disadvantages of mobile versions and RWD if you need help deciding which one is right for you.

What should I do to keep from being affected?

Your pages have to pass the mobile friendliness test, and that’s really about a few things:

  • Your links and hotspots should be large enough that they’re clickable with ease on a mobile device. See the blog’s tips on mobile navigation to help make this happen
  • Your redirects should be spot on, and there should be no 404 error pages that just exist on mobile
  • Your javascript, CSS, and images should not be blocked, and your site should not contain things that cannot be played on mobile, like Flash
  • Your font sizes should be the right size

Google has a few more technical recommendations around mobile SEO, but the gist is this: if the user experience on mobile hasn’t been a priority for you, 2015 has the potential to be a really painful year.