Google Penalizing Sites for Poor Mobile Experience
Google has started warning mobile searchers that there’s the potential for a frustrating experience ahead. The warning, which comes as a small line under the organic listing on mobile devices, is meant to warn users that they may be redirected to the homepage of a site, when the actual link should take them to a subpage. The warning states, “May open the site’s homepage” and contains a “Try anyway” and “Learn more” link underneath. It’s specifically penalizing sites with an m.dot mobile experience.
Google has been lecturing site owners on the importance of providing a great mobile experience to searchers for some time. And this is the first step to show that they mean business. Google has stated that 74% of searchers will return to a site if they have a good mobile experience, and 67% are more likely to make a purchase if the site is mobile-friendly.
As SEOs, our goal is to make sites as searchable and authoritative as possible for both search engines and searchers alike. Any warning, especially one on mobile results (mobile traffic makes was at 20% of internet activity in North America in February, but Matt Cutts has stated that he wouldn’t be surprised if mobile overtook desktop this year) compromises the integrity of that site and reduces the likelihood of a searcher clicking on the link, even if they have the utmost confidence in that brand or site. When vying for visibility and organic traffic in a competitive space, this small warning can have a big impact on traffic.
Google will be providing a notification in Webmaster Tools if there is a problem with their mobile site, but has not indicated if the site owner will have the opportunity to fix the problem before a warning shows for their site.
What can brands do to create a good mobile experience?
This is a hotly debated question, and has two answers: 1. Create as close to a 1 to 1 experience as possible between your desktop and m.dot site or 2. Create a responsive site (the solution we at Location3 back wholeheartedly). Let’s dig into each option in a bit more detail.
M.dot sites are separate versions of websites that are specifically created to render on mobile devices, and often provide different content or experiences than desktop versions. It means that each page of your desktop site will have a separate URL (e.g., example.com/page1 and m.example.com/page1).
The site must be accurately set up to redirect mobile users to the appropriate mobile version of each page. Organizing sites to accurately redirect, especially large retail sites with thousands of pages, can be an arduous task. This is why so few sites are properly set up.
Google doesn’t like this method for a couple reasons. Firstly, it requires them to crawl and index two different sites. But most importantly, because so few sites have actually done it or have not done it properly, it can lead to a frustrating experience for mobile users.
If you choose to go the m.dot way, make absolute sure that each page on your site has a mobile version, and redirects are set up properly. Google doesn’t actually send the user through the redirect as it will slow down the experience; they instead send the user directly to the mobile version. However, the redirects still must be in place for this to happen.
If your objective is to create a unique mobile experience and you know that users search for your products/services different than on desktops (requiring a separate local SEO keyword strategy), an m.dot site may be your best option. If it’s properly set up, you should have no concerns about receiving this warning from Google.
Responsive Web Design
Creating a responsive site—a single site and URL that automatically renders in the best format for every type of device, screen size and orientation—is the preferred method, especially if you receive traffic from a variety of devices and see a great deal of cross-device link sharing. Responsive sites serve the same HTML for a single URL, and use CSS media queries to determine how the page should display.
Location3 created a responsive site for Northcentral University.
Responsive sites are easier for Google to crawl, leave little room for irrelevant or incorrect redirects and create a better user experience. Although we’re talking about mobile today, keep in mind that there are nearly innumerable devices and versions out there that people user to access the internet—iPads, Android tablets, smart TVs, and other portable internet devices. Responsive design covers all of these.
The main concern with responsive design from an SEO perspective is that it can slow down website load time, thus creating a lesser user experience and resulting in some dings from Google.
The benefits, however, outweigh the risk. Responsive web design is easier to manage, especially if you are continually adding new pages and content to your website. The reduced time it takes you to manage the site will free up time to optimize it and create new content for various user personas, behaviors and mindsets.
Additionally, bounce rates are often lower on responsive sites because the user encounters a better environment, and is thus more likely to stay awhile and even more likely to make a purchase (remember, that 67% of users more likely to make a purchase from a mobile friendly site I mentioned earlier? That’s nothing to scoff at.) And more than any other reason, it’s what Google recommends. So if you won’t take my word for it, you have to take theirs.
What steps are you taking to ensure your site is providing the best mobile experience possible?