What you need to know about Google, Mobile and SEO
No doubt that this will reach hysterical proportions by Thursday but in the interest of casting some calm thoughts about this announcement before every mobile web design aficionado claims the end or death of something. The potential change to mobileSERP’s were confirmed by the spam-team supremo himself:
— Matt Cutts (@mattcutts) June 11, 2013
State of play
Right now, mobile search rankings are largely similar to desktop search results. There’s not a lot you can do and mobile sites don’t necessarily rank better. Also Google is happy to show desktop results over mobile – as unsurprisingly, they are better and richer than dumbed down ( I mean simplified) mobile content.
The problems are that lazy approaches to mobile readiness include simply detecting a mobile device and forwarding users to a mobile version of the site. You can typically observe this when you go and Google your favourite hotel and click on the “Special Offers” page or site link only to be taken to the m.hotelsitename.com version, which probably doesn’t even have a mobile “Special Offers” page.
An example: the Special Offers page at the fantasy hotel, the Casa De Fabio, is:
www.casadefabio.com/special_offers_2013 OR www.casadefabio.com/contact_us
But when you’re on your phone, you see you are redirected to a “mobile page” called:
Also, the mobile. version may require a phone that provides full HTML and does not cater for WAP and so-called “feature phones” (not full smart ones. Like the old Nokia’s).
How does Google know?
Google has a number of robot’s that identify themselves as a particular device. The content crawled for them is then indexed as such. You can see a full list of Googlebot Mobile User Agents here.
What should you do?
Firstly, start optimising for the mobile web. Google recommends that mobile content should render in 1 second (yeah, under 1). Secondly, move to responsive pages that deliver content to each User Agent. If you can’t deliver content in 1, more or any mobile format, then provide it in desktop HTML. This should work well for desktop, laptop, tablet, notebook and smart phones.
Do not have a mobile or soft 404 error page. Also, avoid sending feature phone content to smart phones by making sure you detect user agents properly. Also, make sure that you avoid showing video that isn’t compatible on that device/agent.
Responsive Web for the win
Responsive sites are probably the easiest way forward. Because the page essentially formats itself for the device loading it, the user experience is much better. There’s less redirecting and probably less chance of screwing up a user path. It’s also more likely to be more future proof and to survive screen changes on otherwise similar devices (e.g. the iPhone 4 and 5, or the many Android shapes and sizes).
Responsive ISNT new
I designed our first design specifications for a responsive web CMS in 2002 – 11 years ago – albeit for an era where screens were getting bigger and staying smaller at the same time. Screens were typically 800×600 in 2000, but many were 640×480 (the typical base size). By 2007 more screens were larger than 1200px. So, responsive sites then were able to scale from the base size up.
In contrast, an iPhone 5 has a resolution of 640×1136.
Users familiar with XKCD should appreciate this point of view: