Google favouring mobile friendly sites will be better for users – Simon McCalla

21st April 2015

Today, Google has started to roll out a new algorithm that decides how their search engine will rank websites when searched from a mobile device. Google famously keeps the recipe for their search ‘secret sauce’ closely to their chests, leaving the SEO community to try and establish what each update actually means for website owners. Unusually, this time, Google chose to give fair warning as to the content of their next major update: namely, make sure that your site is optimised not just for desktop computers, but tablets, phones and touch screens. They’ve not been 100% clear about how your search engine ranking will change if your site is not optimised for mobile, but it’s fairly certain that when searches are performed from a mobile device, they will prioritise sites that are mobile-friendly in the list of sites returned to the user.

For many site owners, this will be another headache in the race to achieve the best possible search position and some have publicly complained about yet another ‘rule change’ that they have to keep up with. However, web searches and browsing are being increasingly performed by mobile devices and many sites now see more than 50% of their traffic coming from phones and tablets. Bearing this mind, I think that in the long term this new focus on mobile is a force for good.

What I believe this means for website owners and developers is that we can no longer think of a user’s screen as a nice big rectangle of pixels that we poke at with a mouse or trackpad, but more of a flexible display surface on which we ‘paint’ our websites. Although Moore’s Law means that our phones and devices are getting faster, with better, bigger screens and more bandwidth available to browse the web, the way in which we interact with these devices is very different. From a usability perspective, we’ve replaced a nice precise mouse pointer with a big squidgy fingertip as we move towards touch screens. Increasingly we’re using other methods to interact with pages too, such as voice and face/eye gestures. As new devices enter the market every day, rather than re-write our websites, they should be able to understand how to adapt themselves to the available screen and input methods.

This isn’t as complex as it might first seem: the combination of the open standards of HTML5, CSS3 and Javascript allow us to be endlessly creative in how we design our sites, creating experiences that can adapt to high and low bandwidth as well as both huge and tiny display surfaces. There’s a myriad of excellent resources to help understand the process for implementing these, not least Google’s own Webmaster Tools and accompanying Developer Tools sites. If you are unsure where to start, simply try Google’s ‘Mobile Friendly Test’ on your own website to see how it fares. If things aren’t quite so rosy, then it points you at a set of resources to help improve things. There are also a number of guides to help build a mobile friendly website with SEO in mind. If you use a Content Management System (CMS) or ‘website builder’ there are numerous beautiful and ‘responsive’ templates available that work seamlessly with any device.

The focus on mobile is a good thing as these changes force us to think beyond just our ‘search position’ and towards what is ultimately far more important, the experience that our users get when they visit our websites. In order to stay relevant and competitive we need to recognise and embrace the changes in technology. In the end, this will keep the open web exciting and relevant to the changing needs and desires of a growing global internet population.