The number of people viewing websites and making decisions on their mobile devices is growing steadily every year, so it’s important to make sure that your potential customers can navigate your website and get the information they need to turn into a conversion. But, there’s more to the story, as evidenced by recent changes Google has made.

Necssity of Responsive Websites for Mobile Users
Flash animations were once the talk of the town, but now they just leave users a bit… confused.

The trends show that Google is, or will be, factoring mobile usability into its SEO algorithms.

Earlier this week, Google announced in their Webmaster Central Blog that they’re now adding a “Mobile-friendly” tag to search results for all websites that meet their usability guidelines. Check it out on your phone – search for anything and you’ll see the tag right under the website name. As a user, this is a neat feature that basically warns me that a website won’t be fun to visit on my phone if it lacks the tag. Some of the things that are taken into consideration are the presence of Flash, font size, mobile-friendly menus, link spacing and more.

Barry Schwartz at seroundtable.com is seeing this as another sign that Google will be using mobile factors as a ranking signal, and I agree. Google has already stated that they’re demoting sites that don’t properly set up their mobile versions, and have been actively experimenting with mobile-friendly tags and mobile-usability tools. Whether or not they’ll separate mobile search results from desktop results remains to be seen, but I suspect that pretty soon we’ll see mobile usability as a major ranking factor as Google actively pushes to make the web a friendlier place for users. Earlier this year, they made securing your website a ranking factor, and I believe they’ll take the same approach for mobile sites to encourage users to adapt.

How do you check whether your site is meeting mobile guidelines?

Luckily, along with this announcement, Google has released some new tools to help you determine how your site is performing on phones and other smaller devices. There are a few ways to approach taking a look at how your site performs against the guidelines for mobile usability.

The easiest is the Mobile-Friendly Test. Using this tool, you can type in your URL and it will evaluate your site and return either a “Awesome! This page is mobile-friendly.” That’s good news and you can of course always work on the little things that help towards usability and conversion optimization, but as far as Google’s crawlers are concerned, it’s good. If your site has issues, it will return with something a little like this:

Failed Mobile-Friendly Test
This site was built using GoDaddy’s site builder. Never use GoDaddy’s site builder.

The tool is great for identifying some of the issues that are affecting the page, and clues you in to what you need to do to address them. If you’re lucky, and using a quality CMS like WordPress, then there will be a few minor tweaks and you’ll be on your way to working great on handheld devices. For most sites that are close, but missing a few things, it’s usually a case of your site blocking robots from reading all of the resources needed to render. Here’s a quick guide we wrote to taking a look at your site and determining if it’s blocking CSS or JavaScript, and what you can do to fix it.

If you want to dig a little deeper, you can use the Mobile Usability Report in your Webmaster Tools account to break down a little further what pages are having issues, and what the issues are. You can find the report here (you’ll need to log in to your Google account associated with your website) or in Webmaster Tools, go to the ‘Search Traffic’ menu, and you’ll find it at the bottom of the list. This will give you an item-by-item list just like the mobile-friendly report, but knowing which pages are affected is useful if other parts of your site are working well. Sometimes if you have an older code, an iframe, or other issues on older pages on your site, they’ll have issues as they may not have been built when mobile usability was as natural as it is today.

The third test is one I like to call the “shrink your browser window” test. Basically, I take my browser window and shrink it horizontally until it’s very tall and skinny. Most responsive sites will adjust from a horizontal-stack of items, to a vertical stack. But, if your site isn’t responsive, nothing will change and a large portion of your site will become hidden. This is a quick and dirty way to tell if your site is responsive or not if you don’t have access to your Webmaster Tools account. It also helps you quickly see what users will see on phones – most of the time. There are exceptions for certain elements that detect the device they’re on and won’t change on your desktop version, but the main exception would be when you have a separate mobile site from your main site (usually the address will be m.yoursite.com or something similar). While you technically can be fine with a separate mobile site if it’s set up perfectly, they almost never are and I would never recommend this approach to mobile usability.

So, though we don’t have confirmation from Google that they’ll begin adjusting your website’s rank depending on its mobile usability, if history shows, their recent changes are signs that they’ll begin doing so sometime in the near future. I always recommend being proactive so you’re not caught in the panic-mode of reacting to changes, and possibly losing out when you could have instead seen a benefit. Make the change now so you’re in great shape while your competitors scramble to catch up. And, most of all, it’s best practice to make sure your website is easily accessed and usable for your visitors and customers. So take the time to evaluate your site now and begin planning on making the changes – and as always, contact us if you want some help determining how it’s best to move forward.

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