News | 12/03/2015

Mobile Usability – The Big Change to Google Search Results This April

Posted by Christian Ryan

In April it seems the issue of mobile usability for websites and how it can affect rankings in Google will finally be put to bed.

Usability of the Internet has been at the forefront of Google thinking for the last few years. Through Panda the focus was to eradicate poor websites from their search results, as they served no real value for its users.
Penguin was the next step; it looked to punish websites that had previously managed to manipulate Google’s rule that every link to a website from another was a vote of confidence (regardless of quality), and increase their ranking as a result.

Then came Hummingbird, this took both algorithms one step further and brought the complicated issue of semantics in to play, developing ways to understand the meaning of a particular search query and subsequently delivering more intelligent results.

The Next Step

Mobile usability of a website and how customers can interact with it once they browse it on their smartphone, is the next step for Google in ensuring it’s users are able to move more seamlessly on the web. Website owners and digital marketers will have started to see these notifications in Google Webmaster Tools over the last few weeks, a sure fire sign that Google is going to be including this criteria within their next update.

On the face of it it this doesn’t seem to fit into the previous changes to the search engine ranking criteria. Previous changes have been more about rooting out websites which don’t offer any value for users, where as just because a website isn’t mobile friendly it doesn’t mean to say it’s no good. Or does it?

However if Google’s chief decision-making process is the usability of the internet and how easily they find what they’re looking for, once on a site it makes perfect sense that the mobile usability should play a key part in determining how Google ranks a website. Mobile usage overtook Desktop for Internet usage worldwide in early 2014 as this chart from ComScore highlights…

And with individual mobile usage on the Internet having grown at a ridiculously fast rate over the last 5 years as this chart from We Are Social highlights then we’re well and truly into an era, where mobile is no longer a secondary thought:

Bad by Default?

So if more users are now navigating websites from their mobile phone, are all sites that aren’t mobile optimised bad by default?

This could be debated for an age, but in the short term it could be argued that it depends on the industry you’re in and how high mobile usage penetrates it. However in the long term it seems that the answer will be a definitive yes across all industries.

From our research there appear to be 3 key focuses for Google in their initial review of non-mobile friendly websites. They’re listed below with Google’s definition of why each of them is a problem for their users:

Touch elements too close

“This rule triggers when PageSpeed Insights detects that certain tap targets (e.g. buttons, links, or form fields) may be too small or too close together for a user to easily tap on a touchscreen”.

Viewport not configured

This rule triggers when PageSpeed Insights detects that your page does not specify a viewport, or specifies a viewport that does not adapt to different devices.

Small font size

This rule triggers when PageSpeed Insights detects that text in the page is too small to be legible.

So what’s the solution if your website is at fault for each of these 3 criteria?
Well whilst none are a simple fix, font size could be amended with out a great deal of stress to you or the development team.

The Touch and Viewport elements are more of an issue however. It will involve a great deal of attention being paid to the spacing and structure of your build. It could be a simple process for individual landing pages but the overall affect may completely change the design of your site.