How much does Google really favour mobile friendly websites?

On April 21st, 2015, Google revised their search algorithm (again), this time in favour of mobile friendly search. This means that if you’re searching for something on a smartphone, websites that have been designed to be responsive, or specifically for smaller screens, will get preferential treatment in the search results.

There was a very big flap about this in the website design and Search Engine Optimisation communities. Everyone likes a little melodrama. More obviously, a number of design agencies used this opportunity to pitch for new business. We received several e-mails that used scare tactics to persuade us to ‘go responsive’ (although how we ended up on their mailing lists is still a mystery… we are a design agency and our website is responsive…). Here are a couple of the scary headlines that appeared in our in box:

This April Google is Changing Everything

On April 21st Google Is Changing The Way It Works – Prioritising Mobile Friendly Sites. It’s A Game Changer! This new algorithm makes the need for a responsive site design absolutely necessary, rather than a nice-to-have. We can help you immediately implement a mobile friendly site… to help prevent you from disappearing from the rankings.

Google Have Spoken!

From April 21st, Google will expect all websites to provide a mobile friendly, or responsive option, otherwise you could lose rankings. If your competitors offer a mobile solution and your website does not, then your competitors’ website will be ranked above yours.

Over 50% of Traffic is Mobile

So what actually happened?

In the event, the results were somewhat underwhelming. It is true that Google made the change as promised, but the average website (such as our clients’ websites, responsive or not) would barely have noticed the difference. There are a couple of reasons for this.

Over 50% of traffic is NOT mobile for every website

Contrary to the claim above (Over 50% of Traffic is Mobile), the amount of mobile traffic actually varies a great deal from website to website. The ‘over 50%’ is a global average. Our clients’ mobile website traffic ranges from 5% to under 25% – it’s different for everyone, depending on what kind of visitors the site receives – and under what circumstances they find themselves there. One of our clients is a yacht insurance company whose website is not (at the time of writing) responsive. This is because they want visitors to complete an insurance quote form online, and no one wants to do that on a mobile phone… As a result, most of their qualified traffic is desktop traffic – and contrary to the worrying headlines above:

Searches on Desktops will receive the same Google results as before

Google’s algorithm change doesn’t affect desktop search results – only mobile results. So if your website was doing well on desktops before, it will continue to do so now. The real change only appears on mobile devices. When searching on a smartphone, Google helpfully tells you in the search engine page results (SERPS) whether or not a website is mobile friendly before you even click on it. It also gives mobile friendly websites a slight lift in the rankings above desktop-only websites – this is demonstrated by this MOZ post. It is also clear that over time, mobile friendly websites will be favoured over their desktop counterparts (on mobile devices), but not, it seems, overnight. What is important to remember, however, is that:

Your desktop-friendly website WON’T disappear from Google on mobile devices

One of our most successful websites in terms of traffic is our graphic design training site. At the time of writing it receives an average of 4,500 visitors per day. The site wasn’t designed for smartphones (or even to be very pretty) because its function was extremely matter-of-fact and functional – and aimed at designers already at their desks. So it is not mobile friendly. However, after the April 21st algorithm change, there was little or no difference to its position in the Google results, even if searching on a mobile device. The site only has 6.5% of its traffic from mobile visitors, but even this remained unaffected. Again, at the time of writing, a search for text to outlines returns one of our pages at number 1 on both desktop and mobile, with ‘mobile friendly’ sites appearing below it, even on mobile devices.

What this suggests is that the ‘mobile-friendliness’ of a website is not in itself the be-all-end-all of how it appears in Google. As ever, the most important thing is how useful and effective is the content? This has always been at the core of how Google operates and it seems to remain the case. If a website contains content that Google’s customers want to find, whether they’re on desktop or mobile, it will appear at the top of the rankings regardless of how the website has been designed.

This might not always be the case though…

Mobile friendly is good – but there’s no need to panic if your site is not yet responsive

It’s worth making the mobile friendly change at some stage – but unless your traffic really is more than 50% mobile, you can probably take your time and don’t be pressured into making fundamental changes to an effective website by scaremongers.

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