2017 will forever be known as the year Google adopted a mobile-first strategy. Some people will think of that way, at least. Probably not too many, actually, but that doesn’t lessen the significance of the shift. Your mobile web strategy is now, simply, your web strategy.
Why is this so important?
By late 2016, more than half of all Google searches were conducted from mobile devices, and over 77% of web searches are through Google. So when the company announced this year it would prioritize mobile sites over desktop to determine relevance and ranking, it was kind of a big deal. Especially for the lot of you who’d been putting off dealing with a mobile site.
Maybe you’ve got one but haven’t had time to optimize it; maybe you’ve been serving up desktop pages exclusively until now. In either case, there’s a good possibility your ranking on Google sucks. And now, because it sucks for mobile, it sucks for desktop searches, too.
Hey, it happens. The good news is there are some pretty common reasons for this, each with a pretty manageable fix. So if you’ve been trying to figure out how to tweak your mobile website to improve your rankings, here are a few things that could be the problem—and some links to tools to help you diagnose.
1. Faulty Redirects
When a mobile user lands on a desktop page, good code will redirect the request over to the mobile site. But many people just take the easy way out, so that no matter which page a user is looking for they’re always directed to the mobile version of the homepage.
Even worse, some people redirect users to an error page that says they can’t view it on a mobile device. This is a frustrating experience for the user. As Google is not in the business of serving up frustrating experiences, you’ll be penalized if this happens with your site.
Fortunately, you don’t have to manually load up each desktop page on your phone to test this out. You can use Google’s Search Console. The tool will detect all faulty redirects on your site, allowing you to make quick work of fixing them. You only need to enter your URL, at which point you’ll receive an email with a list of every page with a faulty or questionable redirect.
Make sure that each desktop page redirects to its equivalent mobile page. If there is no mobile version, then serve up the desktop version until you fix that issue. It’s better that a user sees something useful rather than nothing at all.
2. Slow Page Loads
Nothing is as uninviting to a user as a website that takes too long to load up. According to this study by Searchmetrics, the 10 fastest mobile pages load in an average of 1.1 seconds. The average load time of the top 30 is 1.17 seconds—a difference of .07 seconds.
By the time you get to 3 seconds, your page is irrelevant. Who’s going to stick around that long to see what’s on your site? Mobile users are, by their nature, on-the-go; they’re not going to wait around for information they can get quicker elsewhere.
Google has tools to analyze websites to determine if they’re speedy enough to rank more highly. Those with enough issues are sent down the list. Remember, it’s not in their interests to serve users web pages that will frustrate them.
But you don’t have to be in the dark about the issues Google detects. Using their PageSpeed Insights tool, you can identify images that need to be compressed, as well as any scripting or coding issues that are slowing your website down. For each element of your website the tool identifies as an obstacle to speed, there is a corresponding link which gives detailed instructions on how to fix the problem.
Be sure to read The Crazy Egg Guide to Website Image Optimization to learn how you can optimize your images to both look great and reduce page load time.
3. No Local Optimization
Wherever you go, the old cliche says, there you are. And when you’re there, you’re 34x more likely to ask Google what’s near you than you were 6 years ago. Mobile users are increasingly localizing their searches—having a smartphone makes spontaneity a little more predictable, because you can just ask it where the nearest tacos are.
This is why it’s so important to ensure that you come up as a result as part of a local search. You may have the keywords “pizza” and “pizzeria” all over your website, but you need to mention your location a few times, as well. Better yet, register your business with Google, add in your address, contact information, website, business category, and hours. The next time somebody’s nearby and wants pizza, they’ll find you.
4. Annoying Overlays or Interstitials
When people find your website, they want to see what they came for. If you obscure it behind an overlay or add an interstitial element (something users have to sit through before they’re allowed to proceed), you are interfering with the user experience. It’s annoying on the desktop, too, but with mobile, it can sometimes be hard figuring out how to dismiss the intrusion. Oh, and since mobile is now the priority, who cares what it does to your desktop?
These kinds of pop-ups are often considered essential for companies trying to collect email addresses—they often advertise discounts or offers for people who sign up for a newsletter—and so businesses haven’t been too keen to let these go.
But, really: you’ve got to let these go. Using these annoyances forces your ranking to take a hit—Google started penalizing sites for them in January—and you won’t be collecting too many email addresses when no one can find your website through search. You should absolutely still try and collect email addresses from site visitors, but make it through a Call-To-Action button or something else that’s voluntarily clicked.
5. Non-Responsive Design
Responsive design of your website means the server sends the same code to all devices, no matter what the device is. Doing this ensures that your web page always looks its best, as it’s optimized for whatever screen happens to be displaying it. By implementing this, you can avoid some of the hassle with redirects, but you also provide Google with cleaner code for its algorithms. This is good for both of you. Here’s what Google has to say about it:
For responsive web design pages, a single Googlebot user agent only needs to crawl your page once, rather than crawling multiple times with different Googlebot user agents to retrieve all versions of the content. This improvement in crawling efficiency can indirectly help Google index more of your site’s content and keep it appropriately fresh.
You can read more here about responsive design to make sure you’re conforming to the standards, but the short version is this: make sure the meta viewport tag is set to adapt to the device. It’s a simple bit of code that tells the browser to detect the screen size and arrange the layout accordingly:
<meta name=”viewport” content=”width=device-width, initial-scale=1″>
6. Touch Elements Too Close
Because mobile devices are touch-driven interfaces, you have to more carefully consider where you’re putting things like links, drop-down menus, and other interactive elements. If you keep them too close together, or if the element is too tiny to get a finger on, the usability of your site suffers.
An easy way to avoid this is to minimize the number of links you put on a page. Keep them off to the side, in an easily retrievable menu. When dealing with checkboxes and radio buttons, make sure they’re large enough to easily select. Be kind to your site visitors; no one likes to feel their fingers are fat. For the Android UI, the minimum recommendation is 48 pixels by 48 pixels; iOS recommends 44 x 44. Note that these numbers are only universally usable if your site is designed responsively.
For guidelines and recommendations on sizing elements for your page, you can find further reading here.
If there’s something you might have noticed about this list, it’s that it’s not particularly heavy on SEO-related topics. That shouldn’t be taken as evidence that those aren’t as important as what’s listed here. Instead, it serves to help you understand that optimizing your site for Google is about much more than getting found with the right keywords. Especially for the mobile platform, where small bits of careless coding can dramatically diminish experiences, you’ve got to have a big focus on how well your site looks—and how fast it performs.
Because Google is so dominant, we all have to play by their rules, but be careful not get hung up on pleasing them. Instead, let this list serve as a reminder: if your users’ experiences don’t suck, your rankings won’t, either.
About the Author: Ian Naylor is the founder and CEO of AppInstitute, one of the world’s leading DIY App Builders (over 70,000 apps built).
Naylor has founded, grown and sold 4 successful internet and technology companies during the past 18 years around the world. He gives seminars as an expert authority on startup mobile app trends, development, and online marketing and has spoken at numerous industry events including The Great British Business Show, Venturefest, the National Achievers Congress and numerous industry exhibitions around the UK.