SEO Guide: The Google Mobile Update

Google Mobile update featured image
The Google Mobile update brought in a fundamental change to the way content is indexed and ranked. Image credit: ProfileTree

The Google Mobile update was one of the most fundamental changes in the field of SEO. This reflected changes in user behaviour over time. With the rise of smartphones and tablets, an ever greater proportion of searches are conducted on mobile devices.

Google rolled out the Mobile update to reflect this fact.

This impacted even the most basic principles of web design. Once upon a time, mobile-friendliness was an afterthought. Nowadays, it’s as much of a priority as desktop design.

Many sites were unprepared for this fundamental change. Even today, many businesses still don’t understand the implications.

Let’s take a look at everything you need to know about the Google Mobile update.

What Was the Google Mobile Update?

The Mobile update came as part of a series of Google algorithm updates. As noted, it’s primary goal was to reflect the fact that more and more searches were being conducted on mobile devices.

Essentially, the update introduced mobile-friendliness as a ranking factor.

Unlike many ranking signals, this is a yes or no decision. A page is either mobile friendly or it isn’t. Does this mean that your site won’t be indexed if it isn’t mobile friendly?

Not exactly.

For one thing, the Google Mobile update only applies to mobile searches. It also applies to individual pages, not the site as a whole. However, all else being equal, the mobile-friendliness of your site will help to determine your ranking.

Google mobile update infographic
The update introduced mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal. Image credit: ProfileTree

When Was the Mobile Update Launched?

The Google Mobile update was announced and rolled out in early 2015. This represented a major culture shift with Google’s search team, putting mobile friendliness at the heart of indexing.

Successive tweaks and updates were added to this over the following months and years.

This culminated in July 2019 with the implementation of mobile first indexing for all new websites. This means that if your site was launched after this date, Google will primarily base its ranking decisions on the mobile version of your site.

Let’s take a deeper look at what this means in concrete terms.

Google mobile users stats
The Google Mobile update was a response to increased smartphone usage. Image credit: GoogleAPIs

What Does the Google Mobile Update Affect?

As noted, in Google’s eyes, your site is either mobile-friendly, or it isn’t. The question remains as to what this actually means, and more importantly how you should respond. As with any ranking decision, Google is quite cryptic here.

In fact, they issued this graphic as an explanation:

Google Mobile Update example
In Google's eyes, a site is either mobile friendly, or it isn't. Image credit: GoogleUserContent

Unhelpfully, Google seems to be implying that mobile-friendliness is self-evident.

To make sense of this, let’s take a look at some of the more specific issues which feed into mobile web design.

Mobile Responsiveness

Mobile responsiveness is all about how your site appears on different devices. Google’s above guidance can offer some useful insight here. From a design point of view, mobile responsiveness means that:

  • Images and media elements are automatically resized to appropriate dimensions,
  • Text is clearly readable without the need to zoom,
  • Interactive elements function correctly across devices,
  • Menus are accessible,
  • There is no excessive layout shift.

Additionally, in the wake of mobile first indexing, there are a couple of other requirements to keep in mind. Specifically:

  • On-page content is the same across all devices,
  • The same meta robots tags are used across different page versions,
  • Important content on mobile versions is not hidden by interactive elements,
  • Mobile pages are crawlable.

If your site was launched after July 2019, failing to meet these requirements may completely ruin your ranking potential.

Mobile Speed and Performance

Site speed and performance are crucial ranking signals across all devices. This has an impact in two ways:

  1. A faster site is easier for Google to crawl,
  2. Users have a better experience when your site is faster, boosting important UX metrics for SEO.
Mobile site speed stats
A faster site also leads to better UX. Image credit: X-Cart

The crux of this is that your mobile pages should be as fast as possible in order to maximise their ranking potential. This can be measured using free SEO audit tools like Google Page Speed Insights.

Once again, for newer sites, your mobile load speeds will also impact your chances of ranking for desktop searches.

You can use the following strategies to ensure optimal load speeds:

  • Use appropriate image sizes and dimensions,
  • Implement caching across your site,
  • Using JavaScript and CSS compression and minification.

Accelerated Mobile Pages
Some of you will be reading this, thinking that accelerated mobile pages (AMPs) are the answer to your prayers. However, the use of these has been much less widespread since the Google Mobile update.

An AMP is basically a scaled down version of your primary page. When a mobile user tries to access a page with an AMP version, they’ll be redirected to this automatically.

Up until a few years ago, this was a popular way to get around the problem of serving content to mobile users.

But do AMPs work under the Google Mobile update?

It’s complicated, but on balance implementing AMPs isn’t a good strategy for SEO. Recall that mobile pages should have the same content and meta tags as their desktop counterparts.

This puts you in a difficult position. In fact, with AMPs, you have four options, all of which are undesirable from an SEO point of view:

  1. Using different content on your primary page and AMP – This will be in breach of Google’s advice on mobile indexing.
  2. Using duplicate content with both versions indexable – Duplicate content is a serious SEO issue, and may lead to cannibalisation between pages.
  3. Using duplicate content and de-indexing your AMP – Your mobile version won’t be indexable, so from Google’s perspective your page isn’t mobile-friendly, and is less likely to rank.
  4. Using duplicate content and de-indexing your desktop version – In which case, what’s even the point in having an AMP?

In other words, AMPs are out, and responsive design is in under the Google Mobile update and mobile-first indexing.

Rather than having a separate version of each page for mobile users, it makes much more sense to create pages which just display correctly across different devices.

How to Rank After the Google Mobile Update

If you want your site to drive organic traffic after the Google Mobile update, the advice is pretty clear cut. It just has to work properly on mobile devices. This applies to design, content and performance.

The mobile update represented a significant change in mentality within Google.

In the first instance, this meant that mobile-friendly content would be privileged for mobile searches. Over the years, this has led to mobile-first indexing, where mobile sites have a higher priority than desktop ones in ranking decisions.

If you think your mobile web design might be holding back your site’s performance, it’s important to speak to a qualified SEO agency.

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