This is a huge announcement, guys. Circle your calendars — April 21, 2015.
Google made an announcement today regarding their mobile search algorithm. In an unprecedented move, they have announced the exact date that they intend to change their mobile organic SERP algorithm to more heavily weigh “mobile friendliness” as a ranking signal. That date is April 21.
Here’s an excerpt from the Feb. 26 announcement on the Google Webmaster Central Blog, with emphasis in red (mine):
Google blog about mobile friendly search
Update from Feb. 27: Google Webmaster Trends Analyst John Mueller addressed questions about the mobile friendliness announcement in a live, hour-long “office hours” Hangout On Air this morning. Scroll to the bottom of this post to watch the full video.
In Google’s history, I can NEVER remember them naming a DAY that they WILL be making an algorithm change. Unprecedented. Their language is also telling: “have a significant impact in our search results.”
This is a game-changing announcement. We need to treat it as such.
What Is Changing?
Prior to this, the mobile rankings for a website were usually tied to the ranking strength of the desktop site. If you ranked well on the desktop SERP, you usually ranked well on the mobile SERP as well. Google has always alluded to the fact, however, that the mobile-friendliness of your website could (would?) impact your organic rankings. This is Google definitively following through with that promise.
Starting on April 21, we can assume that mobile-friendly sites will see a dramatic boost in rankings, especially in spaces where their competition has not taken the time to get their “mobile houses” in order and do not enjoy the mobile-friendly distinction. To be clear, this blog article specifically talks about mobile search rankings — NOT desktop rankings.
What We Don’t Know (Yet)
Although the language of this announcement indicates that this is a change to mobile search results, there has been speculation that mobile friendliness will also impact desktop rankings in the future. (Some believe it already does to a small degree.) While this announcement stops short of indicating that this will occur on April 21, if mobile usability doesn’t begin to effect desktop rankings on that date, one day soon, I expect it definitely will.
What Google doesn’t indicate in their announcement is if the mobile-friendly ranking shift will apply on a site-wide or page-by-page basis. This distinction is especially important for websites using dynamic serving or separate mobile sites that contain mobile versions of some (but not all) content. We do know that the “mobile-friendly” label in SERPs is awarded to individual pages on a domain. It is not an all-or-nothing annotation. So the question is this: can we assume (always dangerous with Google) that the mobile search algorithm will judge website pages on their individual merits as well? Or, if the percentage of mobile-friendly pages on a domain is too low, will the entire domain see a demotion after April 21?
What This Means for YOU
We’ve expanded on the advantages of responsive design in the past. Responsively designed websites have a one-to-one relationship between desktop and mobile pages because they are one in the same. As Google’s preferred method of serving content to mobile users, we can assume that responsive sites will be favored by Google in search results going forward, and this is the first real step in that process.
If going responsive before April 21 is not an option for you, it is of vital importance that you consider the mobile solution you have in place and address its deficiencies as soon as possible. Google has gone to great lengths to help webmasters identify mobile site pitfalls and issues by adding things like the Mobile Usability Report to Google Webmaster Tools. That report details mobile usability errors that are specific to your domain. Google has also released the Mobile Friendly Testing Tool, which will analyze a URL and report if the specific page has a mobile-friendly design. Use the tools and resources available to earn the mobile-friendly badge across your website.