Co-written by Jennifer Croft, an SEO consultant with 30 years of marketing experience who has worked on more than 500 websites, including 70 higher education websites.
Google wants every page of every website to be mobile-friendly. The company has been saying that for years, and yet site owners–of large and small sites–have been slow to make the necessary changes to make their sites user-friendly for mobile devices. A few months back, Google upped the stakes when it publicly announced that pages that weren’t mobile-friendly would incur a penalty in its algorithm, potentially pushing the pages down to lower ranking positions in the results that Google delivers to searchers. To prove how serious the issue was, Google started sending “mobile usability issues” notices to webmasters via Google Webmaster Tools.
The algorithm changed on April 21, 2015
As of April 21 this year, any pages that weren’t mobile-friendly were pushed down the ladder of Google search engine ranking positions in favor of pages that were mobile-friendly. But what does that mean exactly?
It’s too early to tell, and it may take months to sort out as Google tweaks the algorithm to continue to provide the best results for its users. For example, a site that has larger font sizes and is easier to read on a smartphone doesn’t mean that it’s the best result for a search query. But how far will a more appropriate page be sent down Google’s rankings if that page is not mobile-friendly?
And what about branded searches? Will users on smartphones who are looking for “XYZ University” be served up pages from other colleges and universities in Google’s results, simply because XYZ University’s site isn’t mobile-friendly?
While it will take time to understand the full impact of the algorithm change, let’s take a look at the potential impact the change could have on traffic to your college or university website.
The potential impact for college websites from Google’s mobile-friendly change
The change in the algorithm will only impact searches performed on smartphones, not on tablets or desktops. If you want to know specifically how much the change could impact your site’s traffic, it’s important to gather a few key pieces of data from your Google Analytics account.
Look at organic search traffic that’s coming from mobile devices—this is the number that will be impacted by Google’s recent changes. For example, say your college or university site gets 200,000 visitors per month, of which 60,000 come from organic search. Of those 60,000, only 25 percent might be coming from searches performed on a mobile device. If, because of Google’s algorithm change, your pages slipped in the rankings, to the point that it cost you a 30% drop in traffic coming from Google, you would lose approximately 2,925 visits.
Here’s the math and the logic behind the math. Keep in mind the following are just a hypothetical example to illustrate the impact:
60,000 total organic search visits x 65% coming from Google = 39,000 visits from Google
39,000 organic search visits from Google x 25% performed on a mobile device = 9,750 visits from Google via a mobile device.
9,750 organic search visits from Google performed on a smartphone x 30%***= 2,925 Total visits lost from the algorithm change.
How can you make your college website mobile-friendly for Google?
The good news is that, for years, Google has been transparent about what it considers mobile-friendly, going so far as to put up a great tool for website developers to use to check pageload speed and mobile-friendliness. More recently, Google has added a mobile-friendly test page.
The mobile-usability issue messages that Google has been sending through its Google Webmaster Tools platform have also proved illuminating. From this transparency, it’s easy to understand that these are the main criteria Google uses to evaluate mobile-friendliness:
Pageload speed: Google has always favored fast-loading websites and pages, because the amount of time it takes to load a page (not just on a smartphone, but also on a tablet or desktop computer) can dramatically impact the user’s experience.
Legible font sizes: If your website isn’t mobile-friendly, your 12-point fonts that look so good on a desktop will become 2-point fonts when they’re rendered on a smartphone, making them virtually unreadable without zooming.
Size of “tap targets”: For a page to be truly mobile-friendly, the tap targets (links and navigation buttons) should be big enough to easily tap with a fingertip or thumb.
Configured viewport: The most mobile-friendly sites and pages are the ones that incorporate responsive design, which means that the page resizes itself appropriately for whatever device is being used. As a quick test for how your website pages are performing in terms of responsiveness, you can use one of Google’s testing tools (see links above) or a free tool such as Responsinator or Responsive Design Simulator.
Content sized to viewport: Google doesn’t want users to have to scroll pages horizontally or zoom in order to be able to see all of a page’s content. If the content is properly sized to the viewport, a user should be able to see the entire width of the page.
No Flash: Google doesn’t want Flash on a page because it can’t be viewed on most smartphones.
5 steps to take to assess your college website’s mobile compatibility and make it more mobile-friendly
1) Look in Google Analytics to see how many of your visits are coming from organic search performed on mobile devices. These are the visits that will be impacted by the algorithm change.
2) Check in Google Webmaster Tools to see if you’ve received a mobile-usability message from Google that you might have overlooked. Read the details and fix the issues that you can.
3) Test 20-50 of your site’s pages using the mobile assessment tools listed above. Fix the issues that are hindering visitors who are accessing your site with smartphones.
4) If you can’t undertake an entire site redesign and development to convert to responsive design, look at the pages and/or sections of your site that receive the most traffic. Make it a priority to make these pages mobile-friendly.
5) As soon as possible, budget the money, resources, and staffing for a complete website redesign and redevelopment to bring your website up to today’s standards for mobile usability.
The mobile-friendly versus non-mobile-friendly issue isn’t going away, and as more users favor their phones over computers, the divide will deepen. By converting your pages and website to responsive design, you’ll not only please Google, but you’ll also create a better user experience for all of the people who are now visiting your site using mobile devices.
Ask us for a mobile-readiness and SEO review
We can also review your website for its mobile compatibility, SEO, content, and any other key area. I’m happy to offer an initial consultation with you and your colleagues. Email me and let me know what topics you’d like to discuss and when you are available, and we’ll get a dialog going about how you can not only be more mobile-friendly, but more competitive and engaging with visitors to your site.