Google Search Update To Help Enforce Mobile-Responsive Websites For All

Ryan Moore

Over the past couple of years, we've been helping clients determine the type of mobile site experience that users receive when browsing on a phone or tablet. 

For us that fell in two different camps with one popular option to have a mini site devoted to the content a mobile user would need on the go, and the other option to have the whole site adaptive or responsive to rearrange and display content especially suited to the mobile display.

Google announced recently that they'll begin making a preference for sites that are this second option, fully mobile responsive sites.

What does that mean for your site?

With the growing trend for a large portion of casual browsing and initial research traffic being done on mobile devices and Google's new decisions, it means that it's time for us to discuss your site's mobile presence and get it up to date!

Google's Preference for Mobile Responsive / Mobile Adaptive Sites

Google remains the best browser for users as long as it continues to deliver the most topic (keyword) pertinent content that answers a user's search request. If Google delivered results that were not appropriate or relevant to the user's search, then over time users would begin using some other search system that provided more accurate results.

This can be extended to other elements than the content of the websites in the results... it has long been an understanding that Google gave preference to fast-loading sites in its rankings. The logic is that a user would be happier seeing results of a site that loads quickly and that it would be listed first before an equal site of content that loads slowly.

Cary this approach and conclusion forward for mobile audiences and you can understand why Google recently announced that beginning in April 2015, the results of all searches performed on mobile devices would prioritize and rank differently than searches performed on a desktop device. The results of a mobile search would return mobile-preferred listings.

Google pushing the industry forward by its search algorithms or policy changes is not a new phenomenon. This is simply the most recent big shakeup to hit the industry. When talking with developers and clients alike, it is really the perfect time for this choice. While Google is taking early action to announce their preference for mobile-responsive sites, it is well aligned with the choice that the industry professionals and clients have taken as time has progressed.

Google might be enforcing this change now through their policy changes, but I'm positive we'll look back and see that this was a trend decision that had already been set a year or more ago and that Google was simply the first to enforce that decision.

Now, beside the wishes to make all sites mobile responsive, Google also suggests that sites watch for these past or outdated practices and general site load issues that affect mobile users:

  • Blocking JavaScript, CSS, and image files - They recommend checking the robots.txt file to ensure Googlebot has full access to these elements. At one point in time, making sure that crawlers only received content was a touch helpful, but it's time for that practice to be dropped...

  • Videos or content not accessible by mobile (as in flash video players) - Most modern video players do not use a flash presentation and older FLV videos are easy to post in a variety of ways to get them into modern players that do not rely on Flash.

  • Faulty redirects or swap redirects - This, as a practice, was never a good idea for other marketing purposes, it, of course, applies here to mobile users. Don’t redirect mobile users a different page of the site with different content on it. At one time, if having a mobile responsive site or mobile redirect site wasn't possible, some would simply redirect all pages to one mobile landing page or splash page. This type of practice would be against what Google is trying to do, which is direct users to relevant content.

  • Using mobile-only 404′s as in showing a page to desktop users, but a 404 page to mobile users - This is another variation on the bullet above... simply put, it would be bad content presented for Google search users.

  • Interstitial blocking users from completing tasks - This can be more tricky to describe and diagnose, but it boils down to the idea of presenting mobile users the same content of the site as for desktop users, but in some way limiting the mobile user's ability to navigate, submit forms or in general terms use the website in a normal manner simply because they were on a mobile device. In early days, this might have been because mobile devices could not render JavaScript in the same way or that the rest of the website wasn't mobile-friendly. This would be a perfect example of a practice that, while a well-intentioned action in the early days of mobile, would be a detriment to the modern mobile user and therefore to the Google search public.

  • Cross-linking inappropriately - Mobile pages should link to mobile pages; desktop URL’s should link to desktop-optmized URL’s. This too is a practice that refers to the early option of having a mobile-redirect website or a mobile mini-site. In this practice, a smaller version of the main website would be produced that would only have content pertinent to a user that is mobile and "on the go" vs one that is at a desktop with the time and screen space to read in-depth content. The warning here is to make sure to keep the two properly linked and referring to themselves internally vs across between the desktop and mobile versions of the site thus giving a poor experience to the user.

  • Slow mobile pages - One of the issues with making a site mobile-responsive is that you can leave much of the same content that is intended for the desktop user loading up on the site, with extra load time spent on content that is not for the mobile user. That is more a caution to an earlier practice of simply "hiding" desktop intended content from mobile users. In that hiding action, the code and content is still present, but not displayed, thus wasting the mobile user's download time. 

  • Interestingly, Google recommends the use of their PageSpeed Insights tool to ensure that the site loads quickly on mobile. The PageSpeed service, while still in beta (until recently(?) offers similar CDN and caching benefits as other services such as Amazon Cloud Front caching / CDN service and CloudFlare's CDN and caching/protection/optimizing service. We're eager to see the benefits that PageSpeed will have out of beta and you can read a bit more about it here in the notes from my presentation on DNN and CDNs/Caching that was given at both the SouthernFriedDNN Day of DNN event and DNNcon 2013.

If you think back to the idea that for Google, it is in their best interests to serve up search results to sites that present the best looking, most topically accurate/relevant keyword content for the original search terms to their users, then these current changes and recommended items all make common sense.  These new changes are a direct follow-through of the promise to deliver the content to the end user that they are searching for.

Mobile Adaptive / Mobile Responsive Help for DNN Sites

DotNetNuke is our core application development platform. We build complex functionality and business systems with DNN as a base platform. DNN skinning, themes and customization is just part of the job that we do every day!

If you need a hand updating an older DNN site or skin to modern standards or perhaps have an existing design that you would like to maintain and now make it mobile responsive, then please let us know, we'll be glad to help!

Notes & Ideas on the Topic