THE BIG MOBILE SEARCH HISTORY LESSON

January 8, 2015
Matt Forman

MOBILE SEARCH IS GOING STRONG!

Incase you haven’t noticed, smartphones are getting bigger- so big that they hardly fit in our pockets anymore and when they do, they bend (talking to you, iPhone 6 Plus).

As a result of these larger screens, we’re starting to abandon tablets and desktops for browsing, opting instead to just use our phones! Recently I upgraded to a Nexus 5 and my colleague time-warped and got herself a Blackberry with a 4.5 inch square screen. The point is, neither of us have touched an iPad since we upgraded our smartphones because with a screen that big, why bother browsing elsewhere?

Google is very aware of the growth of mobile, as well as the issues with mobile browsing. For example, how often have you been served a desktop page that’s impossible to use without some pinch and zoom magic, or struggled with trying to click on a button that’s too small or too close to another button?!

This kind of user experience is just not OK, which is why recently, Google have launched an assault on bad mobile experience. Their first plan of attack? Releasing a whole a range of new tools to help webmasters and developers improve the mobile experience offered to their users.

And while these tools are being dropped almost daily, Google has been making MASSIVE changes along the way, some a little more subtle than others.

In this BIG mobile search history lesson, we recap all the major developments in mobile organic search in the last 12 months as well as some tips for ensuring you stay mobile-friendly at all times. So get ready because I’m about to take you back to school!

Class Schedule

As you can see from the list below, it’s been a very big year for mobile. Most of us may not have noticed some of these changes, or even realised that mobile results and desktop results can be different for the same searches!

So to keep this post mobile-friendly, we will provide some brief commentary around each change below.

  1. Changes in rankings for smartphone results 
  2. New Googlebot for crawling smartphones 
  3. Make your site more mobile-friendly with page speed insights 
  4. Understanding web pages better 
  5. Android App Indexing 
  6. Faulty redirects
  7. Modern websites for modern devices 
  8. Tracking mobile usability in Google webmaster tools 
  9. Helping users find mobile-friendly pages 
  10. Mobile-friendly test

1. Changes in rankings for smartphone results

To improve the search experience for smartphone users and address their pain points, we plan to roll out several ranking changes in the near future that address sites that are misconfigured for smartphone users.

We snuck this one in from 2013, because of it’s an incremental part of the mobile search story.

In June 2013, Google stated that in their effort to help improve the mobile search experience, sites that are misconfigured for smartphone users would not rank as highly.

They did their part by providing recommendations and advice for fixing common errors, but stressed the importance of webmasters testing their site on as many different mobile devices as possible.

This was one of the first moves from Google to tell webmasters and businesses that a change was coming, and that webmasters were responsible for facilitating a better mobile experience.

2. New Googlebot for crawling smartphones

Over the years, Google has used different crawlers to crawl and index content for feature phones and smartphones.

For those who don’t dabble in search engine optimisation, a crawler is basically a computer program that ‘crawls’ the web (follows links, discovers new websites and new content) and crawls web pages.

This particular announcement was centered around telling people that there have been some issues around Google’s mobile crawler, and that they recognised the importance of smartphone devices as well as the large difference in capability between feature phones and smart phones.

Therefore they made the decision to retire the Googlebot-Mobile as the crawler for smartphones, instead just using Googlebot. This was one of the changes that seemed insignificant, but was actually indicative of the importance of responsive principles in web design, with a focus on a seamless experience across devices, because they were going to use the same crawler for both smartphone and desktop pages.

3. Make your site more mobile-friendly with page speed insights

To help developers and webmasters make their pages mobile-friendly, we recently updated PageSpeed Insights with additional recommendations on mobile usability.

Google have always been the big brother to websites, helping with a range of free tools including Google Webmaster tools and Google Analytics, and the roll out of the PageSpeed Insights Mobile tool was one of the first mobile centred tools from Google, helping webmasters understand issues with how pages were implemented, as well as highlighting poor user experience.

It tackled important mobile issues such as configuring the viewport to help mobile browsers recognise the site’s intended page layout; ensuring page content fits the width of your viewport to allow for easy scrolling; providing the proper text size to facilitate an easier reading experience and using tap targets that are large enough and far enough from other tap targets to press easily.

4. Understanding web pages better

Traditionally, we were only looking at the raw textual content that we’d get in the HTTP response body and didn’t really interpret what a typical browser running JavaScript would see. When pages that have valuable content rendered by JavaScript started showing up, we weren’t able to let searchers know about it, which is a sad outcome for both searchers and webmasters.

Another one of those updates which seems to have gone un-noticed. It’s funny how whenever there’s an algorithm update marketers lose their minds, but lots of major publications did not even mention this change.

In my opinion, this was one of the biggest and most important announcements from Google, possibly of all time! They were basically saying we want to start ‘looking’ at webpages, instead of just crawling them they wanted to start capturing the layout of the page, the colours and the fonts.

Essentially, Google wanted to start seeing webpages the same way a user would. This is massive because the look and feel of a webpage is crucial in providing a great experience, not just the text content on these pages.

5. June 25, 2014 – Android App Indexing

App deep links in search results help your users find your content more easily and re-engage with your app after they’ve installed it.

A big emergence from smartphones has been the growth and use of apps.

In this update, Google announced that they would start indexing and serving app content in search results.

This was a pretty big deal, as the internet, search engines, and apps had all remained fairly separate up until this point, meaning publishers with a good amount of content in their apps could not submit these to be indexed in regular search results.

Android app indexing aimed to better integrate the app ‘ecosystem’ within search results, by helping publishers connect pages of their website to relevant parts of their app so users could better find content and more frequently re-engage with an app.

6. Faulty redirects

Have you ever used Google Search on your smartphone and clicked on a promising-looking result, only to end up on the mobile site’s homepage, with no idea why the page you were hoping to see vanished?

There are a couple of different ways to serve your website to people on different devices (desktop, mobile, tablet). You can have a separate mobile website, you can have a responsive website that changes based on the device, or you can ignore mobile and simply have a non-mobile optimised website.

Often websites that have separate mobile and desktop pages use the ‘user agent‘ of the device or the mobile browser version to redirect the visitor to the piece of content specific to their device. Unfortunately, it’s often the case that either some of the desktop content is not represented on the mobile website, or that a visitor will get redirected by default to a mobile homepage.

This is very annoying for the visitor and for Google, particularly because their business revolves around helping people find answers, so when a visitor gets sent to an irrelevant page because of the device they are browsing on, it’s a bit of a #searchfail.

To combat these issues, Google started indicating in search results if a result might actually redirect a user to an irrelevant page (often the homepage) as well as highlighting faulty device redirects on Google Webmaster Tools.

7. Modern websites for modern devices

A common annoyance for web users is when websites require browser technologies that are not supported by their device. When users access such pages, they may see nothing but a blank space or miss out a large portion of the page’s contents.

Similar to the faulty redirects, this change in Google’s search results was made to highlight to visitors that some components of the page may not work properly since the implementation of the page is not mobile-friendly, for example it uses Adobe Flash, which is not compatibility with iOS or Android devices (4.1 or higher).

It may sound like a minor change, but it’s all part of a bigger picture of Google’s new focus on mobile search, in which they need to get websites to change to still be able to deliver great results to users on mobile devices.

8. Tracking mobile usability in Google webmaster tools

A mobile-friendly site is one that you can easily read & use on a smartphone, by only having to scroll up or down. Swiping left/right to search for content, zooming to read text and use UI elements, or not being able to see the content at all make a site harder to use for users on mobile phones

In November 2014, we witnessed one of the most significant changes being the integration of mobile usability recommendations into Google Webmaster Tools.

This new feature was designed to address and problems mobile users might be facing on your site so you can take targeted action on them.

In addition to red-flagging the issues, the report also directs you to resources on how to fix them, enabling webmasters to really take control over the technical health of their site.

The mobile usability report was crucial for helping webmasters and website owners understand and improve their mobile user experience.

9. Helping users find mobile-friendly pages

Have you ever tapped on a Google Search result on your mobile phone, only to find yourself looking at a page where the text was too small, the links were tiny, and you had to scroll sideways to see all the content? This usually happens when the website has not been optimised to be viewed on a mobile phone.

Shortly after the mobile usability report, Google announced that they would be adding a “mobile-friendly” label to mobile search results.

A site would receive the mobile-friendly label if it met certain criteria as determined by the Googlebot, including appropriate text size and easy scrolling. The label looks like this:

Screen Shot 2015-01-08 at 9.59.39 am

Google claimed that the labels were “[the] first step in helping mobile users to have a better mobile web experience,” signalling that the mobile-friendly journey had entered a whole new phase, and one in which customers could finally see the fruits of our labours.

10. Mobile-friendly test

At last, we have reached the holy grail of the mobile search history lesson; the ability for webmasters/website owners to check and confirm that their websites and pages on their website are in fact deemed mobile-friendly.

As part of the mobile-friendly label launch, Google also rolled out a  mobile-friendly test which works by analysing a URL and reporting if the page has a mobile-friendly design.

Many webmasters might think that their site is mobile optimised if it can be loaded on a smartphone, but this is not correct.

The mobile-friendly test gives you black and white advice around whether your site is currently mobile-friendly, and what to do if it is not. Bonus: If you’re robots.txt file is blocking a range of files, chances are Google will return a ‘not mobile optimised message’. Log into webmaster tools and use the robots.txt tester to see if you have blocked anything important (especially css files).

This test was the ultimate proof of just how serious Google are taking mobile, and how much more serious they want us to take it as well.

What does it all mean?

Mobile is rapidly accelerating to the point where a customer’s first experience with a brand is often on mobile. But unfortunately, many websites still don’t prioritise it.

It might be hard to imagine a world without laptops and PC’s but the reality is, we’re almost living in one. The average person checks their phone over 1,500 times each week, making them our go-to-device for almost everything these days.

Google have helped make us aware of mobile issues that our customers may face and they’ve even given us the free tools we need to fix them, but the truth of the matter is, many may continue to ignore the importance of mobile until it’s simply too late.

Many marketers might see that a bulk of their conversions come from desktop, as well as seeing poor mobile conversion rates and think that mobile is not important. But what this kind of thinking ignores is that in the search world, mobile is more often than not the first interaction a user might have with your brand.

And that brings me to the ultimate takeaway from this mobile search history lesson: Striving to be mobile-friendly is not just about wanting to creating a great mobile user experience; it’s about realising that we have to.