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The 411 on Google’s 4/21 Search Algorithm Update

Speculation abounds as we approach April 21, the date that Google has announced they’ll be releasing their next algorithm update — this one specifically focused on mobile. As mentioned in yesterday’s blog post, many are referring to this update as Mobilegeddon or the Mopocalypse, but marketers need not get carried away. As always, adapting to a new Google search update is mostly a matter of preparation.

While some pieces of the update are still up in the air, Google has definitively announced the following on their blog:

Starting April 21, we will be expanding our use of mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal. This change will affect mobile searches in all languages worldwide and will have a significant impact in our search results. Consequently, users will find it easier to get relevant, high quality search results that are optimized for their devices.

In keeping with their previous updates, the emphasis here is on making quality content easier to find for search users (good news for content marketers!). While Google used to reward sites for their Site Domain Age and their Page Rank, these factors are becoming less and less important over time.

An article on the Saleslion blog makes a great analogy: “if SEO was a team sport today, based on the existing algorithms, almost all the starters would be the team veterans. And the rookies, despite their (potentially) superior abilities, would play much less — simply because they’re rookies. This, as you might imagine, makes no sense in the sports world and it shouldn’t happen in the world of SEO either — but it does, a LOT.”

Zineb Ait Bahajji, Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google, has been quoted as saying that the 4/21 mobile-friendly algorithm will impact more sites than their Panda or Penguin updates. It’s still unclear whether this will affect Android and iOS devices equally; however, early signs indicate a larger impact on Android devices. Zineb has also commented that the mobile-friendliness of your site will not impact your desktop search rankings.

So, what action items are needed for marketers in order to prepare for this update? Let’s take a look.

1. Test your website using Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test.

As we mentioned in yesterday’s article, Google has provided a testing site for you to gauge the mobile-friendliness of your website. Simply input your URL and Google will run an analysis. If all goes well, you should get a screen that looks like the following:

Screen Shot 2015-04-08 at 11.40.57 AM

If you see the screen above after running your site through the Mobile-Friendly Test, then you’re looking pretty good for the 4/21 update. However, if you see a screen like the following, you’ll want to move on to steps two and three:

Screen Shot 2015-04-08 at 11.47.04 AM

Note that Google provides a list of flagged items that are impacting the site’s mobile-friendliness on the left, and several options for troubleshooting on the righthand sidebar.

2. Set up Google webmaster tools.

If you haven’t already, it might be a good idea to set up a webmaster tools account to identify problem areas across your site. The dashboard allows you to pinpoint usability issues on your website, and will suggest fixes for each. Especially if you received a “not mobile friendly” warning when using the Mobile-Friendly Test, it would be a good idea to catalogue the errors across your site and correct them as quickly as possible. This may require checking with your website provider if your site is not managed in-house.

3. Think mobile first.

We’ve written a few articles in the past about the importance of thinking mobile first with your email and website design. These principles are even more true today, as Google continues to place greater emphasis on mobile functionality. Here are a few quick fixes and helpful resources as you begin optimizing (or fine-tuning) your site for mobile:

  • Make sure your text isn’t too small to read. This is the first item flagged in the non mobile-friendly site in the example above. In the case of mobile emails, Cliff Seal, Senior UX Engineer at Pardot, suggests 14px at a bare minimum.
  • Set your most important links apart by giving them the “button treatment.” Keep in mind that the typical adult finger covers 45px on a mobile device. Even in-text links should be set apart with an underline treatment, and should be far enough apart that there’s no risk of clicking one link when you intended to click another.
  • Consider using single-column responsive layouts when possible. Responsive design in general should be considered a best practice for mobile, as you will be penalized for content that is wider than the screen.

Here are a few resources we would recommend for further reading on this upcoming change from Google: