The real Mobilegeddon is coming. Are you ready?

by Tim Hill (aka Doodled)

November 22nd 2016

Mobilegeddon came and went a year ago last Spring. Disasters forecast never materialised but Google's new 'Mobile First' approach to ranking may be the real Mobilegeddon. Is your website prepared?

The real Mobilegeddon is being rolled out over the next few months
The real Mobilegeddon is being rolled out over the next few months (Original image from drewdrewthis.com)

Back when Google announced it would flag websites that weren't mobile friendly in the search results there followed a stampede of webmasters looking for changes to make their pages look tip top on smart phones and tablets.

Stories spread like wildfire that this would be a massive shake up of rankings and so emerged the drama inspiring name Mobilegeddon. At the time I argued that Google couldn't afford to rank sub standard pages higher than quality content just because they were nicer to look at and that was pretty much as it turned out ... not much changed.

Now however Google has announced they will be taking a Mobile First approach to ranking websites. Here's what that will mean to the unprepared:

One) Lost rankings

Google will only consider the content of your mobile web pages when deciding what to rank you for. Now most people use a 'stripped down' version of their site as the mobile version in order to improve loading times - this being a strong ranking signal for users searching via 'phones and tablets.

But many websites get an excellent flow of visitors because of rankings from the non-core content of their pages and they are in danger of losing that traffic altogether.

Its quite possible you could be on that casualty list.

Two) Lower rankings

If your mobile site is on a subdomain all the links you have to your desktop site could suddenly be ignored which means your website's authority will take a hit and that means lower rankings.

Catch 22

As a webmaster this leaves you with several options that all seem contradictory:

  • Don't bother with a mobile site as Google has said it will used the content of the desktop if it can't find mobile friendly content but then you are ranked downwards for slow load times and flagged in the search results for not being mobile friendly.
  • Ensure all your desktop website content is also on your mobile website but then get dinged for slow loading.
  • Keep your stripped down mobile friendly site but expect lost and/or lower rankings on some of the keywords you rank for in the coming months

The solution

In reality the best way forward is a blend but with a focus on some specific areas which I'll cover now.

Make your website responsive

Responsive websites change the way content is displayed depending on the screen size of the visitor.

To check how your site currently fairs use Google Chrome to test your pages on a desktop.

If the results aren't looking good the changes needed to make your site responsive involve editing your CSS file(s). W3schools.com have an excellent series of tutorials so you understand roughly what is involved even if you aren't going to wade in yourself!

Abandon mobile versions on sub domains

If your website is on a sub domain like http://m.mysite.com get it off there. Google treats sub domains as separate websites so your actually trying to optimize two websites anyway and with 'Mobile First' Google will soon start considering your sub domain only.

Remember your redirects here. If your mobile website does have any links coming into it or the contents has been saved by visitors to their browsers you'll want to make sure everything is passed on seamlessly to your responsive site.

Make the content of your mobile and desktop versions identical

For some webmasters it has made sense to offer different content to mobile users as they may represent a different market niche.

In these cases its time to sit down and think carefully how you can minimize these differences but still appeal to both audiences.

Remember Google will only be remembering and indexing your mobile version.

The speed focus

Implement the above and you will now have all your content on both desktop and mobile versions ... but ... won't this affect the loading speed of the mobile version and knock your rankings downwards?

It could so it is time to focus on how you can reduce this. Text content itself (such as links to related stories or other products) doesn't take long to load so having more of it isn't going to make a major difference. Its in other areas where you can dramatically improve load speed and here they are:

  • Minify html and css - which is all about stripping out the white space in your code to make the files smaller. There are some online tools for this and some coding editors like Notepad++ have it built in. If your website generates html and css files get the coding changed so the files it makes are minified.
  • Cache, cache, cache - make sure your site sends messages to browsers telling them what they can remember and for how long so they don't spend time reloading repetitive things such as your logo image.
  • If you have large css scripting create specific css files for smaller screens so browsers don't spend time loading what they don't need. Chris at CSS Tricks has the how to tutorial.
  • Move non-essential css and javascript file calls to the bottom of the page - if it isn't needed for the initial presentation of the page move it out the way.
  • Optimize your images - these can cause big drags on load time so use software such as Photoshop to make sure your image file sizes are as small as they can be without compromising quality. Photoshop Creative Cloud is only a few dollars a month or get Photoshop Elements for around $100 - both are well worth the investment for image optimizing.
  • Check your files are compressed - this a hosting thing. Good quality hosts will compress your pages before sending them to a visitors browser, make sure yours does.
  • Check your hosting company is performing - there are plenty of forums where you can see feedback on how your host is performing when it comes to server speed so check them out or ask around. There's no point you putting in all the hard work if they're going to let you down!
  • Consider a Content Delivery Network (CDN) like Cloudflare which caches parts of your data on super fast servers around the world so it doesn't have to always travel from your server on one side of the planet to a visitors screen thousands of miles away.

Testing your work

Now you've trimmed and tweaked as much as you can its time to test. Google's Page Speed Insights compares your website with a checklist of actions (some of which are included above).

Don't get too hung up here. Its a checklist and it is not actually used by Google when it comes to ranking pages in the search results - Google is interested in how long it takes to load your page (in seconds), not how many ticks you have managed to put in boxes.

For this head over to Pingdom's Website Speed Test. Use it to test yourself versus your competitors.

If you're still not coming up to scratch scroll down to see Pingdom's recommendations and scroll down, down, down to see the 'Waterfall Graph' (under the heading File Requests) which will show you what is holding up page loading. Often 80% of the problem is in 20% of the page - perhaps a couple of rogue images you missed that, once optimized, will have a large impact on overall load speeds.

Sanity Check

Load speed is one part of SEO. Just because your pages load twice as fast as your competitors it doesn't follow that you will rank higher. All the other elements of Search Engine Optimization still remain ... this is just one ranking factor but one that will quickly become more important as Google moves to 'Mobile First' ranking.