Much has been made of the mobile website update recently released by Google, the so-called "Mobile-geddon" update, but we're not so phased by the hype and scare tactics engaged by some other web agencies, so we thought we'd have a proper look and see how people have been affected, using some real-world examples. This is a very real problem, but this article will attempt to cut through all the marketing headlines and try to give you some raw data on which to base your opinions.

We should say, to start, that our policy has been to create mobile-friendly websites for at least the last three years, so all of our new website clients, by default, have mobile-responsive websites. That said, we do look after some sites for clients which have been developed by other agencies, who aren't quite in the position to re-develop their site just yet, so we'll be looking at one of those, along with one of our own clients who recently had her site redeveloped by us to include a mobile responsive design.

Firstly, for those of you who are fairly new to websites in general...a quick explainer paragraph! If you're familiar with phrase like mobile-friendly web design, or mobile-responsive websites, feel free to jump to the next section.

What is mobile-friendly web design?

In years gone by, the majority of the visitors to the internet used desktop computers to visit websites, search for things and order things online. We're talking 5+ years ago here, when smartphones were just becoming popular and tablets were about to explode onto the market. What this meant was, that most of the websites on the web were built to cater for a standard set of monitor sizes. Now these changed over the years, too, going from 1024 x 768 pixel monitors (that is, 1024 pixels wide on-screen, by 768 rows tall) to a more widescreen format today, often 1920 x 1080 pixels, to match our 1080p HD standard, but in general, you had a minimum width of about 1000 pixels to play with. That's a lot of screen estate to fill with content, so web designers had a great time.

However, when mobile devices started becoming more popular, a whole range of very small screen sizes started appearing, with smartphones having a screen that is usually more like 280 pixels wide, and so, you ended up viewing web pages in smartphone web browsers that shrunk the page to fit, making everything too small to read and navigate. The solution was to pinch-zoom right into the part of the page you were looking at, so the font would be large enough to read, but it meant lots of scrolling and fumbling around with zooming, which often led to accidental taps on links, loading up new was horrible!

So, we, as in the web development community, invented responsive design using CSS. Without getting into the minute detail of it, this allows your website to adapt its content to best fit the size of the screen you're reading it on. No more tiny fonts and pinch-zooming to read the page! Content is prioritised on the page, and when viewed on a desktop-size monitor, it fills the screen as it always has, but when viewed on a tablet or smartphone, it knows it is working on a smaller scale, and so it re-organises the page content based on your priorities, usually into one long column, so people can read the content by scrolling up and down with their thumb, as normal.

For example, on a desktop screen, your website might have three columns of text going across the page, like so...


However, on a mobile screen, rather than seeing the OLD WAY of mobile browsing, like this...


Mobile responsive web design allows us to re-organise the content, wrapping the columns under each other instead, so it looks like this...


Much easier to read, and a much better user experience all round. Try it on this page if you're on a desktop computer...drag the right edge of your browser window in to make the page thinner, and you should see how the page re-organises itself to fit more comfortably on the smaller screens. The sidebar, for example, wraps underneath the main text of the article, and the text columns and images resize properly so they fit into the screen.

But what has this got to do with SEO?

Well, Google is all about user experience. It will prioritise a website in its search results based on how good it thinks the user experience is going to be for your site visitor. It basically, wants to send people to the best, most relevant sites for their search, and if it sends a person on a smartphone to an older website which isn't mobile-friendly, that person isn't going to be as happy with their visit as a person who visits a mobile-responsive website.

So, Google did the only thing it could released an update to its algorithm (the logic that drives its search results - i.e. the thing that puts your site into the search results at a certain position) that favoured mobile-friendly websites when searched for on mobile devices. It knows that mobile users want mobile-friendly sites, so it altered its search results to give that to them.

This is the important point, and the one that has caused all the mobilegeddon hyperbole to start flying ...on 21st April 2015 Google changed its search results to favour mobile-friendly websites.

Have I been affected?

Different sites have been affected in different ways, but most desktop-optimised websites that we've seen have suffered drops in search rankings, some more severe than others. It depends on a lot of factors, such as your competition, how well they're doing with their own mobile-friendly websites, and how difficult it is to operate your website on a small screen - some websites are text content only, which isn't so bad, but some have lots of little buttons and sliders and it makes mobile operation more difficult. Google recently released some web developer tools that allows you to test your mobile-friendliness based on Google's algorithm factors. Feel free to check your own site here... Google's Mobile-Friendly Test Tool. 

It will also make a big difference how many of your website visitors tend to view your site on tablets or smartphones. Different sites have different demographics. Some of our client sites are very business-oriented, and they're mainly visited by UK browsers during working hours, and mainly from desktop computers. You can see in the reports the very corporate spread of operating systems and browsers they're using, so it's mostly people at work, looking for business-to-business services. You could say that if their site wasn't mobile-friendly, then it wouldn't matter so much to them.

However, and here's the kicker...Google just announced OFFICIALLY that mobile searching has overtaken desktop searching. So more than 50% of all searches done on Google are coming from a mobile device of some kind. That is just going to keep getting bigger, so if your site isn't mobile-friendly, the problem will just grow and grow.

Here's a screenshot from one of our SEO clients who at the moment doesn't have a mobile-friendly website, showing the drop in search visibility around the 21st April.

Search Queries1

This shows you the simple "Search Queries" report, which shows you how many times your site has been shown in search results on a particular day, along with how many clicks from search results it has achieved, the blue line.

In this case, it's a clear cut drop in visibility within search results. The update went out around the 21st April, and there is a large drop-off in search result activity by the 25th, with the clicks dropping to almost zero, showing that the rankings have dropped below the normal browsing habits of most people, likely onto the second page or lower in the search results. This is a worst-case scenario. You can see how reliant they were on search traffic, with good correlation between searches and click, showing that a lot of their traffic came from Google. Now, though, they have been badly affected by not having a mobile-friendly website.

Now, we don't want to scare you...that's not what we're about, so here's a second example of a site that was recently re-developed by us to be made into a mobile-responsive website:

Search Queries2Here you can see it remains pretty static until about the 30th, then we see a slight increase in search visibility, and a corresponding increase in clicks. The scenario here is a website which generates 75% of its traffic through organic Google search, around 100 searches per day. This was one of our first clients from many years ago, who we kept in the loop with regards to the upcoming changes, and redeveloped her website in good time for the changes to Google's algorithm. This case was a resounding success, maintaining her search rankings and traffic initially, and then seeing a boost of around 15-20% this last week, bolstered, we believe, by the fact that other competitor websites in her niche are mostly not currently mobile-friendly. We beat them to it, and are reaping the rewards.

Can my site replicate these results?

We don't want to say that your site will be as badly affected as our first example, or as significantly boosted as our second, but it could be the case. As mentioned, there are lots of factors that come into play, namely your competition and the state of their mobile-friendly websites, how unfriendly your website is deemed by Google's mobile algorithm (test your site here!), and what proportion of visitors a) use Google and b) use mobile devices, but we think it's a very real problem for website owners, and it could be making some pretty drastic changes to your search visibility and the traffic sent to you from Google searches.

What Can I Do About It?

There are plenty of options. Perhaps the easiest and quickest first step would be to check your site using the Google Mobile-Friendly Test Tool and if the results come back with some less-than-optimistic results, just  give us a call for a free site checkup, normally £299. Chances are, the update will be affecting you already at this point, but it should be salvageable if the worst has happened. We can have a look at your site design, your SEO, traffic and visitor profile, and online competition, and we can work with you to decide the best course of action, and it doesn't always mean a huge redevelopment project.

Either way, we hope this article has helped cut through all the mobile-geddon headlines and given you some real-world data you can use. Sure, it might not look too rosy for desktop-only websites, but web design, as well as search optimisation, is an ever-evolving process, and as mobile devices become more and more popular (remember, they've officially overtaken desktop computers for search now), it is something we can't avoid for too long.

Thanks for reading!

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