The Performance Beacon

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Google has expanded mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal. How to ensure your site is ready

If you own a site that hasn’t been optimized for mobile, this is a day of reckoning. That’s because, starting today, Google is expanding its use of mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal.

Some people are calling today Mobilegeddon, but it doesn’t have to be. In this post, I’m going to talk about what “mobile friendly” actually means, why it matters, and how to make sure your site is compliant.

Why, Google? Why?

According to Google’s announcement back in February:

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.

Google doesn’t make decisions like this for the sole purpose of driving us all crazy. Google’s goal is to make the web as fast and user-friendly as possible for every person in the world. Assuming that you also want to deliver the best possible user experience to your visitors, then your goals and Google’s should be in perfect alignment.

There are more than two hundred factors that Google uses to rank search results, and many of them revolve around content quality and usability:

  • longer (therefore more meaningful) content
  • page loading speed
  • content freshness
  • grammar and spelling
  • reading level
  • user-friendly layout
  • content usefulness
  • site architecture
  • breadcrumb navigation
  • site uptime
  • user reviews

In other words, Google has always rewarded sites that make an effort to create the best possible user experience with regard to content, layout, readability, navigability, and page performance.

Google’s mobile focus is a global issue

As far back as 2010, Google has been preaching “mobile first”. Ilya Grigorik — Google developer advocate and key member of Google’s Make the Web Fast team — has travelled the conference circuit extensively, sharing performance best practices intended to help site owners create pages that begin to render in less than one second.

Google is a global company, meeting the needs of a global audience. To understand why mobile-friendliness is a crucial issue, you need to appreciate the global stats on mobile usage.

Worldwide smartphone usage

  • 20% of Americans rely almost exclusively on their smartphone to access the internet. That number is even higher in countries where internet users have bypassed the desktop entirely.
  • You may be one of the lucky folks who enjoys mobile connection speeds of 10+ Mbps. Most of the world does not. According to Akamai, countries like India, Argentina, Brazil, and South Africa have average connection speeds of less than 2 Mbps. (And bear in mind, “average” means that half the population experiences less than that speed.)
  • We North Americans don’t fare much better. The average mobile user in the US experiences a 3.2 Mbps connection. To put this in perspective, this is slightly faster than Paraguay, but slower than Hungary.
  • Mobile commerce is growing 48% year over year. It now accounts for 11.1% of all ecommerce.
  • The average page served to mobile is more than 1 MB in size (1159 KB, to be specific).

For ecommerce sites, mobile usage is approaching the tipping point

I looked into our own customer data here at SOASTA to find out how much ecommerce traffic is being driven by mobile. I randomly chose five of the top 100 online retailers and looked at their traffic over the past 30 days. Here’s how it broke down between mobile and desktop page views:

Mobile vs desktop traffic for ecommerce sites

Mobile traffic ranged from 18% up to 38%, with the average being around 28%. This is hugely significant. While not all of this traffic may be converting on mobile, we know that the average shopper visits a site 6.2 times using 2.6 devices before he or she completes a transaction. Delivering a user-friendly mobile experience is critical to ensuring that you don’t lose that shopper before they finish.

What does Google consider “mobile-friendly”?

“Mobile friendly” means different things to different people. Here’s what it means to Google:

1. Uses responsive design

In Google’s own words, “responsive design is Google’s recommended design pattern.” However, responsive design isn’t an automatic cure-all. There are a number of RWD fails (e.g. blocking access to files via robots.txt, using Flash) that can result in your site being penalized.

2. Avoids Flash

Speaking of Flash, don’t use it. Opt for HTML5 video markup instead.

3. Sizes content to the screen

Scrolling and pinch-and-zooming are annoying. Your pages should automatically scale to match device viewport.

4. Doesn’t contain faulty redirects or serve 404s

These two mistakes are incredibly common. This post on the Google Webmaster Central blog describes how they happen and how to fix them.

5. Isn’t unacceptably slow to load

Load time matters. This presentation from Ilya Grigorik is a nuts-and-bolts talk on how to optimize the critical rendering path for pages served to mobile devices. (Related: This is a great post explaining what the critical rendering path is.)

How to test your site for readiness

Google has made this about as easy as you could hope for. With their mobile-friendliness test, all you have to do is enter your URL. The test will tell you if your page passes. And if you don’t pass, the test will tell you where the issues are.

This is obviously the point in the post where I’m obligated to put my money where my mouth is. Here goes:

Google: mobile friendly test

And… phew!

Google mobile friendly test results


Should you be concerned about the changes to Google’s mobile ranking algorithm? Unless you live in a rarified niche of the internet where Google doesn’t matter, then yes — you should take these changes seriously.

In an ideal world, you’d ensure that your entire site is mobile friendly. But if you’re only able to baby-step toward mobile-friendliness, you should focus on these three areas:

1. Know what pages your visitors are coming to via Google

You can find this out from pretty much any measurement tool, ranging from Google Analytics to advanced real user monitoring solutions.

2. Discover how those pages perform

You can’t fix what you don’t measure. This is where real user monitoring is your friend. RUM can give you real-time insight into per-page performance.

3. Identify and fix the problems

Armed with performance data, you can address the issues that are getting in the way of delivering the best possible user experience to your mobile visitors.

free website performance testing

Tammy Everts

About the Author

Tammy Everts

Tammy has spent the past two decades obsessed with the many factors that go into creating the best possible user experience. As senior researcher and evangelist at SOASTA, she explores the intersection between web performance, UX, and business metrics. Tammy is a frequent speaker at events including IRCE, Summit, Velocity, and Smashing Conference. She is the author of 'Time Is Money: The Business Value of Web Performance' (O'Reilly, 2016).

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