Should you be worried about Google’s mobile friendly update?

With less than a week to go until Google implements its much-publicised mobile-friendly algorithm update the web is awash with articles telling you how to avoid a rankings drop on April 21st. But does concentrating your resources on a push for ‘mobile-friendliness’ make sense? And are there other, more far-reaching reasons we should be worried about Google’s latest update to its search algorithm?

On Tuesday April 21st 2015 Google will take a rather unprecedented step with its search engine by putting into effect an algorithm change which has been publicised in advance. The mobile friendly update, as it has commonly become known, is a change which affects how search results are displayed to users on mobile devices. It will effectively penalise those websites which Google considers not mobile-friendly by suppressing their appearances in search results.

You can easily test whether your site matches up to Google’s standard by using their mobile-friendly testing tool.

What if you’re not mobile-friendly?

Of course Google aren’t showing all their cards: there’s no way of knowing exactly how serious the impact of the mobile-friendly update will be for an individual site. Given that the purported aim of the update is to make search results as ‘relevant and timely’ for mobile users as possible it’s highly unlikely, in my opinion, that major brands are going to stop ranking for their brand terms on mobile. Or that, for example, your local cinema will suddenly disappear from mobile search results.

Those who are seriously concerned about the effect on their mobile rankings will already have taken steps to become mobile-friendly. Those will generally be businesses and organisations who rely on ranking highly for a large number of non-brand search terms and who receive a significant amount of traffic from mobile search.

Rather than be swayed by the SEO-hype, the decision about whether to invest in a mobile-friendly site redesign should be a business one.

If you have Google Analytics it’s easy to see how much traffic your site currently gets from mobile Google searches:

  • In the acquisition report, select source / medium
  • From the list of mediums select google / organic
  • Turn on the segment ‘Mobile traffic’


As you can see from the screenshot, at the moment less than 6% of Manifesto’s website traffic comes from Google searches on mobile devices. So if our site didn’t already pass Google’s test we wouldn’t be overly concerned about getting it there by April 21st.

That’s not to say we don’t make delivering a great experience for mobile users a priority – we definitely do. But, as I’m about to argue, getting a rubber stamp from Google far from guarantees a good mobile experience.

What’s new about the mobile-friendly update?

It’s unusual for Google to announce in advance updates to their search algorithm but then the mobile-friendly update itself is rather unusual.

Most of the major Google updates that get webmasters and SEO specialists all a-twitter, like Penguin and Panda, are aimed at combatting different forms of what Google sees as manipulate behaviour. Panda, for example, penalised low quality pages, whereas Penguin penalised low quality links. Both were tactics that webmasters used in the past to game Google’s search results (so called ‘Black Hat’ SEO) and Google’s updates were intended to nullify the effects of those tactics.

The mobile-friendly update is an altogether different kind of beast. Rather than a retrograde move designed to combat spammy search results this is Google attempting to directly influence how websites are designed in order to deliver what they consider the best possible user experience.

What’s the problem with that?

In his 2011 book You Are Not a Gadget Silicon Valley insider and virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier describes the phenomena of ‘lock-in’. This is where emerging technologies and formats get picked as winners at early stages of development and restrict subsequent innovation.

Two examples he provides of lock-in include the MIDI standard for digital music, which has stifled the range and depth of the sounds we hear from digital devices, and UNIX’s command-line and filesystem, which are still utilised in almost all the software we use.

Lanier argues that lock-in restricts technological development and expression to just a handful, or in the worst cases, just one potential path and robs us of all the alternative avenues of exploration that might have been were it not for the ubiquity of the locked-in standard.

As the world’s most dominant search engine by far Google has already had a tremendous effect on the way that digital content is organised and presented. The dynamic between Google’s search algorithms and the actions of webmasters seeking to rank highly in the results those algorithms produce has been an almost evolutionary one, each guiding the development of the other.

With the mobile-friendly algorithm update though the search giant is entering new territory. Google would doubtless argue that they are merely ensuring that sites offered up in mobile search results offer the best possible experience for mobile device users. But according to who?

Locking-in a solution to the mobile web design challenge

Don’t get me wrong, responsive websites can offer great experiences on mobile. But they can also deliver dreadful ones. Most of us can think of at least one example where a responsive website has delivered a poorer experience than the unresponsive site it was designed to replace. And yet in Google’s new schema the responsive site is clearly preferable.

The mobile-friendly test tool makes it clear that this standard is based on an arbitrary set of rules for how the site is constructed, not on the actual experiences of users who visit the site on a mobile device. We know Google has access to data on how visitors interact with websites on both mobile and desktop, as well as page speed and load times and that they probably use this as a ranking factor – to boost the rankings of sites which offer great experiences and vice versa.

So why isn’t this data sufficient to select the most ‘relevant and timely’ mobile search results? Why impose an additional set of rules that favour one particular way of delivering mobile experiences over any other?

I don’t know the answer. Google is a huge concern with many different business goals so it’s unlikely to be a simple one. It may well have something to do with integrating apps and Google Play services into search results. Or it may simply be the most expedient way of differentiating their mobile search results from competitors.

Regardless of the reasons it strikes me as an overzealous move and one which locks in the way web designers are destined to tackle the problem of delivering experiences for users on mobile devices. To me, that isn’t a problem that’s had nearly long enough to work itself out yet.

But Google has decided on the winning formula. Will the web be a poorer place for it? We’ll never know because the designers and developers who might have come up with a truly original approach to delivering mobile web experiences will instead be designing sites for Google’s robots.

Which I find a lot more unsettling than a drop in mobile search traffic.

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