Look, I get it. Website redesigns suck. They’re time consuming, they’re costly, and they can result in a drop in traffic if you alienate old users with a new design they don’t know how to use. Why bother with a redesign when you don’t have to?
At this point, however, when SEO pros and marketers tell you that a mobile site is crucial, they mean it. Up until last year, mobile was just a suggestion. A really good suggestion, sure, but just a suggestion. Mobile users are somewhat used to browsing desktop sites on their devices, using the built-in zoom features. A decently designed desktop site was at least usable, if not particularly pleasant.
Not having a mobile site, then, was a hindrance but not a massive flaw. You might lose some percentage of your potential users when they land on your page and realize they have to navigate a desktop site using a phone, but others would stick around. You could power through it.
Now, though, you’re going to suffer more for it. The question posed in the title here is whether or not lacking a mobile site will hurt your SEO. As of late 2014 and early 2015, Google has started to actively promote mobile sites to mobile users. They introduced the Mobile-Friendly Test so you can see whether or not your site meets those criteria.
Specifically, if your site meets the mobile criteria, when a mobile user runs a search, they’ll see the flag “mobile-friendly” next to the meta description in the results. This helps mobile users pick and choose sites that will work best on their devices, and avoid sites that don’t.
So, already you have a passive push towards mobile sites. Google isn’t demoting you, here, but it’s helping mobile users choose other sites. Conversely, if you were to implement a mobile design, users might choose your site over your competitors, assuming they don’t have a mobile site quite yet.
It Gets Worse
That’s now. What about the future? Unfortunately, if you don’t have a mobile site by April, you’re going to be totally screwed.
Google has, well in advance, notified webmasters of a coming change to the algorithm, and boy howdy is this a big one. It’s going to launch on April 21, a little under a month from now. It’s called the Mobile-Friendly Ranking Algorithm, though you might as well call it the Mobilepocalypse.
You know things are serious when a Google representative says the algorithmic change is going to have a significant impact on search results. In this case, it’s going to be limited to just mobile search results.
“But I don’t get that many mobile visitors, so no big loss, right?” Why don’t you get mobile visitors? It’s because you don’t have a mobile site, or your mobile site doesn’t meet the criteria necessary to receive the flag.
What if you could easily double your traffic? Would you leap at the chance? It’s estimated right now that 50% of all searches performed through Google are performed via a mobile device. Implementing a mobile site would, then, have the potential to double your organic search traffic.
Remember how big an impact Panda had on the web? How for years, webmasters were fighting the fallout and struggling to grow? This mobile algorithm update is going to be larger than Panda.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to mobile-friendly design. The first is a separate dedicated mobile site with a redirect, and the second is the responsive design.
I’ll give a brief nod to the separate mobile site first. It was the method of the past, and while many sites still use it, it’s not a great alternative these days. www.example.com and www.m.example.com are two different URLs, so even if they’re the same page and have the same content, they count as different pages in the search results. Not great.
Responsive design is the way to go, these days. It allows you to dynamically resize and load your page content to suit any device. It works on devices of all sizes, scaling up or down to suit the device based on resolution. You can see examples of responsive design in action on a desktop just by resizing your browser. Check out this site and see how it changes when you resize the window down.
If you looked into a responsive design a few years ago, you probably noticed the high price tag attached to the service of designing one. That’s because, a few years ago, the technology and design were relatively new. Not many designers knew how to make it, and they could charge a premium. These days, responsive is par for the course, so you can get it fairly cheap. Heck, you can find responsive templates for WordPress.
Requirements for a Mobile Friendly Design
What does it take, according to Google, to be mobile-friendly rather than just “small with large text for a phone”? There’s actually a lot that goes into it, but I’ll try to summarize the most important points here.
- Google thinks of smartphones as mobile devices, but considers tablets a class of their own. Don’t worry at all about old feature phones that operated pre-browser.
- Don’t block Google from rendering the page or from indexing it.
- Don’t use Flash or other multimedia that isn’t viewable from a mobile device.
- Don’t obstruct the user experience by forcing an app interstitial to block usability.
- Make sure your text is large enough to be viewed and read comfortably from mobile without requiring that the user zoom in.
- Make sure your site is formatted such that the user does not need to scroll horizontally to see all of a given page. Vertical scrolling is perfectly fine.
- Make sure links are positioned far enough apart on a given page that users can accurately click the right one. In other words, avoid a situation that causes a user to fall victim to “fat fingers.”
If you’re curious if your site meets the standards Google sets, use their mobile friendly test, as linked above. You have until April 21 to get your mobile site in order, lest you suffer the consequences.