On April 21, 2015, Google rolled out a set of changes to its search algorithm so sweeping it dubbed them "Mobilegeddon." Together, these updates dramatically boosted the impact of a site’s "mobile-friendliness" on its search rankings. Google says the changes will have "significant impact in our search results", though at least for now it only affects search results on mobile devices.
The name evokes disaster, a sudden and devastating change in how Google ranks sites that will cause widespread harm. The reality, though, is that real-world projects have had to be "mobile-friendly" for a long time. With 90% of American adults owning a cell phone, and 60% of them using their phones to access the internet [link], Google’s emphasis on mobile-friendliness should not come as a surprise. In October 2014 they added the Mobile Usability component to Webmaster Tools, urging web developers and businesses to get on board. “We strongly recommend you take a look at these issues in Webmaster Tools,” they said, “and think about how they might be resolved.”
Digging Into The Details
In the post-Mobilegeddon world, it’s important that a website do more than look good on a smartphone — Google must recognize its design as mobile-friendly, as well. Google is measuring mobile-friendliness using three main criteria:
- Use generous tap target size and spacing. This relates to a user's ability to interact with the website. Tap targets should be at least 44px (wide and tall) and there should be a minimum of 32px between touch actions [link].
- Avoid technology uncommon to mobile devices. Plugins like Flash and certain proprietary video players will not perform well or at all on a mobile device.
- Display content without needless pinching, zooming, and scrolling. The days of letting the user pinch and swipe to access content have passed. Content needs to adjust to the viewable area in a way that is easily readable to the visitor.
The good news for many web developers (including your friendly neighborhood Lullabots) is that we have been ready for this for a long time. Designing sites with proper link spacing, avoiding flash, using mobile safe typography, and building with flexible layouts have all been a part of our best practices for a long time.
It’s been 5 years since Ethan Marcotte introduced us to Responsive Web Design. It became the answer to making a website look good on an iPhone. The greater value of Responsive Web Design was that it provided a process for ensuring images and content displayed in a pleasing and meaningful way regardless of the viewport size. I believe that Responsive Web Design served as a catalyst for developers to discuss and prepare for this paradigm shift a long time ago.
Into The Future
So, what does life look like after “Mobilegeddon?” We take solace in the fact that best practices prepared us for the change, we sharpen our pencils, grab a cup of coffee, and continue to look for solutions to the problems beyond the horizon. There is little doubt that there will be new challenges coming as businesses gain better understanding of their content and how to deliver it, of new revenue opportunities, and the future of advertising on the web.
Most importantly, what lies beyond the horizon is the needs of the users. We don’t know how those will change in the future, but we know that user expectations are always marching forward. Today there is an algorithm to judge mobile-friendliness; tomorrow it might be as immense as Virtual Reality or as inconspicuous as the face of a watch. Google search rankings are not a thing to be gamed and we’ve never approached it that way. It’s a byproduct of our desire to create quality websites that deliver content to the user cleanly and clearly, quickly and efficiently. The sites that do this well will be rewarded now and in the future.