Is mobile that important in search? Does it matter whether your site is mobile-friendly?
Mobile devices account for 60% of internet usage worldwide, which was once inconceivable in the desktop era.
At one time, it made no difference to Google whether a site was compatible with mobile devices. Mobile-friendliness was considered a nice-to-have feature but not a necessity.
Mobile search grew as smartphones and tablets became more ubiquitous, causing Google to reconsider its evaluation of mobile-friendliness as a ranking factor.
That led to an event known as “mobilegeddon,” which signaled that mobile search was no longer an afterthought.
Is that as scary as it sounds? And is mobile-friendliness a ranking factor today?
This chapter will investigate the claims and clarify the impact mobile-friendliness has on search rankings.
Read more about ranking factors in SEJ’s comprehensive ebook: Google Rankings Factors: Fact Or Fiction.
The Claim: Mobile-Friendliness As A Ranking Factor
Many SEO experts say that websites that fit mobile screens benefit from a ranking boost over sites only optimized for desktops.
This claim stems from a larger percentage of searches conducted on mobile devices and the understanding that Google aims to serve pages with the best user experience.
With most users searching on mobile, the best user experience can be assured by serving results that work on both mobile and desktop (often referred to as responsive web design).
Before mobile was the dominant way to search Google, it was common for users to land on pages not optimized for their smartphone or tablet.
Now, it’s uncommon to conduct a mobile search and land on a page that isn’t optimized for a smartphone.
Is that because mobile friendliness is a ranking factor?
Or are there just more mobile-friendly sites on the web?
It’s likely a combination of both.
Here’s what the evidence says.
The Evidence For Mobile-Friendliness As A Ranking Factor
Understandably, users grew frustrated with visiting pages they couldn’t easily navigate.
Google found itself with a search quality issue on its hands.
Webmasters might take years to make their sites compatible with all devices without any incentive. They might not bother to do it at all.
Google couldn’t force sites to become mobile-friendly, and it wouldn’t be fair to threaten websites with punitive action for having an outdated design.
Instead, Google went the other route by rewarding domains that implemented a mobile-friendly design on their own.
When Google launched what’s officially referred to as the “mobile-friendly update,” it stated:
“As we noted earlier this year, today’s the day we begin globally rolling out our mobile-friendly update. We’re boosting the ranking of mobile-friendly pages on mobile search results.
Now searchers can more easily find high-quality and relevant results where text is readable without tapping or zooming, tap targets are spaced appropriately, and the page avoids unplayable content or horizontal scrolling.”
A year later, in 2016, Google announced it would be strengthening the mobile-friendly ranking signal:
“Today we’re announcing that beginning in May, we’ll start rolling out an update to mobile search results that increases the effect of the ranking signal to help our users find even more pages that are relevant and mobile-friendly.”
Google designed the mobile-friendly update to impact mobile search results.
There was no boost for mobile-friendly sites when a user searched on a desktop.
To further emphasize the importance Google places on responsive mobile design, in 2020, the search engine adopted a new form of indexing that ditches the desktop crawler.
Mobile-first indexing is now the standard. That means algorithms use the mobile-rendered version of a page instead of the desktop version.
Despite mobile-friendliness being a ranking factor strengthened over time, Google reminds us that user intent is a stronger signal.
A page not optimized for mobile can still rank in mobile search results if it’s the best match for what the user is looking for.
“And remember, the intent of the search query is still a very strong signal — so even if a page with high-quality content is not mobile-friendly, it could still rank well if it has great, relevant content.”
However, Google advises in its Mobile-first indexing best practices documentation:
“While it’s not required to have a mobile version of your pages to have your content included in Google’s Search results, it is very strongly recommended.”
The ranking advantages gained by mobile-optimized sites spurred the adoption of responsive web design on a larger scale.
Our Verdict: Mobile-Friendliness Is A Confirmed Ranking Factor
Mobile-friendliness is a confirmed Google ranking factor.
If a webpage displays less information on mobile than on desktop, for example, then Google won’t have as much context to use for rankings.
There’s potential to adversely impact search rankings if your site provides a lesser experience on mobile than desktop.
Responsive mobile design is a core component of a good user experience. That’s not an opinion, either. It’s baked right into Google’s page experience algorithm update, which they also rolled out in 2020.
As the name suggests, the page experience update rewards content visitors can easily interact with and navigate. It includes the following factors:
- Mobile usability.
- Core Web Vitals.
- No intrusive interstitials.
It’s fair to conclude that websites are at a disadvantage with Google if they’re not mobile-friendly.
Businesses with outdated website designs should strongly consider upgrading to remain competitive in Google. If you need some help getting started with implementing a mobile site, SEJ’s Mobile SEO ebook can help.
Featured Image: Paulo Bobita/Search Engine Journal