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Google Emphasizing Site 'Mobile-Friendliness' Starting Next Week

Businesses can thrive or fail according to the whims of Google's site-ranking algorithms, and "mobile-friendliness" is about to become a more important factor in mobile search results, putting webmasters and mobile developers on high alert.

"Starting April 21, we will be expanding our use of mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal," the company announced in a February post on the Webmaster Central Blog. "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."

While the search giant has been notoriously secretive about its ranking algorithms, search engine specialists have been warning about the consequences of the move for months, and have recently gone into overdrive.

"'Mobilegeddon' Is Coming on April 21 -- Are You Ready?," asked Search Engine Land in a March article.

Becky Nagel, vice president of digital strategy for the Public Sector Media Group and Enterprise Computing Group at 1105 Media Inc. (the parent company of ADTMag.com), said that next week's algorithm change was unique in that it was publicized early by Google, giving webmasters plenty of time to prepare.

"Anyone who isn't really serious right now about having a mobile-friendly site is definitely behind the times -- Google has given us all enough warnings that they were going to do this," she said.

Elance-oDesk, a company that provides online workplaces, noted that many companies have been busy preparing for "Mobilegeddon."

"Numbers from our own database of work happening via Elance.com and oDesk.com indicate that businesses are already doubling down on mobile in preparation for April 21," the company told ADTMag.com. The company noted that responsive Web design is the Google-recommended configuration for mobile-friendly Web sites. Since Google's announcement, Elance-oDesk said, it has observed the following:

  • Globally, businesses spent 80 percent more per month hiring for responsive Web design. Spend also increased for other mobile-related skills, including mobile UI design (87 percent) and WordPress Plugin (52 percent), which can be used to make Web sites more mobile-friendly.
  • In the United States, there was a 92 percent monthly increase in money businesses spent hiring for responsive Web design.
  • In the United States, there was a 25 percent increase in the number of job posts requiring WordPress Plugins, and businesses spent 58 percent more hiring for it.
  • Meanwhile, the number of job posts with Adobe Flash decreased by 19 percent -- likely due to the lack of support for Flash on mobile.
  • In the United States, freelancers earned more money for mobile-related design and development skills, including Bootstrap (81 percent), a framework used for responsive, "mobile-first" Web sites, and responsive Web design (71 percent).

The goal of responsive Web design, accoriding to Wikipedia, is "to provide an optimal viewing experience -- easy reading and navigation with a minimum of resizing, panning and scrolling -- across a wide range of devices."

Along with the early announcements of the algorithm change, Google has provided a testing tool that webmasters can use to gauge the mobile-friendliness of their sites. Users can enter a site URL into the tool to see if the site passes the bar to attain mobile-friendliness.

In the case of 1105 Media sites, Nagel said, it was a simple matter of ensuring CSS stylesheets weren't being blocked from Robot.txt, a file used to give site-crawling robots information and instructions for handling a site's contents.

Passing the test was easy, Nagel said, because the company had moved to responsive Web design early on. "A majority of the sites we do have been responsive for a year or two, and even before this announcement, we noticed a permanent boost in Google traffic after implementing those changes," she said.

In addition to the site testing tool, Google has provided a guide to making Web sites more mobile-friendly, including tips on how to work with developers.

Elance-oDesk shared some tips, also:

  • Identify the right fix. Google's PageSpeed Insights details your site's issues, and there are a few options available to address them.
  • Look into responsive Web design, dynamic serving or separate URLs.
  • Be safe. Backup your site before updating it or making any changes.

But even with all the warnings, testing tools and advice, no one is quite sure how their sites will fare after next Tuesday. The importance of the algorithmic change was exemplified by more than 3,800 tweets of the Google blog post announcing the move, and some 400 reader comments.

One commenter succinctly summed it up: "Yikes!"

About the Author

David Ramel is the editor of Visual Studio Magazine.

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