Mobile Matters to SEO: Go Responsive or Go Home

Mobile Matters to SEO: Go Responsive or Go Home

An update to Google’s Webmaster Tools has serious implications for outdated websites and non-mobile friendly websites.

Ethan Marcotte first brought ‘Responsive Design’ to the mainstream in 2011 with his book Responsive Web Design and the more progressive web design companies realized that this wasn’t merely a gimmick or fad that will come and go, it is the new baseline for modern web development.

As the variety (and sheer number) of mobile devices and screen sizes capable of Internet browsing continues to grow, so does the ineffectiveness of fixed-width websites, with their usability diminishing by an equal amount.

Since first adopting responsive design, I’ve found that no matter how many figures and examples I throw at clients, there are always some that feel that responsive design is just not important, presumably based on their own browsing habits being more traditional (desktop/laptop only).

Google Weighs In

I read with interest a few weeks ago that Google Webmaster Tools (a tool that “allows webmasters to check indexing status and optimize visibility of their websites”) would begin tracking ‘Viewport’ information and touch screen usability, reporting it in a new section called “Mobile Usability”.   The reason we should all sit up and take notice here is because if something raises a red flag in Google Webmaster Tools, you can bet its negatively affecting your search engine ranking to some degree.

A customer contacted us recently having received a warning from Google Webmaster Tools about their website (not one designed by us and not responsive).  Upon viewing the customers website summary in Google Webmaster Tools we were presented with the following:

Google Webmaster Tools Mobile Usability Overview

What I find interesting here is that Google’s spider crawled the website and has flagged every single page with a usability error (not merely a warning), indicating a paradigm shift in their evaluation of mobile friendly website.  It would appear that Google Webmaster Tools are now moving towards a mindset similar to the web development strategy of ‘Mobile First‘; that is a mobile version of your website is no longer a secondary consideration but rather the primary consideration, with its display on traditional devices being secondary.

For the customer mentioned above, the following specific ‘usability errors’ we’re flagged, which each error listed as occurring 1, 398 times (every single page of the site):

Content not sized to viewport

This indicates that the search engine has rendered the page enough to realize that the content of the website doesn’t respond to fit to screens, forcing users to ‘pinch and zoom’ to navigate the site.

Viewport not configured

The crawler checked and found no viewport meta tag defined at all.

Touch elements too close

The ‘touchable’ navigation elements in the web pages were too close together, clearly because the page is zoomed out (as it doesn’t respond), meaning everything is close together.

What Does This Mean?

In summary, if your website isn’t already responsive, you should seriously consider either a rebuild (using the mobile first strategy) or at the very least, introducing a basic level of responsive functionality to it.  At present the impact on SEO is likely to be fairly minimal but presumably Google is following the trend of mobile browsing growth and will be ramping up the affect (negative or positive) of an effective mobile ready website.

An important factor in when considering the above is the the Google spider doesn’t appear to be considering separate ‘mobile’ sites – it specifically wants a responsive website so if you previous tried to simply bolt-on a ‘mobile.domainname.com’ version of your website with a redirect, this is unlikely to help.

If you’re a website designer, you now have a much more tangible reason to give to clients that aren’t sold on the need for a responsive website (particularly those resisting a rebuild): it affects SEO, which for many companies is critical.

Bob McKay

About Bob McKay

Bob McKay works at Perfect Image, is a father, programmer and a self confessed techie-geek type.

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2 comments on «Mobile Matters to SEO: Go Responsive or Go Home»

  1. Hammad says:

    It’s true that responsive design is a need of time, in US more than 50% users browse websites from mobile and Smartphones and now the decision of Google to de-rank non-responsive websites isn’t wrong.

    1. Bob McKay says:

      Hey Hammad,
      Thanks for the comment – I agree completely. I think the implementation of responsive design shows an effort to provide a good user experience across as many devices as possible – to my mind that alone should score it some SEO points!

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