9 Things You Need to Know About Google’s Mobile-Friendly Update

Rumors are flying about Google’s upcoming mobile-friendly update, and bits of reliable information have come from several sources. My colleague Emily Grossman and I wanted to cut through the noise and bring online marketers a clearer picture of what’s in store later this month. In this post, you’ll find our answers to nine key questions about the update.

1. What changes is Google making to its algorithm on April 21st?

Answer: Recently, Google has been rolling out lots of changes to apps, Google Play, the presentation of mobile SERPS, and some of the more advanced development guidelines that impact mobile; we believe that many of these are in preparation for the 4/21 update. Google has been downplaying some of these changes, and we have no exclusive advanced knowledge about anything that Google will announce on 4/21, but based on what we have seen and heard recently, here is our best guess of what is coming in the future (on 4/21 or soon thereafter):

We believe Google will launch a new mobile crawler (probably with an Android user-agent) that can do a better job of crawling single-page web apps, Android apps, and maybe even Deep Links in iOS apps. The new Mobile-Friendly guidelines that launched last month focus on exposing JS and CSS because Android apps are built in Java, and single-page web apps rely heavily on JavaScript for their fluid, app-like experience.

Some example sites that use Responsive Design well in a single-page app architecture are:

Also, according to Rob Ousbey of Distilled, Google has been testing this kind of architecture on Blogspot.com (a Google property).

Google has also recently been pushing for more feeds from Trusted Partners, which are a key component of both mobile apps and single-page web apps since Phantom JS and Prerender IO (and similar technologies) together essentially generate crawlable feeds for indexing single-page web apps. We think this increased focus on JS, CSS, and feeds is also the reason why Google needs the additional mobile index that Gary Illyes mentioned in his “Meet the Search Engines” interview at SMX West a couple weeks ago, and why suddenly Google has been talking about apps as “first class citizens,” as called out by Mariya Moeva in the title of her SMX West presentation.

A new mobile-only index to go with the new crawler also makes sense because Google wants to index and rank both app content and deep links to screens in apps, but it does not necessarily want to figure them into the desktop algorithm or slow it down with content that should never rank in a desktop search. We also think that the recent increased focus on deep links and the announcement from Google about Google Play’s new automated and manual review process are related. This announcement indicates, almost definitively, that Google has built a crawler that is capable of crawling Android apps. We believe that this new crawler will also be able to index more than one content rendering (web page or app screen data-set) to one URL/URI and it will probably will focus more on feeds, schema and sitemaps for its own efficiency. Most of the native apps that would benefit from deep linking are driven by data feeds, and crawling the feeds instead of the apps would give Google the ability to understand the app content, especially for iOS apps, (which they are still not likely able to crawl), without having to crawl the app code. Then, it can crawl the deep-linked web content to validate the app content.

FYI: Garry Illyes mentioned that Google is retiring their old AJAX indexing instructions, but did not say how they would be replaced, except to specify in a Google+ post that Google would not click links to get more content. Instead, they would need an OnLoad event to trigger further crawling. These webmaster instructions for making AJAX crawlable were often relied on as a way to make single-page web apps crawlable, and we think that feeds will play a role here, too, as part of the replacement. Relying more heavily on feeds also makes it easier for Google to scrape data directly into SERPS, which they have been doing more and more. (See the appendix of this slide deck, starting on slide 30, for lots of mobile examples of this change in play already.) This probably will include the ability to scrape forms directly into a SERP, à la the form markup for auto-complete that Google just announced.

We are also inclined to believe that the use of the new “Mobile-Friendly” designation in mobile SERPS may be temporary, as long as SEOs and webmasters feel incentivized to make their CSS and JavaScript crawlable, and get into the new mobile index. “Mobile-Friendly” in the SERP is a bit clunky, and takes up a lot of space, so Google may decide switch to something else, like the “slow” tag shown to the right, originally spotted in testing by Barry Schwartz. In fact, showing the “Slow” tag might make sense later in the game, after most webmasters have made the updates, and Google instead needs to create a more serious and impactful negative incentive for the stragglers. (This is Barry’s image; we have not actually seen this one yet).

In terms of the Mobile-Friendly announcement, it is surprising that Google has not focused more on mobile page speed, minimizing redirects and avoiding mobile-only errors—their historical focus for mobile SEO. This could be because page speed does not matter as much in the evaluation of content if Google is getting most of its crawl information from feeds. Our guess is that things like page speed and load time will rebound in focus after 4/21. We also think mobile UX indicators that are currently showing at the bottom of the Google PageSpeed tool (at the bottom of the “mobile” tab) will play into the new mobile algorithm—we have actually witnessed Google testing their inclusion in the Mobile-Friendly tool already, as shown below, and of course, they were recently added to everyone’s Webmaster Tools reports. It is possible that the current focus on CSS and JavaScript is to ensure that as many pages are in the new index as possible at launch.

2. If my site is not mobile-friendly, will this impact my desktop rankings as well?

Answer: On a panel at SMX Munich (2 weeks after SMX West) Zineb from Google answered ‘no’ without hesitation. We took this as another indication that the new index is related to a new crawler and/or a major change to the infrastructure they are using to parse, index, and evaluate mobile search results but not desktop results. That said, you should probably take some time soon to make sure that your site works—at least in a passable way—on mobile devices, just in case there are eventual desktop repercussions (and because this is a user experience best practice that can lead to other improvements that are still desktop ranking factors, such as decreasing your bounce rate).

3. How much will mobile rankings be impacted?

Answer: On the same panel at SMX Munich (mentioned above), Zineb said that this 4/21 change will be bigger than the Panda and Penguin updates. Again, we think this fits well with an infrastructure change. It is unclear if all mobile devices will be impacted in the change or not. The change might be more impactful for Android devices or might impact Android and iOS devices equally—though currently we are seeing significant differences between iOS and Android for some types of search results, with more significant changes happening on Android than on iOS.

Deep linking is a key distinction between mobile SERPs on the Android OS and SERPs on iOS (currently, SERPs only display Android app deep links, and only on Android devices). But there is reason to believe this gap will be closing. For example, in his recent Moz post and in his presentation at SMX West, Justin Briggs mentioned that a few sample iOS deep links were validating in Google’s deep link tool. This may indicate that iOS apps with deep links will be easier to surface in the new framework, but it is still possible that won’t make it into the 4/21 update. It is also unclear whether or not Google will maintain its stance on tablets being more like desktop experiences than they are like mobile devices, and what exactly Google is considering “mobile.” What we can say here, though, is that Android tablets DO appear to be including the App Pack results, so we think they will change their stance here, and start to classify tablets as mobile on 4/21.

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