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Google’s Mobile Update: Short-Term Whimper, Long-Term Bang

When Google shifts its weight, the online world lurches and trembles to accommodate. But this time around, instead of seismic changes in search rankings, the search engine’s latest Panda update – designed to reward mobile-friendly websites when they’re hunted for from a mobile device – was barely measurable on many sites, mobile-friendly and mobile-unfriendly alike. What happened?googlegeddon

Each Page Is Measured Separately

First off, the new mobile-friendliness criteria are per page, not site-wide. So if your homepage is well suited to a smartphone browser but other pages aren’t, your homepage won’t be dinged. This means that websites’ overall reputation could remain unaltered, which is a major factor when weighing sites against each other. However, it also means you shouldn’t make a mobile-nice version of your homepage and call it a day. You should be concerned about your landing pages at least as much. While site-wide rankings haven’t budged much, multiple testers have noticed an uptick on friendly pages and a downtick on unfriendly pages.

Reputation Is Still More Important

Next, while mobile-friendliness is an important criterion in ensuring that Google serves up the best content to its readers, the search engine’s credibility takes a hit if it isn’t serving up the popular sites those readers expect. If several large, reputable companies can’t be found because their sites aren’t portable enough, it isn’t the sites that look bad; it would instead begin to look like Google had overplayed its hand. So, while mobile-responsiveness may serve as a tie-breaker among similarly ranking pages, it’s unlikely to boost an unknown, low-reputation site above a juggernaut. Since Google so seldom gives specific warnings about what it’s about to shake up, the advance notice should actually have been an indicator that this move was a polite nudge to the other online powers-that-be, not a unilateral switch-flip. (We know, we know: Easy to say that now, in hindsight.) It serves the search engine’s user experience if everybody follows suit, but Rome wasn’t miniaturized in a day, even with a two-month lead-up.

It’s worth mentioning here that Google’s assessment of mobile-friendliness is a binary one: Either your page is or it is not. If you want to check how it deems a particular page on your website, Google has made it easy to do so here. Another worthy side-note: Only phones are classified as “mobile” for this update, not tablets, ultrabooks, etc.

One More Way to Compete

Here’s more food for thought: Before the update, less than half the top-ranking pages on Google were mobile-friendly. What happens when you push the whole front page to the second page? It remains the first page.  Yes, some promising second-stringers waiting in the wings might finally have gotten their chance at bat, but that could hardly be called a sea change (mixaphorically speaking). The point here isn’t “How much did my rankings change?” The point is that you now have one more tool you can use to stay ahead of the competition – and one more tool they can use against you if you slack.

That’s something that shakes out over time, not in a day. The 800-pound gorilla that it is, Google can dictate that everyone worth their salt eventually go mobile, but it can’t get semis to turn on a dime. The Corvettes will turn first. If your website is small and versatile, the decision to make it responsive is a no-brainer. This is how you stay ahead of the race, and eke past tight competitors in the event of a tie. Eleventh place is the top of the bottom, and you can’t afford to languish while you’re lapped by companies that cater to a smartphone-filled future.mobile-friendly search results

Stats aside, Google has also started tagging mobile-friendly pages in search results. So even if your ranking stays exactly the same, sporting this distinction could persuade a phone user to tap over to your page instead of even higher-ranked competitors’ pages.