Google Search Ranking Criteria Change Elevates Mobile-Friendly Sites

Mobile-unfriendly Joomla forum renders poorly on a Google Nexus 6.

Mobile-unfriendly Joomla forum renders poorly on a Google Nexus 6.

On April 21, 2015, websites that have not been optimized to work with mobile devices may find themselves in a lower position in Google’s search results than they were on April 20. Although Google’s ranking algorithm is not specified, the new criteria will include whether links are large enough to click when displayed on mobile devices, and whether elements can be viewed without turning the device sideways and resizing the screen, according to the announcement.

The increased demand for information buried inside apps prompted another change: content previously accessible only within installed mobile apps will be indexed by the new algorithm. Once an app’s content is exposed with the developer’s help, that content will be listed in search results to users who have the app installed. Links to install the app may appear if the app is not already installed on the device.

App indexing, or deep content linking, may be critical to large businesses and app developers, as Google struggles to retain users that are spending more time within apps on mobile devices. Small businesses, on the other hand, have reason to be concerned about mobile-friendliness rankings.

Unprepared Small Businesses May See Drop in Traffic

Website owners now have an additional worry when it comes to their placement on the search engine results page (SERP), the page displayed to users for a given set of keywords. According to 2013 research, 62% of users clicked on one of the first three results (the “click-through rate”). Given the importance of placement, website marketers pay to bypass the search engine results criteria and achieve a high position on the results page. In Google’s case, paid results are separated and marked as advertisements. In 2014, Google earned 68% of its revenue, or $45B, on these advertisements, not including ads placed through Google’s ad clearinghouse on non-Google-owned websites. Overall, mobile ad spending is expected to surpass desktop ad spending by 2016.

Google’s success at selling placement on the search results page points to two factors. First, businesses that use it as a component of marketing strategy often find that it works. The process of refining a Google AdWords campaign and measuring the results is worthy of separate blog posts, but the value proposition is clear. A well-crafted campaign, tuned to the audience, drives website traffic, lead generation, and sales.

Second, the alternative strategy of tuning the website content to appear high in the organic (unpaid) search results listings is also a technical topic, requires deliberate strategy, and is not free as some might assume.

Turning Fear to Fascination

How do websites get top billing on Google? Common sense suggests relevant keywords in close proximity, based on a boolean search algorithm. Boolean logic drives low-level search engines, and in practice, it’s easy to see how keywords affect the visibility of Craigslist ads. Even though Google uses a sophisticated algorithm that will expose and demote pages that rely on keyword stuffing, careful replacement of keywords within relevant content is, in fact, required for high search result placement. Blog sites run by writers and accountants will tend to favor this low-cost tactic, which leverages writing skill to increase search visibility. Thinking as business owners and web developers, however, we need to employ the most effective combination of tactics, not merely those with the lowest cost, forcing us to look beyond keywords.

Use Keywords to Engage Users, Not Search Engines

Keywords allow website authors, and by extension, the businesses they support, to establish credibility if the words add value to the reader; the audience must be the primary consideration. Irrelevant buzzwords injected into articles to increase search rankings, for example, might alienate the intended reader. The challenge, then, is to select keywords that help intended readers identify themselves, and not merely on the basis of popularity. For a business website, keywords  narrow the audience at the top of the sales funnel. The user:

  • types keywords into a search engine
  • sees a useful link
  • follows the link to a landing page
  • takes an action on the landing page that will lead to follow-up contact by the business

This process requires relevant keywords to identify users that might make a purchase (and screen out users looking for something else). For any particular keyword, there are related keyword combinations, each having a search rank, which indicates the probability that a user will type the keyword combination into a search engine. Keyword selection, and by extension, effective headline writing, became more difficult when Google stopped exposing organic keyword rankings for logged-in Google account holders in 2011, and then cut off free access entirely in 2013, creating a windfall for SEO (Search Engine Optimization) consultants willing to expose keyword frequency data using other methods. Still, placing a particular keyword combination on a web page does little to guarantee placement on the first search engine results page. Instead, the primary determinant is the page-rank algorithm.

Encourage Inbound Links

Page rank is a mathematical formula that predicts whether a user, randomly clicking on links, will arrive at a particular web page. When the web page address is linked by an external website, the probability increases. JCPenny and BMW were caught artificially inflating their page rankings by buying links on external websites; Google demoted them in search results as punishment. Given the potential for abuse, the actual algorithm is a closely-guarded trade secret. Link strategies are discouraged by rewarding web pages with inbound links from highly-credible (according to the formula) websites, and demoting highly-ranked websites caught selling outbound links. Unfortunately, when well-regarded companies are caught manipulating search engine rankings, one implication is that top executives are not familiar with the most basic schemes, or perhaps, more cynically, they assume it is required in an arena filled with cheaters.

Their examples show that blackhat link strategies can work, and then collapse in a humiliating public spectacle. Less clear is the effectiveness of search manipulation via ordinary keyword spamming, since Google will take into account keyword placement in headers, links and body text, organization of sentences, and other indicators of value as a secondary consideration after page rank.

Create Useful Content

Which brings us to the whitehat SEO strategy premise that Google endorses: If a website places keywords organically, in the process of delivering high-quality content, and users respond by linking to the site, search-engine rank should rise. Note that this formula is not immune to manipulation. Content farms such as Huffington Post walk the line between a destination site for serious readers and an untended expanse of forgettable articles. The Huffington Post and others employ a strategy of analyzing the most popular web search keyword combinations and quickly writing content that will allow use of those keywords in the title of an article. Google-stalkers aside, businesses that do not consider search engine optimization as part of their core strategy struggle to integrate the principle. Fortunately, WordPress and other content management systems allow SEO-averse website owners to manage the process of delivering rich content in real-time, automate the production of searchable categories and tags, and integrate direct-response forms, shopping carts, graphics and HD video.

Switch to WordPress

With the latest search algorithm change, expect WordPress to increase its dominance as the most cost-effective and beginner-friendly SEO strategy. Although WordPress is free, open-source, and easily installed with just a few mouse clicks, behind the scenes, a more powerful influence is at work. Three years ago, creating a mobile-friendly site involved redirecting mobile device connections at the server to a separate website, usually called an “M-dot” site (i.e., m.browniegroup.com). In a change mostly invisible to users, following the 2010 publication of “Responsive Web Design” by Ethan Marcotte, website owners began implementing a single site design for both desktop and mobile users. For small- and medium-sized businesses with fewer resources to develop and maintain parallel websites, the advantages are obvious.

The “Responsive Web Design” structure began appearing in free WordPress templates by 2012, and for those already running WordPress, mobile-friendly web design now can be as simple as clicking the “Change Template” option in the administration panel. On the downside, more popularity means more attractiveness to hackers bent on server control, and diluted differentiation for millions of sites with common underlying templates. From its current position of dominance, WordPress could easily stumble, and Google’s next algorithm change could be a factor.

Next Steps

The web is full of articles that claim to expose Google’s secret sauce, and the top Google search result on “Google ranking criteria”, as of today, is here. There appears to be agreement that at least some of the factors listed are valid, and worth further examination.