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Google's mobile-friendly update is good news

Rick Dan Barron Social Media Manager, Micro Focus

When I'm surfing the web on my phone, the words "go to full site" make me weep into my extra-foam cappuccino. I know I'm doomed to a fate of zooming, scrolling, and praying my fingers hit the right link—if the site even works.

It shouldn't be this way—and Google agrees. On April 21, the search giant changed its rankings to elevate mobile-friendly sites. If your site is already mobile optimized, congratulations! More traffic for you. If not, be warned: your site may be sinking into oblivion.

Surviving #mobilegeddon

Google's update spawned the panicked #mobilegeddon hashtag, but the change is good news. Mobile traffic already exceeds desktop traffic, and mobile-optimized sites triple their chances of conversion rates of five percent or more. Mobile-friendly design was already critical, and now Google has driven the point home.

The update also affects apps. Google will now consider data from indexed apps in its search ranking, giving users of those apps a better view into their app content. This is great news for developers trying to pitch app improvements.

How to build mobile-friendly sites

Not sure how your site will fare? Google's mobile-friendly test is a good place to start. Once you've established a baseline, there are three ways to boost your results:

  1. Responsive design: Uses a single HTML source that renders differently based on the display size.
  2. Dynamic serving: Delivers different HTML for different devices but uses the same URL regardless of the device type.
  3. Mobile website: Uses separate URLs for different devices.

Responsive design

Responsive design is Google's recommended approach and by far the most popular method for mobile-friendly website design. Because a responsive design can adapt to all screen sizes, your site will be easy to read and navigate on a 27-inch monitor or a five-inch smartphone. Responsive sites also perform better, so users get a better experience all around.

This flexibility also future proofs your design. Because the size of the template is based on the screen size and not the device, a responsive site can adapt to new technologies like watches or glasses.

From a search perspective, having a single URL makes it easier for Google to crawl your site. And having a single code source simplifies site maintenance and reduces the likelihood of SEO errors.

Dynamic serving

Dynamic serving is similar to responsive design in that a single URL delivers content suitable for different devices. However, there are important differences:

  • Dynamic serving requires detection of the user device—a notably error-prone process.
  • You must maintain a separate code base for each device type, increasing the likelihood of errors and complicating maintenance.
  • Deploying a separate mobile site may not meet users' needs. For example, tablet users may find that neither the desktop site nor the mobile site meet their expectations.

In spite of these disadvantages, Google still considers dynamic serving to be mobile friendly.

Mobile website

Creating a separate mobile site is a decidedly old-school approach that isn't recommended. Maintaining a separate, mobile-only website is a real pain, and it forces Google to inspect two versions of your content.

The user experience can be lousy, too. If a mobile user lands on the desktop site, he or she is likely to leave the site rather than search for the mobile version. Who wants to go through all that zooming and scrolling?

If that weren't bad enough, mobile sites are only optimized for specific screen sizes. If the user has a screen size you didn't expect, things can get ugly. For example, a phablet user may find your desktop site too crowded and your mobile site too empty.

Back to the good news

The good news is that Google's mobile-friendly update should clear up any remaining uncertainty about the best approach to web design. If your website isn't already responsive and mobile friendly, now is your chance to convince your boss that it's time for a change.

If you need hints to help you get started, Google has a list of common mistakes for mobile sites. And don't forget that responsive design is only one factor to consider. Lots of other factors, including site speed, play an important role. Now, please go explain to your boss that I can't bear to see "go to full site" one more time—my cappuccino is already too watery.

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