25 Nov 2014

Google Makes Mobile Optimization a Visible Search Advantage

Google has updated search results for mobile users to highlight websites that are optimized for mobile. Pages with mobile optimization will be tagged with a “mobile-friendly” label in the search results:

Google Mobile-Friendly Tag

If you’ve ever done a search on a mobile device, you’ll know why this is a huge improvement for the mobile user experience. When clicking through to a page, it’s a crapshoot if you’ll get a content layout that is suited to the mobile experience, or a standard page layout shrunk down to the point of illegibility.

Phoenix Home & Garden Magazine Mobile

Phoenix Home & Garden Magazine’s website contains a lot of great content, but in mobile it appears cramped, tiny and broken in some areas.

With mobile driving an ever-increasing share of search traffic (as well as online advertising), brands should already be focused on making their content tailored for smartphones and tablets. Before this update, however, users would already be on your site before they found out if you did, and might opt to zoom and scroll their way through your content anyway.

Clearly, mobile optimization is a significant competitive factor in search. A user can now see before they even click whether or not they’ll find a nicely formatted mobile page awaiting them. Sites without mobile optimization could see a marked drop in traffic from organic search as a result.

Additionally, if Google finds this optimization visibility resonates with search users, it may progress from not being tagged as “mobile-friendly” to not being displayed in search results at all.

What is Mobile Optimization?

While there are a number of factors that contribute to an optimized mobile page, Google’s recommendation criteria focuses on four UX (user experience) priorities:

  • Avoids software that is not common on mobile devices, like Flash
  • Uses text that is readable without zooming
  • Sizes content to the screen so users don’t have to scroll horizontally or zoom
  • Places links far enough apart so that the correct one can be easily tapped

Pages that meet these four criteria are considered to have met a sufficient threshold for Google to recommend them as mobile-friendly.

Avoids software that is not common on mobile devices, like Flash

Ever since Apple opted to exclude Flash from its mobile devices, emphasis for hardware producers has been around using native, cross-platform technologies as much as possible. As such, many common Flash elements like video players have been replaced with native HTML5 video players — one approach that can more readily be used across most devices.

But sites that still exclusively use Flash video, Flash media players, or other Flash-based interactive elements will be knocked off Google’s “mobile-friendly” pedestal.

Uses text that is readable without zooming

It can be challenging to read content designed for a 17-inch, horizontal screen on a 5-inch, vertical screen — something akin to staring through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars.

Zoolander Screen for Ants

Sizes content to the screen so users don’t have to scroll horizontally or zoom

Imagine if you had to read this sentence three words at a time, because zooming the text to a legible size didn’t change where the line breaks fell. So you scroll right to read whole sentence in bits and pieces, then scroll left to start the next line. Imagine having to zoom out because only the left third of the excellent Zoolander reference above showed on your screen by default.

Google wants the mobile experience to be the same as the desktop experience: content fits the width of the screen, and you scroll down to read more. Think of it as a literal Rule of Thumb: if a user needs more than just their thumb to consume your content, that’s a good sign you’re not as mobile-friendly as you should be.

Places links far enough apart so that the correct one can be easily tapped

Your thumb is bigger than your eye. Being able to easily read two clickable links does not mean that your finger can easily click the one you intend. In addition to be easily reading and watching content, users should be able to easily interact with and navigate your page. Link size and, in particular, spacing helps avoid people scrambling for the “Back” button when they mash the wrong link.

Where Do I Start with Mobile Optimization?

First thing is to go straight to the source and check your content page in Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test. Enter the page URL and see how Google feels you’re currently doing. If you pass, that’s a great start. If not, the tool lets you know what areas aren’t up to snuff and provides links to resources on how to remedy them.

Here is the result of the test for the Phoenix Home & Garden Magazine website we looked at:

Phoenix Home and Garden Magazine Mobile Friendly Test

You can see how Google catches all the major optimization opportunities, including the content presented inside a Flash element. Fortunately, it provides links for the site owner, developer or their agency to start fixing the issues.

For more in-depth reading, go to Google’s main Mobile Optimization page. There you can find additional resources around specific content management systems, like WordPress, Joomla and Drupal.

And keep in mind that Google’s “mobile-friendly” tag only addresses some fundamental UX considerations. Once you get the green light, don’t stop thinking about ways you can improve your mobile optimization and conversion.


  • Justin MacDonald Nov 26, 2014

    We have known that this change has been coming for a long time. I’m very interested to see if sites will take massive hits that aren’t perfectly optimized for mobile.

    From your article it seems like that is what will happen!

  • David Gould Dec 01, 2014

    I don’t know that the requirement is perfection or that the hits will be massive, but certainly Google seems intent on rewarding those who focus on user experience and this is an early step in that direction.