Could non-mobile websites disappear from Google’s mobile search results pages altogether? Google’s making changes to ensure its mobile results only serve up properly mobile-optimised websites: meaning rank penalties in mobile search for sites which aren’t set up correctly. Here ClickThrough’s Ali Harris and Jack Adams look at what the changes could mean.

Could Google’s new plans to improve the search experience for smartphone users see desktop sites disappear from its mobile search results?

Things seem to be moving in that direction.

With 25% of searches now conducted on mobiles, Google is understandably keen to improve its mobile web experience for users.

It’s starting by downranking mobile sites with configuration issues – such as faulty redirects or smartphone-only 404s.

But could this be the start of wider changes, designed to ensure mobile search results are, well, mobile?

For now, Google isn’t forcing webmasters to create mobile sites to get listed in the mobile search results pages (SERPs). It wants to ensure existing mobile sites are properly optimised, so users can surf seamlessly.

On a mobile browser, non-optimised sites look small and odd, are hard to read and difficult to use. But at least they work.

For site owners, then, the crucial thing is checking your site works on mobiles (whether it’s properly mobile-optimised or desktop-only).

And if it doesn’t – get cracking on fixing common problems for smartphone users: such as faulty directs, smartphone-only 404s, slow-loading pages, broken videos and irrelevant cross-links – or risk disappearing from the mobile SERPs.

It may seem harsh to punish those sites which have at least made the effort to optimise for mobile (rather than those that haven’t done anything) – but there are numerous peculiar problems with many mobile sites that Google wants to stamp out from its results first.

The Internet Is Going Mobile – Are You?

The use of smartphone devices is growing a rapid rate.

Recent figures from UKOM show 67% of the mobile population in the UK own a smartphone.

Despite this, many websites still aren’t fully functional on a smartphone device.

It it makes sense, from a business point of view, to ensure your site is usable on every type of device: otherwise customers may go elsewhere. And the latest warning from Google shows that if you don’t configure your site properly for mobiles, you’re not going to be visible within Google’s mobile search results.

Some sites have set up m. domains, which redirect mobile users to a customised site especially tailored to their smartphone browser – whilst others have introduced responsive web design to allow their site to resize dynamically, depending on the ‘viewing space’ on screen.

But even mobile sites aren’t all properly optimised: simply having an m. domain won’t necessary make for a great user experience (UX).

Fortunately, Google has issued some guidance for webmasters to help them avoid two of the most common mistakes in configuring a site for mobiles.

Faulty Redirects:

Faulty redirects occur when sites have separate URLs for smartphone and desktop users: and the desktop page redirects mobile users to an irrelevant page. In most cases, this redirect will send a smartphone user from a normal desktop page to the smartphone-optimised homepage.

This is irritating because the user is no longer on the specific page they wanted to view: they’re pushed back to the generic homepage.

Google says faulty redirects pose lots of UX problems – and makes users work harder to get the information they want.

Pages with faulty redirects, therefore, could be among the first to disappear from mobile results in Google, which has said: “Our ranking changes will affect many types of searches.”

Fortunately for webmasters, this is a relatively easy fix.

If your desktop URL structure has, say, www.shoeshop.com/shoes, don’t redirect mobile users to a generic mobile homepage URL, like m.shoeshop.com/. Send them to a mobile equivalent to the desktop page they’re on: like m.shoeshop.com/shoes

Smartphone-only Errors:

These occur when a webpage displays normally on a desktop, but the same page shows an error when accessed on a smartphone.

In some cases, users trying to access desktop pages on their mobile may end up seeing a 404, rather than being redirected to an equivalent smartphone page. And Google wants this to stop.

Similarly, sometimes, smartphone-friendly pages aren’t that friendly at all: and are actually error pages in themselves. In this instance, serving a desktop page – rather than an error – is preferable for both the user, and Google.

Irrelevant site redirection can misdirect Googlebot-Mobile, too – in some cases, causing an infinite loop where the bot bounces between smartphone optimised pages and the desktop site.

To prevent this, Google advises all Googlebot-Mobile users to identify the bot as a smartphone device. That is, webmasters can tell the site to see the Googlebot-Mobile user-agent as an iPhone, so it should see the same response an iPhone user would receive (which wouldn’t involve the aforementioned infinite loop).

Google says it wants to address the “pain points” for mobile users, and is set to “roll out several ranking changes in the near future that address sites that are misconfigured for smartphone users.”

Getting errors or redirects to a homepage is understandably irritating: but desktop sites themselves are particularly fussy, fiddly and annoying on a mobile – and it would make sense, in the long run, for Google to prefer mobile-optimised sites over desktop ones in its mobile-only results.

Indeed, if Google is genuine about serving up seamless mobile content, then its changes to the mobile search rankings can’t simply stop with misconfigured sites.

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About the author:

Jack Adams is a copywriter at ClickThrough Marketing, and is a qualified journalist. Jack also has a degree in Journalism, with a specialist focus on citizen journalism, which includes blogs, web content and social media.