By now you know that Google is not one to share their secret sauce. They tend to keep the dates of upcoming algorithm updates quiet, even going so far as to launch one without warning. Google is also reluctant to give too much information on the signals they use for ranking websites. Yet back in February, Google made a very clear, very direct message: Starting April 21, 2015, they will be expanding the use of mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal.

What does this mean for your website? What type of impact will this have? If one thing’s for certain, we would say this is one update you don’t want to sleep on.

Google promises that the update will have a “significant impact” on mobile search results, affecting mobile searches in all languages, in all parts of the world. The purpose of the update is to make it easier for users to find high-quality, relevant search results that are optimized for their respective devices.

Why Make the Change Now?

It’s no secret that more users are accessing the Web from their mobile devices, and Google’s algorithms have had to adjust to these trends. The initial protocol was to make sure a site was configured properly and viewable on mobile devices. Webmasters have had to up their game when it comes to factors like loading times, graphics, minimal text, simple designs, clickable links and so on. Google also recently introduced App Indexing for surfacing useful content from apps. (launched back in February).

Now, Google is advancing its algorithm to help users discover even more mobile-friendly content. And, they’re announcing the exact day this change will roll out. In other words: Be ready. There are no forgiveness points. There is no benefit to riding the waves. This is a game-changer that Google wants webmasters to be prepared for.

What Changes Can We Expect?

When the weather center tells you to be prepared for a storm, you know what to do. (Or at least you can easily find out thanks to Google’s awesome algorithms.) Without this information, you wouldn’t know what to do to prepare yourself, right? The same is true with an algorithm update. You can only get your website ready if you know what to do and what changes are taking place.

Thankfully, Google hasn’t been as elusive this time around. But, it will take a bit of new thinking.

Traditionally, mobile rankings for a website were tied to the ranking strength of the desktop site. In other words, if your site ranked well on the desktop SERPs, it likely ranked well on the mobile SERPs, too. Of course, there were some factors that Google took into consideration in terms of “mobile friendliness.” That’s why some webmasters saw a decrease in rankings due to slow loading times, images that wouldn’t load, and text that wasn’t formatted properly.

One solution has been the use of responsive design. With a responsive site, the majority of web-friendliness issues automatically worked themselves out with little effort for the webmaster. With the new update however, you’ll need to do more than just leave your site up to responsive design. In fact, some speculate that the rankings of mobile sites will eventually impact their desktop counterparts.

Testing Out the Mobile Friendliness of Your Site

Google recommends first testing a few of your web pages with the Mobile Friendly Test tool. Simply enter in a page URL and the test will tell you if the page is mobile friendly. You can also use your Webmaster Tools account to get a full list of usability issues that could be negatively impacting your website using the Mobile Usability Report. This is a good first step in better understanding your website, any persistent issues, and its perception by Google.

It’s really up to you whether or not you decide to build a mobile-friendly website yourself or use the services of a professional web developer. If you do choose to build your own site, however, know that the stakes are relatively high. It can help to work with third party software that will walk you through the steps, but you’ll still need a firm grasp on mobile SEO and other web fundamentals.

Working with a developer is often the better choice since you are entrusting a pro to build a site that is compatible with Google’s latest updates. It’s far less time and responsibility on your part, and you’ll get a quality, mobile-friendly website that follows the latest trends. Either way you choose to go, Google offers some great information, tips and advice here.

What are Some of the Key Ranking Factors?

Okay, so let’s get back to some of the things you can start doing today to get your website ready.

Content and Keyword Usage

One area that Google goes into depth about is content. This includes all forms of content: web pages, blog posts, web forms, infographics, video and images. The pages should be presented in simple layouts that work well on both wide and narrow screens. Longer content is typically preferred, as is speedy page loading times via HTML and a modern web browser such as Google Chrome. Content should be updated regularly, and duplicate content is a no-no. Delete it or make it original.

Keyword density, while not as important as it once was, still has a place in an optimization strategy in 2015. Going overboard here can get you flagged for spam, but you should still ensure to include relevant, meaningful keywords in your website copy (especially in the first 100 words.)

Here are a few other ranking signals that will make your content more mobile friendly:

  • User-friendly layout

  • Bullets and numbered lists

  • References and sources

  • Multimedia

  • Grammar and spelling

  • Keyword in the URL

  • Reading level that fits your audience (basic, intermediate, advanced)

  • Number and quality of internal links

  • Outbound link quality

Site Architecture

The architecture of your site is another major ranking factor. By now, Google expects a well put-together site that helps them index and organize the content on it. How often is your site updated? (Hint: The answer should be ‘regularly.’) The best way to keep your site fresh and relevant is by consistently adding new content and updating your web pages as necessary.

Also, while you don’t necessarily need a large number of pages to be a quality site, Google does take page number into consideration. A website with more meaty pages will be distinguished from thin, affiliate ones.

A few additional factors that will help your mobile site rank well in terms of architecture are:

  • Presence of a sitemap

  • Contact us page

  • Terms of service and privacy pages

  • Site uptime

  • Server location

  • SSL certificate

  • Domain trust

Site-Wide or Page-by-Page Update?

Though Google has been fairly straightforward with this upcoming update, they don’t indicate if the ranking shift will apply to a site-wide or page-by-page basis. In other words, will the search algorithm judge website pages on their individual qualities, or will it just look at everything as a whole? If a percentage of the pages on a domain are too low, will the entire domain get demoted or vice versa? This is something we’ll have to wait to find out, but it’s widely speculated that the algorithm will assess pages individually versus grading the whole site in one fell swoop.

With April 21 only a few days away, you might not be in a position to get your site responsive if it’s not already. The best-case scenario here would be to address any pitfalls on your website and get them fixed as soon as possible. Google does a good job of informing webmasters on best practices, so be sure to utilize the insights provided by the Mobile Usability Report and Webmaster Tools. At the very least, you can identify potential deficiencies that are specific to your website and repair them so they do not have as significant of an impact.

With the new changes being made to Google’s algorithms, you can’t leave your mobile website up to fate. Let us help get your site up to speed so that it ranks well, making Google happy and your audience even happier!