If you’ve been plugged into the online marketing community at any point in the past 10 years, you’ve likely heard the phrase “mobile optimization” thrown around. It’s a buzzword, but it’s a fundamentally important one, so I wanted to put together this comprehensive guide to explain exactly what mobile optimization is (and exactly what it isn’t), everything that it currently and could potentially entail, how to check to see if your site is mobile optimized, and what to do if it isn’t.
There have been a number of misconceptions and half-truths circulating about mobile optimization, mostly as extremist responses to major announcements by tech companies like Google, and a panic that’s set in thanks to the rising trends of mobile use in most demographic segments. Fortunately, once you understand it, mobile optimization is relatively simple, and your site might already be in the clear. Still, there’s an ongoing component to mobile optimization—striving for a perfection that can never be reached—so there’s always more to learn about the process.
What is mobile optimization?
Here’s the simplest definition of mobile optimization you’re liable to find on the Internet: mobile optimization is changing your site to be as usable and convenient as possible for users on mobile devices. Ten years ago, mobile devices didn’t exist (or at least, weren’t popular), so most sites were designed specifically for desktop screens. Mobile screens, like those on smartphones, offer a handful of unique elements that desktop-designed sites can’t address:
- Smaller screen sizes make it harder to view full-size pages, especially when it comes to viewing images and reading text.
- Finger-based interactions make small, precision buttons on desktop sites hard to manage.
- The diversity of devices available makes it hard to present an all-in-one solution.
- Mobile browser compatibility is not universal, and not all types of code show up for all browsers.
Mobile optimization strives to fix all these problems.
Why optimize for mobile?
You may be asking yourself what the benefits of mobile optimization are. After all, a good chunk of your user base is still accessing your site through desktop devices, and even those who aren’t can get most of the same experiences even on the un-optimized version of your site, right?
Consider these benefits of mobile optimization before neglecting the strategy altogether:
- SEO. Google (and other search engines) are staunch supporters of “ideal” mobile experiences. They want every site online to be “mobile friendly,” and they’re taking action to make it happen by penalizing sites that aren’t optimized for mobile and rewarding sites that are. Just by optimizing your site for mobile, you’ll earn higher positions in Google search results, resulting in more traffic to your site. In addition, you’ll earn a little badge next to your site’s name, telling users that your site is, indeed, mobile-friendly:
(Image Source: Google)
- User experience. Some users are going to access your site through desktop, but the impressions mobile users get from a site are substantial. If a first-time visitor on a mobile device sees your content not loading properly or has a poor experience, he/she may not come back. Even loyal customers who don’t have a great mobile experience could leave you in favor of a competitor who can offer such an experience. Both your customer satisfaction and your brand reputation are on the line here.
- Rising importance. These benefits are fantastic today, but what you really have to consider is their future value. Mobile devices and mobile web browsing are poised to surge dramatically over the course of the next several years. The longer you wait, the more benefits you’ll miss out on, and the worse position you’ll be in for the coming years.
Let’s take a look at the factors shaping mobile user experiences, and how they relate to mobile optimization overall.
The Mobile Landscape
We’re in the middle of an era that revolves around mobile experiences, and it’s not going away anytime soon.
Rising trends in mobile use
It was May of 2015 when Google announced that mobile searches had overtaken desktop searches for the first time ever. Now, we’re on an ever-accelerating upward trajectory, with mobile use still growing and desktop use starting to look more and more obsolete.
(Image Source: SmartInsights/ComScore)
Why the steep growth? Mobile Internet access used to be nothing more than a novelty, to be used in rare circumstances by a fraction of the population. Coverage was limited, speeds were egregiously slow, devices were clumsy, and smartphones were only in the hands of the super tech-savvy. But slowly, tech giants have favored mobile use with innovative features like better touchscreens, voice-activated search, faster Internet, and better geographic positioning. Collectively, these improvements have led more users to rely on mobile devices, which in turn has prompted more tech companies to invest in mobile technology. It’s a self-perpetuating and exponential cycle with no end in sight.
Google is one of these forerunners of mobile technology, and they’re one of the biggest influencers of this steep rising trend in mobile use. The company unveiled its Voice Search product back in 2002, and local search started developing even before that, but they’ve been two major areas of development in the past decade. Voice search has become more intuitive, local search has been integrated with mobile, and most importantly, Google started giving ranking advantages to sites that ranked well on mobile devices. For a while, this was somewhat informal and unspoken, but back in April of last year, it took a massive leap forward.
Mobilegeddon v. 1.0
Announcing the update nearly two months in advance, Google proactively warned webmasters that on April 21, it would be launching a massive update to reward sites that had been properly optimized for mobile and penalize those that had not. This was a rare move for the company, as most of its search algorithm updates came as undocumented, unannounced surprises that the rest of us optimizers had to scramble to try and crack. Now, Google heads were telling us exactly what to expect—more or less.
The search community went on a rampage, donning the coming update as “mobilegeddon,” and using it as an opportunity to wrangle up business from webmasters who hadn’t yet updated their sites for mobile devices, or how exactly to go about it. Some insisted that this reaction was overblown, and to a degree it was, but the impact of “mobilegeddon” was still significant.
(Image Source: SearchEngineLand)
It’s not impossible for non-mobile-friendly sites to rank today, and desktop searches weren’t hit as hard as mobile searches, but it’s still a significant difference to note. Without a mobile-friendly site, your SEO potential is seriously compromised—and that update is here to stay.
In fact, there’s some evidence to suggest that Google may be planning another mobilegeddon-style update, to serve as an expansion to the first one. We don’t have a lot of details about this new update, other than the fact that it’s coming out in May of this year, but it’s speculated that this will serve to “boost” the original ranking signals heralded in by mobilegeddon version 1.0. Google has announced that webmasters of existing sites that are optimized for mobile will need to make no further changes to their sites.
The Bottom Line
What’s the key takeaway here? Mobile-friendly sites are a necessity if you want to remain visible and preserve your brand’s reputation in the modern era. Mobile trends aren’t going away, and if your site isn’t optimized for mobile yet, you’re actively losing traffic and user engagement.
Guidelines for Mobile Optimization
Now that the “mobile landscape” is out of the way and you have a good idea what you can expect from mobile optimization, let’s dig into the details of exactly what mobile optimization entails. These are mostly a series of onsite changes that you can implement to make your site appear and perform better on mobile and alternative devices, but there are many options when it comes to implementation and of course, testing.
Let’s start with the basics. These are hallmarks of mobile optimization that you can’t ignore, and following all of them will put you in pretty good shape to be qualified as “mobile-friendly:”
- Ensure all your images and videos load properly. This is a crucial step, as most mobile browsers and devices function differently than desktop-based means of accessing content. You may find that on some mobile browsers, your content loads perfectly fine, but on others, all you see is a “file not found” or similar message. This is bad news, both for human visitors and for search crawlers, so if you discover one of these compatibility problems, you’re going to need to update your site. You’ll also want to make sure these images and videos are loading quickly, but that’s a separate bullet point altogether.
- Make your text visible without zooming or scrolling. One of Google’s biggest concerns with mobile-friendliness is the convenience and navigability of your site. Design is important, but realistically, your text is the most important material on your site. If users have a hard time reading that text, your site isn’t doing its job, so to optimize your site for mobile, you need to ensure that all the text of your site is visible (i.e., readable) without the need for users to zoom or scroll horizontally. Take a look at this handy guide image Google created, illustrating how you can rearrange a site to better present your written information to mobile users:
(Image Source: Google)
- Make buttons finger-clickable. No matter how much you love using your mobile device, you have to admit that the precision of an old-school computer mouse handily out-performs the clumsiness of your own fingers. When it comes to buttons, menus, dropdowns, choices, and other interactive elements, precision is notoriously difficult. If you want your site to be mobile-friendly, all those actionable elements need to be easily navigable with fingers. There’s no hard rule for this, such as the recommended size of a button, but you can generally rely on your best judgment. Test it and see how you’re able to fare with your own fingers—this is more intuitive than it is programmatic or mathematical.
- Improve your page loading speed. Page loading time is a significant website factor, primarily for user experience but also for search ranking potential. Have you ever been to a webpage that takes longer than a second or two to load? It’s terrible. We should be ashamed of ourselves for our low attention spans, but it’s terrible. If your site takes too long to load, your users won’t even give you a chance, so keep your site as lean as possible by using the right image formats, reducing your multimedia sizes, clearing old drafts and meta data, and using a good caching plugin. The problem is compounded on mobile devices, since Internet speeds are usually much lower, so you’ll have to do double duty here.
- Avoid Flash. Thanks in part to Apple’s crackdown on Flash compatibility in iPhone (and similar) devices, Flash is pretty much obsolete these days. Unless you have some niche function that literally can’t exist without Flash, or an already-dedicated user base, there’s no excuse to continue using it. It won’t load properly on mobile devices, and it’s only going to grow more archaic as the years roll on.
- Avoid pop-ups. Some pop-ups can be valuable, such as prompts to sign up for an email newsletter, but as much as possible, you’ll want to disable these on mobile devices. Pop-ups are somewhat annoying on desktop devices, but on mobile devices, they’re even worse—not only is it harder to click them away with a finger, there’s also the likelihood that you’ll miss-press and end up loading a bulky page you didn’t intend. Don’t put your users through this experience unless you have to.
Going Above and Beyond
The above “best practices” are the basic ones you’ll need to comply with Google’s mobile standards and get your site seen as “mobile-friendly” by search engines. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean your mobile optimization journey is complete. Meeting the basic requirements will help you appeal to search engines, but you also have to bear your users in mind. Yes, meeting the above thresholds will be valuable for users, but if you really want to sell the experience of your site, you’ll need to go above and beyond the line of duty:
- Maximize loading speed. Don’t just strive for a slightly faster website—try to outdo all your competitors here. If you can get your page loading in a second or less, your users will notice the difference. If you have lots of images to show off, this can be difficult, but you can still strive for on-page minimalism. Keep your content lean and focused, and reduce your image sizes as much as possible without sacrificing the quality. Get rid of any plugins on your backend that you aren’t currently using, and make sure your caching plugin settings are optimized for page performance.
- Design specifically for mobile experiences. There’s a difference between taking an existing website and shoehorning it into decent mobile experiences, and designing specifically for mobile experiences. Unless you’ve done the research to prove that your target audience still uses mostly desktop devices (and plans to stay there indefinitely), it’s a good idea to redesign your website from the ground-up for your mobile audience. That means arranging all your content vertically, redesigning interactive functions to appeal to small touch screens, and visualizing your site completely differently. If you use an eCommerce platform, this will similarly need updating—there are many user interactions here, and mobile user interactions can make or break the experience.
- Test and evaluate differences in user behavior to improve. Don’t just assume that your changes will be valuable to mobile users; you can use a degree of intuition to help guide your creativity and reaffirm the benefits of your changes once they’re actually applied, but don’t neglect the follow-up of measuring your user behavior. How are your users interacting with your site? Are they engaging the way you thought they would? Can you strive for something even better? Don’t be afraid to make iterative tweaks here, gradually building up your overall mobile performance.
Aside from smaller factors like optimizing your images, there are three main ways you can implement broad mobile changes to your website:
- Responsive design. The first, and most important, is what’s known as “responsive design.” This is the method currently favored by Google, and it’s one of the easiest to implement. It also gives you the most flexibility of any of the three options, and is the easiest to troubleshoot if something goes wrong.
Essentially, the idea here is to code your site to automatically detect the size of the screen viewing it and adapt its material accordingly. For example, you might have a desktop layout like the one on the left in the diagram below, but when a user tries to access the same site on a mobile device, the site with “sense” it, and rearrange its components to be viewed conveniently.
(Image Source: Google)
This may seem space-aged or incredibly difficult to incorporate, but the reality is, there are many responsive options available these days. In fact, if you have a WordPress site, or use any popular CMS, you can easily find a free responsive template on which to build your site. It’s super popular for a reason.
- Dynamic serving. In dynamic serving, you’ll essentially be creating multiple versions of your site in the backend code. Here, you’ll be able to control—with precision—the differences between how your site shows up on desktop devices versus mobile devices. Though the backend coding is going to be different, your URLs are going to be the same; your server will determine what type of device is being used to access your URL, and will serve up the code that’s most appropriate.
- Separate URLs. With separate URLs, you’ll also be creating a separate version of your site, only this time it’s going to be hosted on an entirely separate URL (usually some variation of your root domain, such as mobile.example.com).
If you’re having trouble visualizing or comparing these methods against each other, here’s a handy chart that Google created to explain the differences:
(Image Source: Google)
There are some pros and cons to each method, but ultimately, responsive comes out on top in most scenarios:
(Image Source: Moz)
Other forms of mobile SEO
When it comes to the search optimization element of mobile optimization, there isn’t much more to be seen. The basic standards of onsite and offsite optimization apply here, and of course you’ll need to come up with high-quality content on a regular basis, but there’s nothing else specifically for mobile devices that you’ll need to do on an ongoing basis.
Let’s say you’ve done everything I’ve outlined above—even the “above and beyond” stuff—and you’re confident that your site is sufficiently optimized for mobile. Just how confident are you? Are you willing to bank the visibility of your website on it?
Even if you feel supremely confident, it’s important that you test your assumptions.
One of the biggest reasons to test yourself is because of the sheer diversity of devices that are currently out there. Each device has its own quirks, layout issues, and rendering issues, and if you want your site to be as mobile compliant as possible, you’ll have to adapt for all of them. Just because your site looks fine on your specific model of smartphone doesn’t mean it’s similarly rendering across the board.
(Image Source: SmartInsights)
- Desktops/laptops. Desktop and laptop devices aren’t ones you’ll have to worry about—at least not generally. If your site is working properly on any other mobile device, it’s probably working just fine on desktops. Besides that, Google doesn’t care much about desktop optimization these days anyway.
- Smartphones. Smartphones make up the biggest market share of mobile users, and are the biggest concern you should have when it comes to site performance. Android, iPhone, and Windows Phone devices all fall under this category.
- Tablets. Tablets generally have screens bigger than a smartphone but smaller than a desktop device, and may be oriented vertically or horizontally. It’s good to know how your site will look in both orientations because of this.
- Feature phones. Feature phones can’t render standard websites, and instead rely on things like cHTML (iMode), WML, and XHTML-MP.
Conducting Your Tests
Google is one your side. Google wants your site to be mobile-friendly. Accordingly, they’ve developed a handy online test you can use to determine whether or not your site passes their basic standards. Run your site through this test and Google will let you know exactly what—if any—errors or incompatibilities it finds. If you pass this test, you won’t have to worry about any irregularities in your search rank or visibility.
(Image Source: Google)
Even if you pass Google’s standard test, it’s a good idea to run tests on your own devices, or through a service like MobileTest.me, which will allow you to “simulate” how your site appears on different browsers and devices. This is because even officially mobile-friendly sites can have visual hiccups or unpleasant factors in their design that compromise your intentions or show up differently than you expected. Use this stage of testing to weed those errors and fault points out.
A Note on App SEO
All of the insights I’ve shared thus far have been relegated to optimizing websites for mobile browsers, but there’s another form of user interaction on mobile devices you should be preparing your business for: apps. Apps have surged in popularity, just as mobile devices have, and there’s no sign that their growth has an end point. In fact, they’re responsible for much more mobile use than web browsers.
(Image Source: SmartInsights)
To address this, Google’s been implementing a number of functions and updates for what’s becoming known as “app SEO,” including the basic presence of apps in search engines, app deep linking to take users to specific screens within apps downloaded on their devices, and even app streaming, which allows users to access apps they haven’t downloaded.
It’s not entirely certain whether apps may one day replace traditional websites, but they are becoming more important and they’re presenting more opportunities for marketers. Keep a close eye on their development as you fine-tune your strategic approach for mobile users.
This has been a long and exhaustive guide, so if you’re looking for some key takeaways, these are the highlights you should walk away with:
- Mobile optimization is a necessity. If you want to rank, or if you want to keep your users happy, or both, mobile optimization is an absolute necessity. Mobilegeddon made this so last year, and that update alone is growing in significance. You can’t run away from this.
- Responsive design is Google’s solution of choice. If you’re currently using dynamic serving or separate URLs, you can manage just fine, but responsive design is Google’s optimization method of choice. If you’re just now optimizing your site for mobile, this is the way to go.
- Testing can help you find and correct any issue. No matter what stage of optimization you’re in, utilizing tools like Google’s Mobile Friendly test can help you sniff out and troubleshoot any problem with the mobile rendering of your site. You don’t have to rely on your assumptions or instincts.
- You’ll want more than just the basics. Meeting all of Google’s baseline requirements for mobile-friendly sites is a good start, and will ensure you aren’t penalized for not being mobile-friendly, but if you want to succeed from a user experience perspective, you’ll have to do more to make your site functional and convenient on mobile devices.
Mobile is a segment poised for even more expansive growth in the coming decade. If you want your brand and your website to not just survive, but outlast the competition, you need to prioritize the experiences of your mobile audience.
He is a recurring speaker at the Search Marketing Expo conference series and a TEDx Talker. Today he works directly with high-end clients across all verticals to maximize on and off-site SEO ROI through content marketing and link building.