(This article first appeared in The London Free Press on July 31, 2015)
Back on April 21 of this year, Google followed through on an update to its behemoth search engine, announcing they would more heavily prioritize mobile friendly websites in their search results.
As quoted on Google’s Webmaster Central blog the day of the update, “… today’s the day we begin globally rolling out our mobile-friendly update. We’re boosting the ranking of mobile-friendly pages on mobile search results.”
The industry dubbed this event Mobilegeddon and marching up to the April 21st deadline, countless companies were persuaded to take action in creating mobile versions of their website. It may not be a stretch to say that April 21, 2015 to some marketing departments was like Y2K to IT departments in 1999.
And this update didn’t just effect small businesses who may be financially under resourced. According to this Tech Crunch article, 44% of Fortune 500 companies didn’t have mobile friendly websites at the time of their review.
There’s reasons to take Google’s warnings seriously. For instance, Google’s 2014 Panda V4.0 update, in which case they didn’t pre-warn the industry about, saw companies like eBay dramatically lose search ranking. Further, for many Canadian businesses, organic traffic now accounts for over 50% of website traffic each year.
So it’s now July, a full three months after the update and a popular question in the industry is, ‘How much did Mobilegeddon impact websites?’
Due to restrictions in accessing certain data on third party websites, I conducted an analysis on some of tbk Creative’s clients in which we have more analytical access to.
We looked at a total of eight random websites, all based in Ontario, four of which are in London. Four of the eight websites were mobile responsive and four were non-mobile responsive.
Specifically, we reviewed all eight websites’ search rankings across mobile, desktop, and tablet in both a pre (April 7 – 20, 2015) and post (May 21 – June 3, 2015) Mobilegeddon era.
We took this specific approach for a number of reasons:
- By including a set of mobile websites in the study, we can see the degree of benefit, if any, in having a mobile friendly website.
- By including a set of non-mobile friendly websites in the study, we can see the degree of consequence, if any, in not having a mobile friendly website.
- By comparing a company’s results across all three devices, any major changes (good or bad) can be compared against how it’s performing on other devices as to ascertain if the changes in ranking had to do with Mobilegeddon or other factors.
Here’s what we found:
In the set of four mobile websites, the average website gained 2.35 positions in Google ranking with mobile devices in ‘before’ versus ‘after’ data. However, that same set of websites in the same comparative period also gained 12.35 on tablet and 5.05 on desktop. Taking this data at face value, assuming all four websites aren’t coincidentally gaining SERP ranking for other unknown factors, and based on how Google reported Mobilegeddon to work (“Affects only search rankings on mobile devices”), one would conclude Mobilegeddon made very little to no difference in their ranking. This is because all the websites in this set gained ranking across all three types of devices. Furthermore, mobile actually gained the least out of the three types of devices in the period reviewed.
Let’s now take a look at the set of four non-mobile websites.
Overall, the four on average lost 2.52 positions with mobile search traffic. This is a siren call for one to propose not having a mobile friendly website caused the sites to lose ranking. However, as I dig deeper into the data, there’s one outlier that’s skewing the results – one of the four websites lost 12.3 positions with mobile traffic while the other three actually gained an average of 0.73 positions.
With all told, a way to summarize an important piece of this data is to say seven of the eight websites reviewed (four of which were mobile and three non-mobile friendly) all gained ranking in SEO for mobile device searches.
The sample size in this review isn’t large enough to draw journal worthy conclusions, but taken at face value and for the reasons stated above, it would be easy to assert Mobilegeddon made an incremental, but no where near large effect on companies’ websites for mobile-based search goers.
There may be some reasons for this. First, Google’s search algorithm is made up of over 200 signals that influence the websites they display. A mobile website may be only influenced by one or several of these signals. Secondly, it’s reasonable to think that a reputable company that doesn’t have a mobile version of their website would still rank well if that’s the company that would best match the desires of the search query at hand. In part, Google built the reputation they have today because of the accuracy of their search engine. Unduly changing this commitment for the sake of a new mobile rule isn’t likely in the best interest of Google’s business model.
On a separate but related note, I conducted a similar study reviewing 10 random websites in the May 21 to June 3, 2015 period. Mobile and tablet devices combined accounted for 41% of all website traffic (mobile alone accounted for 27%). In that same period, mobile’s share of traffic increased by 24% year over year whereas desktop’s share of traffic decreased by 8%.
If desktop’s share of visitors are trending down and mobile’s share of visitors are trending up, perhaps the bigger impact to consider isn’t what Google thinks about mobile, but instead what consumers think.