On July 9, 2018 Google updated their ranking system to factor in a website’s load speed when determining a site’s overall rank. Previously a website’s loading speed was only a factor for the desktop version. This update comes on the heels of data reports released in the last five years showing that mobile web content consumption is steadily taking over as the preferred medium. If you’re reading this and panicking, relax. You still have time to get with the change.
Mobile first web design
In the announcement release of this update, Google stated that the update “will only affect pages that deliver the slowest experience to users and will only affect a small percentage of queries.” So it’s not going to tank your SEO, yet. It’s a soft precursor of what is to come, however, and a warning that you and the web industry as a whole need to get moving. The mobile web needs to be fixed. Mobile web browsing, as anyone who browses from a phone can attest to, has some truly awful experiences.
The fix is a mobile first approach to web design. This isn’t a new concept; it’s been around for a while now, but the industry has been slow to adapt. Responsive websites have flexible layouts that work on any screen size. In simple terms, a responsive site shrinks and grows based on your device.
Responsive web design
There are other approaches to responsive, but this fluid approach is what Google favors. To get the fluid responsive experience, developers use CSS media queries to adjust font sizes and any other tweaks necessary to make a layout scale smoothly relative to the user’s device. In order to achieve this experience, designers and developers take a thoughtful approach towards the mobile user. Generally speaking, the responsive behavior isn’t an afterthought. It isn’t some feature that is thrown on to the site after the desktop version has been built. It is possible to make a site responsive that was only designed for desktop, but the process can be tedious and expensive. Often times it is more efficient to build a completely new site.
A responsive site is designed from the wireframes up to be fluid across all viewport widths and heights. The same approach goes into the development. The markup (HTML) is constructed in a way that gives the structure the highest possible plasticity to meet the demands of the design being translated into code. Many of the the DIY website builders do not take this approach. Responsiveness is an afterthought, and they are just looking to sell you a nice desktop theme.
Google ranking as it relates to bounce rate
Websites developed with an emphasis on the mobile user are becoming industry standard, and Google’s favoritism towards them is only fueling that. In this modern web having good keywords, quality content, and outranking competitors in SEO will not be good enough. As Google finds new ways to favor sites with a good mobile experience, webmasters who do not adapt to emphasize mobile will lag further behind. If your mobile site is bad, Google will know.
One example of how Google may infer the quality of your user experience is through bounce rate. Consider this: a user finds your site through Google. They get to your site’s home page and there’s an annoying pop up that won’t go away. Content with a fixed position is covering other content. Their scroll position is moving around because heavy content is still loading. Most users will bounce (leave the site) at this point. They return to Google and, more often than not, the next link they click is your competitor’s. Every time a user does this Google counts it as an increase in bounce rate. If a lot of users are visiting your site and quickly leaving, Google is going to assume that either your content is irrelevant or you have a poor user experience.
How to make your website more responsive
To fix this, you need to be aware of how your site works on mobile. Ask users for feedback, or hire a consultant. In most cases the fix for these common pitfalls is simple. If your site is too outdated, maybe consider having an agency redesign it. It’s an investment that will pay for itself many times over.