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Mobile Page Load Speed is a Ranking Factor

View profile for Chris Mundy
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One of the many takeaways from Google’s recent Search Marketing Summit in Sydney is that they will be updating the page speed ranking factor as part of their latest, real-time mobile-friendly search algorithm.

Google has been progressively giving more weight to mobile search for a few years now, and has been penalising mobile non-friendly web design for some time already.

As Google continues to update their mobile-friendly algorithm, they plan to apply a page by page mobile specific page speed factor and not rely on any desktop signals at all. In effect, fast loading mobile pages will receive a ranking boost, while slower pages will take a hit in the rankings, independently of desktop search rankings and existing user/device functionality factors.

Google expects to roll out the new mobile-specific speed ranking algorithm over the next few months and have already begun the process in recent tweaks.

How does mobile speed affect website owners?

Website owners have three options when it comes to addressing Google’s mobile-friendly guidelines:

1)    Do nothing and just assume your users will pinch, zoom and scroll their way through your website while using their smart phones and tablets.

2)    Build a brand new mobile website and send mobile users to that site and desktop users to your current site.

3)    Build a new website that is able to display itself to users in different ways depending on the platform with which they land on your site. In other words, a responsive design that reconfigures itself to fit the size of the user’s screen.

Mobile search share is here for good and will only increase its’ share over time. Considering the fact that Google is already applying negative ranking factors to mobile non-friendly buttons, text size and other design signals and will soon apply page-by page load speed signals as well, option one is not a viable option for serious consideration.

Analysing the best options for SEO

Option two could work in terms of keeping Google happy. At the end of the day you will have a site that looks great and performs well on mobile. The negatives are many, however. You will be operating essentially two separate websites so you must first create an additional domain to host your new website. You must then populate that site with its’ own (but usually duplicate) content which can dilute or affect search and organic traffic results. This adds to management headaches while stewarding two unique silos of content. Links shared from mobile browsers do not add search link juice to your primary site, which is a real shame. Finally, you’ve just spent a lot of money on a new website while the next generation of smart phone is just around the corner waiting to outpace your current platform.

Conscious prefers the third option; a responsive web design, for a number of reasons. It is a very robust and flexible solution that allows you to keep your current domain and there is no need for a second mobile domain. Nothing really changes, except behind the scenes. There is no need to maintain two silos of content or manage url redirects and canonical urls so all link juice is preserved to your current site. A major factor is that the technology of responsive design relies on the user’s mobile device to render the page so it will keep pace with device advancements without requiring further programming code updates.

Crucially, responsive design delivers on the two main components Google is focussed on – device functionality and page speed load times. The design adapts to screen size as required and behind the scenes wizardry can be optimised to decrease load times – things like image resizing, consolidating css files, styles and java script files.

At the end of the day, responsive design offers a better return on investment and requires far less maintenance than a mobile specific website.

The takeaways

The main thing to be aware of is that Google will no longer allow web owners to treat mobile users as second class citizens. They have been steadily addressing the experience of mobile users for more than half a decade and are now positioned to bring the law down on mobile unfriendly sites in a serious way. Unless you are prepared to go forward relying exclusively on desktop traffic, you need to have a look at how your website is performing on your smart phone and tablet asap! Google has a mobile-friendly testing tool that can help you to determine the mobile friendliness of your website that is very easy to use. To check if your website has a responsive design, adjust the screen size of your browser and see if the site contents move and adjust to fit the new window size.

We recommend that all of our clients update their websites with a mobile responsive design if they don’t have one already. The mobile-specific speed ranking signal algorithm changes have not come full into effect, but Google says we are mere months away from the penny dropping for good.

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