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Google?s new mobile-friendly label sends mixed message to marketers

Google has a new label indicating if a search result is mobile-friendly that favors sites using responsive Web design - which look good on smartphones but have notoriously long load times. 

For the past couple of years, Google has been focused on encouraging marketers to create mobile-friendly Web content. In the last example, it has started using a label on results for searches conducted from a smartphone indicating when a result is mobile-friendly. 

?It is really big news, because what Google has just begun doing in the last week is that they have introduced this mobile-friendly label or badge that get inserted next to search listings on mobile devices,? said Brian Klais, CEO and founder of Pure Oxygen Labs, Madison, WI. ?At the moment, this is not a ranking factor, but Google was very clear in its blog post announcing this that it eventually will be a ranking factor. 

?In other words, if your site has earned mobile-friendly label, then clearly you?ve doing something right from a mobile usability standpoint and Google?s view is that those sites that do care about the mobile user experience should carry a higher a ranking.? sites at risk
Google said that it is looking for pages that do not force users to pinch and zoom, to horizontally scroll and that avoid the use of Flash and other formats that are not compatible with mobile. 

Some factors that will result in a site not earning the mobile-friendly label include if the text is too small to read, if any links are too close together and if the content of the page is wider than the screen. 

The criteria suggest that sites using either a responsive or adaptive approach should be able to earn the mobile-friendly label.

The biggest risk for those retailers that have sites ? up to 60 percent of the leading retailers, according to Pure Oxygen?s research. Once Google starts using the mobile-friendly label to inform rankings, these retailers may start to see some of their pages drop out of search rankings. 

?For many of these retailers, they never deployed mobile-friendly versions of all of their pages,? Mr. Klais said. ?They might have a million pages on their site but, only 10,000 are pages. 

?What could be a concern for some is that to the extent that those desktop pages are still showing up in long-tail mobile searches, those pages might start to go away because they are not mobile-friendly and they will never earn that mobile-friendly label,? he said. 

Easy on the eyes
However, with Pure Oxygen?s research showing that responsive design pages consistently taking twice as long as pages to load on a smartphone, it would appear that Google is not focused on load times for sites on smartphones but just on their appearance when it comes to handing out the mobile-friendly label.  

This is contradictory in the sense that a fast load is a very important factor is delivering a strong user experience on mobile. 

?Not a single retailer that uses responsive is able to achieve a load time of under one second,? Mr. Klais said. 

?It kind of feels like Google is contradicting itself in some ways,? he said. ?Some times it will talk about the importance of a one-second load time but right now, what is important is that it is mobile-friendly.?

Irrelevant redirects
The mobile-friendly label appears contradictory in another way. 
Last year around this time, Google was saying it would penalize marketers for redirecting mobile users to an irrelevant page if there was not a mobile-friendly page available. This affected retailers with pages who often would redirect mobile searches to the mobile homepage when only a desktop version of a requested page was available. 

With the mobile-friendly label, Google appears to be encouraging retailers to redirect mobile users to the mobile homepage instead of a desktop page, per Mr. Klais. 

There is no indication of when the mobile-friendly might become a ranking signal. 
As part of the strategy, Google has also introduced a tool that enables marketers to see whether Google thinks a page is mobile-friendly. There are also links to content that Google has written about a particular topic so marketers can teach themselves how to fix a problem. 

?They are rolling this out and getting a feel for whether or adding that thumbs up for a web site listing, if that increases the click-through rate for those listings that have earned the label,? Mr. Klais said. ?That is going to give Google confidence to use that label more as a ranking factor so that those that haven?t earned it will fall to of the mobile rankings. ?

Final Take?
Chantal Tode is senior editor on Mobile Marketer, New York