The Mobile-Friendly Website Imperative

This article originally appeared in the February 2015 edition of the Marketing GPS Newsletter.
Don Baker co-authored this article with Mark Fender.

If you haven’t already factored-in the mobile device-using audience to your marketing strategy, this is definitely the year – as comedian Larry the Cable Guy would say – to “Git-R-Done!” Recent trends are making it plain that mobile devices are responsible for a significant portion of online activity, which is influencing website design as well as search visibility.

Some recent news shows just how important mobile devices are today: U.S. consumers did 70% of their 2014 year-end e-commerce shopping primarily on smartphones and tablets. This compares with 30% of completed transactions during the 2013 holiday season, and 20% in 2012. What’s more, According to, 25% of Americans use only their smartphones to access the internet. Clearly, mobile usage for everyday shopping activities has become commonplace.

Increasing Screen Sizes

Besides the sheer number of mobile devices in use, over the past year popular smartphones were introduced with larger screens than ever before, making the phones that much easier to use. The trend-setting iPhone debuted in 2007 with a 3.5-inch screen, and its version 5 models featured screens smaller than competing Android units. In 2014, however, Apple introduced its iPhone 6 with a 4.7-inch screen, and the iPhone 6 Plus sporting a relatively huge 5.5-inch screen.

Increasing screen sizes reduce users’ need to play “finger acrobatics” – those repetitive motions you make to adjust a website into something you can read on your smartphone. However even large-screen mobile users sometimes need to practice that distinctive pinching, pulling, and rapid back-and-forth scrolling needed to view content on non-mobile-ready websites. This adjusting increases the likelihood that visitors will bounce-off sites that require such adjustments.

New, Mobile-Friendly Site Designs

Because mobile-device usage has passed the tipping point, we’re seeing a higher percentage of websites designed with the mobile user in mind. The tell-tale signs of these sites include the following:

  • Single-page design – While the site may certainly consist of more than one page, mobile-friendly sites look more like blogs than ever before. Rather than use traditional navigation bars and links (which increase “fat-finger” errors by mobile users), content is placed on one long page, which is revealed as the user scrolls down.
  • Simple, clean layout – These sites are often single-column, as well, with an emphasis on large, high-quality photographs and/or videos rather than emphasizing text content.
  • Flat, colorful design – Two-dimensional design elements, lots of open white space, and bright colors are features of the new mobile-friendly sites. This design style provides an easier-to-view experience, especially on smaller mobile screens.

Besides being easier to view and finger-click, the new mobile-friendly sites typically load far more quickly than traditional sites and even responsive-design sites on mobile devices. As far back as 2009, research showed that users expected sites to load quite quickly – in one to two seconds, and that each second’s load-delay time results in significant user drop-off. Recent research by Google indicates that page-load times of 400 milliseconds – the length of an eye-blink – is too long for some online users to wait.

Google Increasingly Prefers Mobile Sites

Not surprisingly, Google is concerned about improving website-load speed, and is encouraging webmasters to speed-up site load times. To reward fast-loading websites, in 2014 Google began applying a “mobile friendly” label to its search results. This label flags sites that render well on a smartphone – they don’t require excessive scrolling, don’t use Flash or other software that has compatibility issues, and have links spaced far enough apart to minimize fat-finger clicking.

In January 2015, Google began sending out mass Webmaster Tools notifications to webmasters whose sites Google considers non-mobile-friendly. Given Google’s history, it’s likely this is the first step toward an eventual search-algorithm change that will degrade or remove non-mobile friendly sites from Google’s mobile search results.

If you’ve followed our advice in past Marketing GPS issues, you’ve likely seen your organic Google search rankings improve. Now, however, Google’s decision to penalize websites whose mobile performance isn’t up to par may undo much of your hard work. Google’s recent activities are a clear signal that it’s vitally important to focus in 2015 on making your website truly mobile-friendly. Your search rankings, traffic volume and conversion success will depend on how thoroughly you address this need.

What To Do in 2015

You can check if your site meets Google’s new mobile-friendly guidelines here. The real challenge lies in figuring out how exactly to meet the requirements if your site does fail. Google has stated in the past that they prefer responsive design sites versus a separate mobile site, though – as noted above, converting to a new, mobile-friendly design may be a better solution for some sites than responsive design. The following are some additional steps you can take now to improve your site:

  • Page Speed – Besides updating your site to a mobile-friendly design (as described above) or at least a mobile-responsive design, avoiding JavaScript and other CSS calls can improve your site’s speed on mobile.
  • Videos – Some videos just aren’t playable on mobile devices. Google recommends you avoid Flash video players, as these are the most commonly blocked players on mobile devices.
  • Bad Redirects – This is another common issue with making your site mobile-friendly. This problem most commonly occurs when a site is set up to redirect all mobile traffic to its mobile site, regardless of source. Responsive site design doesn’t have this problem, which is one reason why Google recommends it).
  • Interstitials – On a desktop, you’d call these pop-up ads. In the mobile space, these annoying pop-ups usually promote the site’s app. If you want to advertise your app on your mobile site, use a banner ad instead of interstitials.

Back in 2011, Google’s board chairman, Eric Schmidt, confidently predicted that the future would be mobile-centric. In December 2013, he stated “it’s now won.” The company is now moving down the path toward making mobile-search results more important than desktop-search. This can be a challenge for sites having good search rankings, but no mobile strategy in place. However, it also presents an opportunity for your site: with conversions and sales moving quickly to mobile, implementing a smart mobile strategy in 2015 will help you prepare for an ever-more-mobile future. Don’t think of it as Google forcing you to bow to its demands, rather as Google nudging you in the direction of meeting and serving customers you haven’t reached yet.

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About NSI Partners

A digital marketing company with almost two decades of experience, NSI Partners helps clients achieve robust results in search marketing, social media, and other digital marketing spaces.

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