Measurements Reveal Inner Workings of Mobilegeddon, And Some Surprises

With online browsing moving increasingly away from desktop systems to mobile devices, the need for sites to be “mobile-friendly” (i.e. formatted for easy visualization and browsing on a smartphone or tablet) is obvious. Realizing that no smartphone user wants to have to endlessly zoom in and out while viewing a webpage, Google instituted what many call “Mobilegeddon” – a mandate requiring sites to feature mobile-friendly design. Those that don’t will likely find themselves lowered in Google search rankings conducted on mobile devices.

On the surface, this carrot and stick approach seems geared towards sites which rely on mobile traffic.  Many smaller eCommerce merchants who garner traffic and conduct sales primarily through desktop browsers may think that Mobilegeddon isn’t such a big deal for them. And to date, they may not have put much effort into designing a mobile-friendly site.

Here at Catchpoint Systems, a company specializing in web performance monitoring, we conducted an experiment to determine to what extent – if any – mobile site performance (speed and availability) is a factor in determining “mobile-friendliness,” and hence Mobilegeddon. After all, in 2010, Google revealed they were factoring site performance into desktop searches, but with the announcement of Mobilegeddon, their language around performance as a factor was vague.

In conducting this experiment, we made a very surprising side-discovery. A site’s mobile-friendliness – or lack thereof – factors not only into mobile search rankings, but desktop search rankings as well. This means that Mobilegeddon can and most likely will hurt business for eCommerce merchants who rely primarily on desktop traffic, but disregard the need for mobile-friendly site design.

To carry out our experiment we created 36 different pages of unique content, each with one of 12 very unique keywords (to ensure that a mobile search for the word would generate only three results). So there were three instances of each keyword on a page, and these versions were given different design elements (e.g., made mobile-friendly and non mobile-friendly) as well as artificially slowed down, in different combinations. Searches for these sites were conducted from both desktop and mobile devices.

Here is what we found:

Mobile-friendly site design is far and away the most important factor in Mobilegeddon
Even if Mobile Site A downloads much more quickly than Mobile Site B, if Mobile Site B is mobile-friendly (for example, if it scales to the size of the screen on which it’s being viewed) and Mobile Site A is not, Mobile Site B will appear higher in the search rankings, for both mobile and desktop.

Mobile site speed is a factor, but further downstream
For two sites that are equally mobile-friendly, a page for which the base HTML loads faster from the server is more likely to be ranked higher than one that loads one second slower.

Interestingly, base HTML performance is the key – there is no discernible impact on search rankings when two pages’ base HTML loaded at the same time, even when a Javascript request on one of the pages was slowed down by three seconds.

Mobile friendliness impacts desktop search rankings
Around the time of the Mobilegeddon announcement, rumors had been circulating that Google was going to factor desktop performance into mobile site search rankings. We do not see evidence of this; in fact, we are seeing the opposite. For desktop web searches involving two equally performing websites, if one has mobile-friendly website and the other does not, the one with the mobile-friendly website is favored in desktop searches.

What our findings mean for website and IT admins is clear: mobile-friendly site design is of the utmost importance in the modern world of the internet, and whether you rely on mobile or desktop traffic, your site has to be easily viewed on smartphones and tablets. Even if you have a mobile app, a desktop user will have trouble finding your site in a Google search if it’s not mobile-friendly.

The good news is that there are plenty of options available for web developers to accomplish this. Many sites simply choose to have a dedicated mobile site with a different URL. If you don’t want to go that route, you can use adaptive or responsive web design to make sure that mobile users can see the site quickly and easily; adaptive generally leads to better performance, while responsive is cheaper and easier to implement.

And even though mobile site performance is a secondary factor in Mobilegeddon, never underestimate its importance. After all, there’s no point in having an extremely high search ranking if your site is slow and ends up driving away frustrated mobile users. Conversely, the value of having an extremely fast and reliable mobile site is lost if it is not optimized for mobile viewing and is pushed to a page two or worse page ranking. In the age of Mobilegeddon, you just can’t separate mobile site design and performance optimization. They are two necessary, complementary components for tapping the mobile opportunity.

Drit Suljoti is Co-founder and Chief Product Officer of Catchpoint Systems.

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