Google Cares About Your Mobile Website - Do You?

04/17/2015 12:57 pm ET | Updated Jun 17, 2015

If you pay attention to things like your website traffic, you've probably heard that Google announced a change to their mobile ranking algorithm which takes effect next week. On April 21, search results on mobile devices will be ordered differently compared to desktop, with preference given to sites that are "mobile friendly." With over 70 percent of the U.S. population owning smartphones, and 60 percent of people's digital time spent on mobile platforms (smartphones and tablets), it's no surprise that Google is prioritizing mobile-friendly results.

We've already been thinking a lot about mobile web at Zillow, as more of our users now visit our site on touch devices than on desktop computers. In fact, we recently hosted a Mobile Web Summit with leaders from several other key tech companies to discuss learnings and ideas around how to drive traffic and increase engagement on mobile web.

For many online brands, mobile web is the fastest growing platform, but has the lowest engagement. We have often spent more of our mobile investments on native apps because mobile web has always seemed less sexy -- from both a development and usage standpoint. As a result, however, we have an opportunity to invest heavily in our mobile web experiences -- and get disproportionate returns -- since so many players are focusing much of their efforts on apps and desktop experiences.

Based on my involvement with Zillow's mobile web efforts, along with the discussions that came out of our Mobile Web Summit, I see five key areas to focus on if you want to have a best-in-class mobile website that performs well in the new Google mobile rankings.

Build a great mobile user experience

A great mobile web experience means different things for different sites. Some sites use responsive design to make the same page look good regardless of the platform it is viewed on, and many people swear by the simplicity of this approach. Others, including many parts of Zillow, build out separate pages and workflows designed specifically for mobile web. Whichever approach you choose, your mobile site should offer intuitive navigation, easy-to-consume content, and simple text entry. Successful techniques include collapsing sections of the page to make it easier to parse, pre-populating or auto-suggesting text to make it easier to enter, fitting content within the width of the screen to avoid horizontal scrolling, and making all click targets (links, buttons, etc.) big enough to hit on touch screens. Google even provides a tool to assess the mobile-friendliness of your site, with suggestions for areas to improve.

Be smart about driving app downloads

2015-04-16-1429150529-2267339-HomePage_iphone5s_gold_side1.pngIf you have a mobile website and an app, you will find that some visitors prefer mobile web, while others want the immersive app experience. The key here is to make the app upsells available and contextual without taking away from the mobile web engagement. If getting users to your app is a top priority, as is often the case for companies that focus on content consumption and creation, then your app upsells can be more aggressive, like a splash screen. But if your main goal is conversion, then create a great mobile web experience that allows users to complete their tasks with less intrusive app upsells. Either way, push app upsells gently at a minimum in order to maintain positive app store rankings.

Focus on performance

All of the companies I have spoken to agree that improving latency is key to driving mobile web engagement. Slow page load times are the biggest pain point on mobile web, and thus the biggest opportunity. It is important to measure your site's performance, using third-party tools like Google PageSpeed Insights (which will also give you specific feedback on areas of the page to fix) or more robust custom tools. Creating cultural initiatives and goals to improve latency goes a long way: At Zillow, we set up a purposefully slow Wi-Fi network to demonstrate what sluggish network connections feel like on mobile web, and we have a developer and program manager who champion performance initiatives with the rest of the company.

Provide context for SEO visits

So you've made your site "mobile-friendly" and are getting lots of visits from Google mobile searches -- good job! Now you have to make sure your visitors understand where they are landing on your site so that they engage further. When a user hasn't come directly to your site, they may need more guidance: Provide information about your brand, demonstrate a clear connection between the page they've landed on and the rest of the site, and create an easy path to the tools and information they're looking for. Sometimes this even means a different user experience for SEO-based visits, which may include additional navigation options or content.

Foster a mobile-first culture

2015-04-15-1429137766-8214248-DeviceWall.jpegHaving a fantastic mobile web experience is a company-wide effort, whether you're a small business or a large corporation. Finding ways to get all of your employees thinking about mobile first can help take your website from decent to great. Make sure everyone has access to touch devices, and encourage employees to browse your site on them regularly and report any issues they find. Ask your designers to create designs for mobile screens first, and then modify those designs for desktop. Have your marketing team look for partnerships with other companies that provide a great mobile experience. To demonstrate the mobile experience first-hand -- and keep it top of mind -- Zillow installed a device wall, where anyone can pull up our site on a variety of phones and tablets to see how it renders on different devices, and gave out tablets to all of our employees as a holiday gift.

Any company with a web presence should be working to develop and improve its mobile web experience, even more so now that Google SEO rankings depend on it. Understanding its importance, creating or shifting your cultural focus, and dedicating resources are key steps in creating a stellar mobile web experience and, ultimately, driving traffic and increasing revenue.