Google’s algorithm has been constantly evolving since the search engine was founded in 1998. Although the first smartphones were released in the mid-1990s, the use of them didn’t become widespread for more than a decade later. Once smartphones and mobile internet had advanced to the point that surfing websites and using browsers as well as apps was commonplace, it became clear to most people using their mobiles to view sites that the user experience on these smaller devices often left a lot to be desired. Search engines and smartphones together are a no-brainer, therefore it makes sense for the engines to be giving users, who search on their devices, the best results to then view on their mobiles.
In May 2015, Google finally announced that mobile search had overtaken desktop queries. It was something that people working in the industry had been expecting for some time, and many felt was the catalyst behind Google’s first major mobile-specific algorithm update, just a couple of weeks before he announcement was made about the growth in mobile search.
April 2015 - Nicknamed “Mobilegeddon”, this update was unusual not only because it was specifically about mobile search, but also because Google actually announced it officially. Generally, Google has not been known for their pre-warning or confirmations of specific algorithm updates. However, on this occasion, they announced the update on the 21st April 2015, signalling that the mobile-friendliness of a website is now a distinct ranking signal. This update also included the information that Google was starting to use details from indexed apps as a ranking factor too (for signed-in mobile users).
Despite expectations from online marketers and experts that Mobilegeddon would create huge waves, the gradual roll out globally meant that there was a fairly anticlimactic effect for most website’s rankings in the weeks and months that followed.
Mobile-friendly 2 update
In May 2016, about a year after Mobilegeddon, Google rolled out a new mobile-specific update which was designed to benefit sites that were mobile-friendly, when searches were carried out on mobile devices. Google announced the forthcoming update in March 2016, giving webmasters a chance to get their site in order before the update was officially live. The impact of this update for most sites, that had already taken steps to make themselves more mobile-friendly either pre or post-Mobilegeddon, seemed to be minimal.
Intrusive Interstitial Penalty update
In January 2017, Google began rolling out an update that they had initially warned of in August of the previous year. This was essentially a penalisation of sites that had annoying pop ups and interstitials that could have a negative impact on mobile user experience. While many sites that worried they would be impacted actually saw little difference when the update hit, and no noticeable penalty, perhaps the warning itself was enough to get some of the worst offenders to change tack and think more about the experience they were offering to mobile users.
Mobile-first index roll-out
The most recent mobile-specific algorithm update by Google started rolling out in March 2018, although they claim to have been experimenting and testing it for around 18 months beforehand. In essence, this update marks a switch from Google using the desktop version of a website when crawling, indexing and ranking, to using the mobile version of a webpage instead. As mobile searchers now significantly outnumber desktop searchers, this makes a lot of sense. It does mean that websites which are a little behind the times when it comes to mobile-friendliness may see more of an impact on their rankings on desktop searches too, but it’s too early to see the full impact that this change is having, with the roll-out being an ongoing process rather than a one-time switch over.
What’s next for mobile search algorithm updates?
Google has already announced that from July 2018, another update will take effect that will make content load-time (on mobile and desktop) more of an important ranking factor. Page speed has been a desktop ranking factor for some time, but this is the first time that Google has acknowledged it will impact on mobile searches too.
This doesn’t mean that content-light, quick-loading pages are the way forward though, as Google has been careful to reiterate that great, relevant content is a more important factor than pretty much anything else, as delivering the best possible answers to their searcher’s queries is the most important thing that they do.