Google took a bold step in June, stating that it would lower websites in search results if they didn't work properly for smartphone browsers. This means businesses with poor site design practices may lose revenue or traffic if they don't comply. Some would probably argue this is pushy indeed, that a smaller company wouldn't dare take such a step and this reeks of arrogance. Others might point out a tried-and-true axiom in IT; that users only take action when compelled to get on their feet and do so.
Google isn't just
issuing a blunt demand and threatening repercussions like Nikita Kruschev,
leader of the Soviet Union in 1960. They're also offering a list of common
issues and tips to help companies toe the line, no pun intended.
What are some of the common issues?
As a background, smartphone browsers have different demands since they present data on a smaller screen and the device may have inferior hardware specs to a desktop system. A smartphone screen is too narrow to display the desktop version of the browser, even on those honking Samsung Galaxy Note screens.
As discussed in the announcement from Google, "faulty redirects" and "smartphone-only" errors are the two biggest culprits at hand when it comes to smartphone browsing issues. A faulty redirect occurs when a desktop-browser-oriented page redirects the smartphone browser to the top-level component of a mobile site (e.g. m.example.com), rather than the actual page itself on the mobile site. Google provides an image for clarification.
In the example above, the user trying to get to www.example.com/foo doesn't actually get taken to "m.example.com/foo" but rather m.example.com itself, where they might then have to browse for the page they want, or else find themselves just plain stuck. The solution is obvious here: make sure the redirection works on an equivalent basis. Www.example.com/foo should take smartphone users to m.example.com/foo. Google offers more tips on redirects (they recommend using a Vary HTTP header for automatically redirecting URLs and discuss http/java and bidirectional/unidirectional redirects). They also have a page on how to use separate mobile URLs.
A smartphone-only error refers to sites/pages which work fine on desktop browsers but which show an error (such as 404) to a smartphone browser. This can happen in the case of a faulty redirect as outlined above, videos which won't play on smartphones, page speed delays, or perhaps an infinite redirect loops caused by a misconfiguration in Googlebot-Mobile, a web crawler that searches the web and adds pages to the Google index on behalf of smartphone browsers. Google has a page on "Building Mobile-Optimized Websites" which can help address this problem.
Where can I find more information?
The information here is intended to get your feet wet in the pool of website optimization for smartphone browsers. Check out Google's page on "Common mistakes in smartphone sites" for more tips. They also have a "Webmaster Central" product forum which is a great resource for all things involving web administration. Additionally, here is a good article by Julie May of The Tennessean on how to properly design your website for all devices.
Hopefully Google's strong-arm technique will serve the greater good. Disgruntled web designers should keep this in mind – after all, who would you rather have throwing the shoe at you – Google, trying to help improve your site, or your customers, complaining about your irresponsible behavior?
(With apologies to former President George W. Bush)
Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.