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Blog,  Search Behavior,  User Testing

Google Mobile Friendly Does Not Mean User Friendly

Apple iPhone 5Google’s announcement that websites must pass its mobile device test has everyone in a panic. However, in the effort to redesign websites to meet this new criteria, user experience is not improving.

In fact, some companies are destroying the usability of their desktop layouts while trying to adapt to Responsive design specifications.  And worse, basing mobile tests on what Google says passes its mobile readiness does not automatically translate to a better user experience on all mobile devices.

Do I Need to Be Mobile Friendly?

For small businesses and organizations such as churches, non-profits and hobby sites, this news from Google presents a dilemma. The cost of owning a successful website is high enough, when you factor in keeping the content fresh, marketing strategies and basic maintenance.  These costs are often under estimated.  Many websites are made by volunteers with limited experience or by hiring people who are not skilled in user centered design, SEO, mobile design and accessibility.

While most website owners know they want their pages found in search engines, they are less likely to be thinking about the people searching and the types of computer they use.  Google didn’t just decide one day to force the mobile requirement.  They have known for years the direction computer use is heading into.  Their usability department tests, tracks and analyzes user behavior and trends.  You don’t get to be a monolith like Google by ignoring how people use computers.

And yet user testing by marketers and website designers is not routinely performed.  Research into trends such as human computer behavior, persuasive design, and mobile device statistics are not an exercise many website owners are interested in.  So for example, they are not thinking about how their workshop schedule displays on an iPad, or if someone is able watch a 20 minute marketing video from their Android smart phone.

Another reason many site owners are not jumping into redesigns is because they can see the desktop on their smart phones and tablets.  For them, forcing visitors to magnify content is not a big deal.  Many design fads that work in desktop layouts present user obstacles on mobile devices because there is no mouse to point and click mega-menus and sliders don’t load.  Forms with tiny font sizes need to be magnified to be used on smart phones, creating user frustration.  Images that are not instructed to resize on smaller screens become a page load disaster.  One local organization site I know has a monthly calendar that has to be magnified to be seen on my cell phone.

Does your website need to work on mobile devices? Yes. Why?  Because computer technology is changing.  The devices we use are smaller.  Software applications we depend upon in our homes, cars, workplaces and even hiking mountain trails are built for various environments and uses such as wearable devices, cell phone journals and automobile dashboard maps.

If you are not thinking and planning ahead, your website, contact form, software application and photo gallery will be obsolete and no longer usable.

Are Meeting Google’s Requirements Good Enough?

In a word, no.  My tests show that even though Google’s Webmaster Tools indicate a passing grade, manual testing proves otherwise.  This is because user experience cannot be automated.

Android ScreenshotMobile testing tools are programmed to check for specific standards for mobile design.  They do not test to see if your business and conversion goals are met.

For example, one of my clients has a website that is technically built for mobile devices.  The users are expected to register to use the software if they are new or log in if they are regular users.  The site relies heavily on its search function too.  The call to action prompts to register/log in and search are hidden from view in the header on all mobile devices.  In fact, if you were not familiar with the site from a desktop experience, and seeing it for the first time on a tablet or smart phone, it would be extremely difficult to figure out how to use it.

I elevated this concern not only because of the mobile experience but because the target users are as young as Middle School age students and old enough to be retired persons with limited vision and cognitive abilities.  Just because Google accepted the site into its mobile search would not automatically mean it could be used on mobile devices.

Another website I tested is a marketing website that has a blog.  The site passed Google’s test but not my manual testing.  The blog has posts with images used to help illustrate the content that ran off the right side of the screen.

Mobile Ready May Not Mean Universally Mobile Ready

CNN recently redesigned their news website.  I ran it through Google’s mobile test validator and it passed.  I found this curious because my personal experience with the site on my Kindle is not desirable.

One of the myths going around is that if your website is not Responsive, Google will drop its rank.  This is where the panic comes from.   If you investigate deeper, you read there is a mobile index for Google.  So what is that?

Google now knows what version of your website to show your users based on the type of device they are using.  The CNN website pages are displayed in Google on my desktop computer with no “mobile-friendly” label in the description because that is not the index of results I’m pulling from.  Google will show me the desktop version.

When I ask Google to show me CNN pages from my Android device, Google displays the results from its mobile-index with the label “mobile-friendly” appearing at the beginning of the site description.  The Android layout stacks the content into one column, shrinks the lead video into a hero image, hides the pop-ups, hides the auto-play video ads and presents an organized reading experience with very little distractions.

Google does not recognize my Kindle as a tablet device and the search engine displays the desktop search index results.  Nevertheless, what renders is not a pure desktop version, but rather it is slightly modified.  The page instructs Kindle to stuff the header into a “hamburger” style navigation, but it continues to render all three columns.  More distractions appear in the margins. Where ads or videos are hidden, empty space remains in the column, making it look awkward.  This is an improvement however.  A few weeks ago my Kindle was unable to render the CNN homepage without attempting to scroll two of the 3 columns on top of each other.

Another clue that Google is sending out different crawlers appears when a new post is made in Cre8asiteforums.  The “isitors that appear include Google and Google Mobile.  The forums passes Google’s mobile testing but anyone who uses forums on small devices knows the experiences vary, especially when logging in.

What Can I Do to Make My Website Ready for Google’s Mobile Index?

The deadline for having your website ready is April 21.  The best place to start is by making sure your website is tracked by Google Analytics and Google’s Webmaster Tools.  The tools are there to help you test your website’s performance.  Google is emailing website owners when their websites are failing their mobile test.  Don’t be surprised if you receive one for a Responsive website.  I’ve seen this happen.  Google will explain the issue it has found.

The best decision you can make is to test your web pages on all types of devices and especially, in many different environments.  This is something that the majority of companies do not do.  They don’t ask their programmers to beta test new software on moving trains packed with commuters or even in the environments their applications are used in, such as hospitals, schools, daycare centers, automobiles, horseback riding, and situations where people multi-task.

If you want people to use your website or software application on all devices, don’t rely on automated testing tools.  Manual testing and investing in user testing, as well as performance and software QA testing are vital for successful websites that wish to keep up with advances in technology or simply to keep Google happily ranking and displaying your pages.


Notes:

April 21 – Google Deadline

W3C Mobile Web Best Practices

W3C Mobile Validator

W3C Mobile Best Practices

Google’s Mobile Validator (Test your site here)

Google Developers Mobile Guide

Google Webmaster Fundamentals