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How to Recover From a Google Smartphone Rankings Demotion [Case Study]

glenn-gabe
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Redirect Path

At the end of March I wrote a blog post covering an example of a smartphone rankings demotion caught in the wild. A rankings demotion can happen when a website incorrectly handles smartphone traffic, which results in a poor user experience.

Although Google warned webmasters of the upcoming changes in a post by Pierre Far in June of 2013, there wasn't much data or evidence demonstrating how websites were being impacted by the smartphone rankings demotion. I've always kept that in the back of my mind while browsing the Web via my smartphone, since I wanted to see first-hand how the demotion worked. Well, I came across a strong example in March, and it proved that the demotion is in fact real (and can be extremely problematic).

I experienced the problem when I was checking Techmeme for the latest headlines and followed a link to electronista.com. Upon hitting the website, I was quickly redirected to the mobile homepage of the site versus the specific mobile URL for the article. I jumped back to Techmeme and tried again, but was redirected to the mobile homepage a second time.

Unfortunately, this is one of the situations Far detailed. Faulty redirects produce a horrible user experience and could result in a rankings demotion.

Improperly Redirecting Smartphone Visits to a Mobile Homepage

Electronista Mobile Redirect

So, I started digging into the problem and checking rankings for Electronista on desktop versus mobile to identify if the site was being impacted by the demotion. And they were.

For many of the queries yielding high rankings on desktop search, Electronista was much lower in the smartphone rankings. They were clearly being impacted by the faulty mobile redirects that were in place. Here's a quick example of the demotion in action.

Query: "Google Nexus 7 Versus ipad mini"

Electronista.com ranked 8th on desktop and 18th on smartphone in March 2014

Desktop Search Results:

Google Nexus 7 Versus ipad mini Desktop Results

Smartphone Search Results:

Google Nexus 7 Versus ipad mini Mobile Results

I reached out to a few people at Electronista after writing my post just to let them know about the situation, and to make sure they knew how to fix the problem. I explained how to rectify the situation in my blog post, so they at least had a blueprint for recovery. I never heard back from them, but I started noticing changes to the site and mobile redirection setup soon after my post went live.

I was happy to see the changes get implemented and was eager to see how long it would take for Google to lift the smartphone rankings demotion (which is algorithmic, by the way). Before I get into the results, let's first step back and take a closer look at the problem that caused the demotion.

The Core Problem and Pierre's Comments

As I mentioned above, electronista.com was redirecting all smartphone traffic to the mobile homepage. As you can guess, this is a frustrating user experience for people expecting to find the article they saw in the search results (or the article being linked to from a referring website).

I was extremely frustrated when clicking through a listing on Techmeme only to find the mobile homepage with no mention of the article. Needless to say, I bounced off the site. And I'm sure many others did the same.

Far's post explained several situations that could lead to a smartphone rankings demotion. Having faulty redirects was one of the problems, but another problem was triggering smartphone-only errors. For example, redirecting smartphone users to error pages, 404s, or causing infinite loops between feature phone sites and smartphone pages.

Basically, Google doesn't want to send its smartphone users to websites that provide a horrible user experience. If a website does provide a poor experience for smartphone users, then the site could be impacted by a smartphone rankings demotion.

Based on my testing, the rankings demotion ranged depending on the query. There were times I saw rankings drop five to 20 spots and then there were times the content didn't rank at all in the smartphone search results. For example, electronista.com ranked 3rd for "htc vivid radar" in the desktop search results but 20th in the smartphone search results. That's a pretty significant hit.

Far Chimes in About Smartphone Demotions

After writing my post, Far actually provided some comments and guidance via Google+. It was great to see him chime in, especially since he was the Googler that wrote the post about smartphone demotions in the first place!

I specifically asked Far how long it would take for a site to recover once the necessary changes were implemented. He provided a quick, but important response: "When a fix is implemented, we'd detect it as part of the usual crawling and processing of each URL."

Pierre Far Comment on Smartphone Demotion

That was good news for Electronista, and other sites dealing with a smartphone rankings demotion. It seemed that as Google recrawled the URLs and noticed the correct handling of mobile redirects, then the demotion could be lifted.

Needless to say, I was eager to see how long it would take for Electronista to bounce back in the smartphone search results. Again, it looked like they started to make some of the necessary changes in early April.

A Note About Electronista's Setup – They Are Close, But It's Not Perfect

While checking Electronista's changes, I realized they didn't perfectly implement the technical setup when using mobile redirects. For example, Google explains in its documentation for building smartphone-optimized websites that you should include rel="alternate" on the desktop page pointing to the mobile URL. Then you should add rel="canonical" pointing to the desktop page from the mobile URL.

Although Electronista has rel="canonical" set up properly on the mobile pages, they do not have rel="alternate" set up on the desktop pages. In addition, you can add rel="alternate" annotations in XML sitemaps. From what I can see, electronista.com hasn't set that up either.

But most importantly, Electronista is now handling mobile redirects accurately (sending traffic to the m. version of the article that is requested versus the mobile homepage). In addition, rel="canonical" is set up properly from the mobile pages. With that out of the way, let's check out the results.

Checking in One Month Later – Was the Demotion Lifted?

Similar to the research I conducted in March, I fired up SEMRush, the User Agent Switcher Plugin, and several smartphones in hand. I wanted to see how the site ranked on desktop search versus mobile search to see if Electronista's smartphone rankings demotion had been lifted.

I checked a number of queries that yielded high rankings for Electronista content, checked the mobile redirection setup, and then checked the smartphone rankings.

While checking the rankings, I was excited to see Electronista now ranking well in both the desktop and smartphone search results! It seems that Far was right. As Google recrawled the URLs and noticed the proper handling of smartphone traffic, the demotion was lifted. I've included some examples below.

Query: "is vevo free on xbox"

1st on desktop and 1st on smartphone

Desktop Search Results:

Is Vevo Free on Xbox Desktop Search Results

Smartphone Search Results:

Is Vevo Free on Xbox Mobile Search Results

Query: "high speed internet map"

2nd on desktop and 2nd on smartphone

Desktop Search Results:

High Speed Internet Map Desktop Search Results

Smartphone Search Results:

High Speed Internet Map Mobile Search Results

Query: "gps memory card"

5th on desktop and 5th on smartphone

Desktop Search Results:

GPS Memory Card Desktop Search Results

Smartphone Search Results:

GPS Memory Card Mobile Search Results

Query: "skullcandy pipe review"

This is a query that I checked during the demotion. It used to rank 5th on desktop and 10th on smartphones while the demotion was in place. Now the rankings match: 5th on desktop and 5th on smartphone.

Desktop Search Results:

Skullcandy Pipe Review Desktop Search Results

Smartphone Search Results:

Skullcandy Pipe Review Mobile Search Results

Know Your Smartphone Traffic - Don't Fall Victim to a Rankings Demotion

Similar to what I wrote in my original post about the problem, I highly recommend that you take a hard look at how your site is handling mobile traffic.

It's easy to overlook mobile problems while browsing your site via desktop. I've found issues like faulty mobile redirects can go unnoticed for a long time. And if that happens, you could face the algorithmic demotion in the smartphone search results just like Electronista did.

4 Things You Can Do Now to Make Sure You're Handling Smartphone Traffic Correctly:

1. Manually Check Your Mobile Redirects

Visit your desktop pages both from a desktop browser and via your smartphone. Check how redirects are being handled (if you have them set up). Then check for the proper implementation of rel="alternate" and rel="canonical" like I mentioned earlier.

You should also search Google for content that ranks well in the desktop search results and click through to see how the site handles the visit from your smartphone.

Redirect Path

2. Check Smartphone Crawl Errors Reporting in Google Webmaster Tools

Google Webmaster Tools has crawl errors reporting for both smartphones and feature phones. You can view the errors that Googlebot for Smartphones is running into while crawling your site. I find many webmasters have never checked this reporting. I highly recommend doing so.

Google Webmaster Tools Smartphone Crawl Errors

3. Crawl Your Site as Googlebot for Smartphones

Several SEO tools enable you to set the user agent of your crawler, including Screaming Frog and DeepCrawl. To check mobile redirects, you can set the user agent to Googlebot for Smartphones by setting the appropriate user agent and user agent request.

While analyzing the crawl, if you notice a boatload of redirects to your mobile homepage from specific article or product URLs, you very well could have a problem. Also look for other crawl errors that smartphone traffic could be running into, like 404s, soft 404s, 500s, etc.

Crawl as Googlebot

A note about user agents: Google announced a new user-agent for crawling smartphone content in January. I recommend reviewing that post to learn more about the changes.

The Googlebot-Mobile for Smartphones user-agent has been retired. Make sure you are using the correct user agent, user agent request, and terminology. For example, it's now called Googlebot for Smartphones and will use Googlebot as the user-agent.

(Note: The above screenshot is from an upcoming version of Screaming Frog that contains the Googlebot for Smartphones user-agent.)

4. Check XML Sitemaps for Rel="Alternate"

As I mentioned earlier, Google supports the rel="alternate" annotation in XML sitemaps. This is where you can tell Google that a desktop URL is connected with a mobile URL. Check to see if you have this set up, and if it's accurate. The last thing you want is a "dirty" sitemap that sends mixed signals to the engines about your mobile URLs.

rel-alternate Annotation in Sitemaps

Summary – Keep Your Smartphone Rankings Strong

So there you have it. A positive ending to a scary story (for Electronista).

By properly implementing mobile redirects, Electronista was able to have its smartphone rankings demotion lifted. And it didn't take very long for that to happen.

Based upon the changes, you can clearly see that Google is now ranking Electronista's content similarly in both the desktop and smartphone search results. And that's a big change from when the rankings demotion was active in March.

By following the recommendations and instructions in this post, hopefully you can avoid a smartphone rankings demotion. And with mobile traffic booming, a rankings demotion is the last thing a website needs.

Now fire up your phone and start checking your website. You might be surprised what you find.


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