It should come as little surprise that some people are willing to break the rules to give themselves an advantage in competition. It’s been seen in sports, business and advertising for decades. As value of traffic from the internet increases, some website owners have used sneaky tricks to get people to see their content. Google is always on the lookout for such tactics and they recently made an announcement about a tactic they will now target with penalties. Google has warned website owners of potential penalties and URL removals for links with sneaky mobile redirects.
Redirects are a common feature of the mobile web and in most cases, they can be very useful. Some sites are difficult to use on mobile, so redirecting mobile visitors to a more viewable version of the site is fine. However, some website owners or advertisers are redirecting people to entirely different content than what they clicked on. There are also ways that this can happen without the website owner knowing.
“In many cases, it is OK to show slightly different content on different devices. For example, optimizing the smaller space of a smartphone screen can mean that some content, like images, will have to be modified,” wrote Vincent Courson & Badr Salmi El Idrissi of the Search Quality Team in a recent post. “The situation is similar when it comes to mobile-only redirect. Redirecting mobile users to improve their mobile experience (like redirecting mobile users from example.com/url1 to m.example.com/url1) is often beneficial to them. But redirecting mobile users sneakily to a different content is bad for user experience and is against Google’s webmaster guidelines.”
Besides website owners trying to redirect viewers to unrelated traffic, websites are sometimes hacked and then used to promote spammy links to mobile users. Google sites two common scenarios. First, there are “advertising schemes that redirect mobile users specifically”. This happens when a malicious script is included in an ad that redirects mobile users to a completely different site without the website owner knowing. This happens on desktop too, if you’ve ever noticed that after a web page is open the site suddenly redirects somewhere else.
The second example involved a “mobile redirect as a result of the site being a target of hacking”. In this case, the site itself is hacked and then setup to redirect only the mobile users. Since the main site is working, the webmaster may have no idea that something is amiss with the mobile site.
The updated policy on mobile redirects echoes another recent policy change from Google on app ads on mobile sites, which went into effect on Nov. 1st. In the announcement a couple of months ago, Google said they would penalize mobile sites where large ads take up the screen when people first reach the content. So even though the content is on the link provided, the fact that a popup takes up the screen makes it like a redirect.
The point Google is trying to make in these changes is that links need to lead to the content and the content needs to be viewable without obstruction. If the user clicks a link in search, they should see the content they clicked on. It’s acceptable to redirect to a more viewable mobile page with the same content, but taking them somewhere unrelated is going to be penalized.
Similar, when an app ad shows up when a person clicks on a link in mobile search, the user is inconvenienced. The viewer still has to see content they didn’t ask for when they clicked on the link in search, and since they have to click to close the ad, it’s like being taking to an unrelated page all together and having to back up.
The reason Google is being so strict on these issues is most likely related to the idiosyncrasies of the mobile internet. For example, display sizes are much smaller, which means that there isn’t as much space for banner ads or popups. The smaller sizes also makes buttons harder to hit, so closing windows or popups is more annoying on mobile devices than with the precision of a mouse on a desktop or laptop. Also, mobile users are normally using their devices on the go. Any delays make them likely to leave a page or end their browsing experience entirely.
If every time a person clicked a link in Google’s mobile search and ended up redirected somewhere irrelevant or forced to close a bunch of additional windows, people will eventually just say “Screw it” to mobile search and go play Candy Crush or browse the Facebook app. So it may be frustrating at times that SEO marketers and website owners have to dance to Google’s tune, at least they normally seem to have everyone’s best interest at heart.
For more information on what to do if you think your site has unauthorized redirects, read this guide from Google.