TL;DR

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UPDATE – 21 April 2015
The change to Google’s algorithm kicks in today. Website pages that are not mobile-friendly will be ranked less favorably in mobile searches.
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Responsive design – or mobile-friendliness – is a must-have feature for any website in 2014. It determines the quality of the mobile visitor’s experience and soon the site’s search ranking. Photographers ignore this at their own peril.

A client recently asked me to make a change to the carefully crafted website I had almost completed for him: remove the responsiveness. He wanted me to remove a feature, downgrade his site.

Needless to say that is a bad idea. It makes for a poor user experience and will only hurt your online presence.

An example of a mobile search with the new “Mobile-friendly” label

Google has just announced that they are adding a “mobile-friendly” label to their mobile search results. You may have notice it at the beginning of the snippet in results for search carried out on mobile devices.

Basically Google is warning mobile searchers that they will have a bad experience on websites that have not been optimized to be viewed on a mobile phone. That will have it’s own effect steering traffic towards optimized websites. But in the same post Google also announces that they “are also experimenting with using the mobile-friendly criteria as a ranking signal”. In other words, websites that are “mobile-unfriendly” will soon be buried lower in search results. Couldn’t be clearer.

Google list four criteria for mobile-friendliness:

  1. Avoids software that is not common on mobile devices, like Flash
  2. Uses text that is readable without zooming
  3. Sizes content to the screen so users don’t have to scroll horizontally or zoom
  4. Places links far enough apart so that the correct one can be easily tapped

Martyn Lucas' site passed Google's "Mobile-friendly" test with flying colors

Martyn Lucas’ site passed Google’s "Mobile-friendly" test with flying colors

In short, your site need to be what is called “responsive”. Ethan Marcotte’s seminal 2010 article explained responsive web design this way:

Rather than tailoring disconnected designs to each of an ever-increasing number of web devices, we can treat them as facets of the same experience. We can design for an optimal viewing experience, but embed standards-based technologies into our designs to make them not only more flexible, but more adaptive to the media that renders them. In short, we need to practice responsive web design.

In 2014 responsiveness is essential for any website.

You can test your site on Google’s test page.

ml-responsive

***UPDATE 26 Feb 2016***
You can now see what your website looks like and behaves on different screen sizes using Google’s new Resizer tool.