• Digital Strategy

Understanding the impact of Google’s mobile search update.

Let’s face it; Google has incredible influence over what happens online. Their dominance in web search has evolved their brand name into a verb, and one that is a core part of the typical online experience. The integration of their products - like Gmail, Calendar, Drive, Docs, and Maps - have become entangled in most people’s personal and business relationships with technology, and this is by design.

Google also makes clear their intent to invest in mobile, both on the OS and native app side with Android, but also on the mobile web side, notably with the launch of their Mobile Playbook. Search is first and foremost a web product, and one that Google relies on as a primary source of revenue. As users spend more and more time in the mobile web browser, you can be sure that Google intends to grow (or at least retain) their AdSense business in parallel.

So, when Google announces changes to the way their core Search product works, people take notice. After all, being found in search is not simply a nice to have, it’s a must have. And while Google has been fairly transparent about the upcoming changes to its mobile search algorithms, April 21st, 2015 marks the date they've made these changes official.

Here’s what you need to know.

In short, Google’s mobile algorithm updates will provide a ranking boost and greater visibility in search results for websites that have been optimized for mobile web browsers and smaller screen sizes, while penalizing those that are not. Assuming your audience will ‘pinch and zoom’ is no longer an excuse for leaving mobile web optimization off the table.

To be clear, these changes will only impact a website’s ranking when searched through Google’s mobile search on a smartphone device, and only applies to individual pages, not entire websites. Having a non-optimized site will not impact desktop web search results, and for now, tablets have been excluded from the mobile category altogether. Sites that are properly indexed will be labeled as such in Google’s mobile search results.

For websites that do not meet these new mobile-friendly standards, Google says, “there may be a significant decrease in mobile traffic from Google Search.” For sites that are updated, Google will automatically re-crawl the site’s pages though its page crawling process which can take anywhere from a few hours to over 72 hours. This process can be expedited by using the Submit to Index function of the Fetch as Google tool.

Who is impacted?

Some are calling this “Mobilegeddon”, as these changes will certainly impact sites that rely on page views, ad impressions, sharability of content, and mobile commerce to drive business objectives (and revenue). For Ecommerce brands and publishers, being mobile optimized is that much more critical to the business.

But, the mobile web is not new - many brands have been investing in mobile optimization for years, with some even moving to a mobile-first approach; defining the experience for the mobile web channel first and for desktop web second. Even still, many organizations have been slow to adapt, delegating mobile web a little too far down the digital roadmap (if such a roadmap even exists). As TechCrunch noted, Google’s “mobile-friendly” update could impact over 40% of Fortune 500 websites - and that's a significant number of brands positioned well behind where the web is today, and out of sync with where it's headed.

For those unsure of whether or not their existing website meets the guidelines, Google has created a Mobile-Friendly Test that provides instant feedback on what is, and isn’t meeting the bar.

The reality is, all websites will be impacted. As a significant share of mobile web traffic comes through search, any website not yet optimized will begin to see search-based traffic take a dip.

This paired with the constant growth of mobile usage means website owners must take notice and consider mobile web optimization a top priority. According to eMarketer, more than 24% of the global population will use smartphones in 2015, a number that could reach 2.56 billion people by 2018.

And Pew Internet says, "nearly two-thirds of Americans own a smartphone, and 19% of Americans rely to some degree on a smartphone for accessing online services and information and for staying connected to the world around them — either because they lack broadband at home, or because they have few options for online access other than their cell phone."

Google Mobile Search Results

So, what is required to meet Google’s mobile search requirements?

Google’s search algorithm actually looks at over 200 unique factors (signals) to rank search results. So, while mobile optimization is the focus of the latest algorithm update, it’s important to recognize that this alone does not provide Search Engine Optimization supremacy. Standard SEO best practices still apply. As Google stated in their press release, "The intent of the search query is still a very strong signal -- so even if a page with high quality content is not mobile-friendly, it could still rank high if it has great content for the query."

To meet these specific mobile requirements, Google looks at several factors including font readability and legibility (consider using Google’s own font library), general content viewability (do all the page elements fit within the screen without the user having to navigate to find things?), and page load speed (which you can test using Google’s own PageSpeed Insights tool). Of course, having great content that’s relevant to your audience will always help too.

Western Union Mobile Optimized Website

Western Union's Online Foreign Exchange Mobile Optimized Website

How to get your mobile web strategy on track for success.

  • Consider the mobile context - your mobile web strategy should take into account the business you are in, the kind of content that is relevant to mobile customers (those on the go), and the format of content that will be the most useful. Not every mobile web strategy requires a 1-to-1 delivery of content across all channels. In fact, in many cases, large enterprise websites tend to adapt better to mobile when only key content is carried over and delivered in a shorter, more mobile-friendly format. Whether you use a responsive or adaptive approach, both have their own merits, and each addresses the business and end-user needs in unique ways. There is no single solution, so be sure to do your research and invest in a sound strategy from the beginning.

  • Use existing web analytics to guide the strategy - web analytics can be a valuable source of information beyond understanding basic web traffic trends. By auditing desktop web analytics, and specifically what your mobile visitors are doing on-site, you should be able gain some visibility into content needs and how best to structure the site’s hierarchy. For example, a consumer goods brand may want to make their product pages easily accessible within the mobile site, while investor relations content could be somewhat secondary. Your analytics should also give you a sense of which devices are the most frequently used to visit your existing site. While this insight may seem to be more specific to defining a mobile app strategy, there are several considerations such as screen resolution and density that could factor into how your mobile site is designed and built.

  • Don’t let your existing technology stack hold you back - while this is often one reason why new web strategy projects stall, website owners need to consider two things. First, there are several ways around having to augment an existing CMS or Ecommerce install that can eliminate the typical 6-12 month production cycle for spinning up a mobile site. Second, as soon as your technology limits your ability to meet demand and/or invest in innovation, it’s already run its course and has probably outdated itself. Technology should rarely be the first consideration; it should never dictate the ability for an organization to plan and design for users' needs. If this is the case, a re-platform project should rank high on your digital roadmap.

  • Test and optimize your approach - like all aspects of digital, a 'set and forget’ approach never provides the true value of any investment, be it marketing or infrastructure. With the right analytics implementation, your mobile web strategy should be under constant review, ensuring the platform is delivering the right experience to your end users. Considerably so for a net-new mobile web platform, website owners should earmark the first 6-12 months as an experimentation phase, with a focus on testing content, interaction, and screen layouts to find the right blend to satisfy the needs and expectations of key user groups. Of course, visibility into web analytics means nothing without the intention of making changes, so be sure to budget for ongoing support for optimization.

  • Consider mobile web the foundation of your mobile strategy - brands should really think of the mobile web as the baseline experience for mobile users, whether or not they decide to invest in mobile marketing or native apps. Given the growth in smartphone usage, and the volume of traffic driven by mobile search, migrating some of your digital marketing budget to mobile is probably a good idea. Mobile is also dominating email usage, with over 66% of emails now opened on a smartphone or tablet, according to Movable Ink’s 2014 US Consumer Device Preference Report. That means mobile optimized emails and landing pages should also be a consideration. And if you are exploring the native app route, consider how your mobile web platform will help drive installs and act as a driver for app support and engagement.

Ok, what next?

In addition to the Mobile Test tool noted above, Google has developed their own Mobile Guide to help steer website owners in the right direction. They’ve also published a summary of common mistakes to avoid when planning for mobile web. Lastly, Google has released a Mobile Usability report within their Webmaster Tools that will help website owners get up to speed quickly on how to meet Google’s standards for mobile optimization.

In addition to Google’s own resources, you should also enlist your digital agency partner and make mobile optimization a core part of your digital strategy for 2015. This may require a deeper look at your web strategy, content, and underlying technology, and should also consider general SEO best practices. With a little bit of hacking and duck tape, retrofitting an existing website for mobile is certainly possible, however this comes with its own set of challenges and may in fact require work that could be avoided by starting fresh. A clean slate will also allow your digital team to consider a holistic web and mobile web strategy including how the two channels will work together and on their own to support your broad online objectives.

If you’re looking for more info on the topic, I recommend you head over to Search Engine Land and dig through their comprehensive list of FAQs. Or, reach out – we’d be happy to help you get your mobile strategy on track.

Stephen Beck Founder & CEO