Google’s Mobile Algorithm

by Ben Austin Absolute Digital Media

Google’s mobile-focused algorithm update has finally come into force. But Ben Austin, CEO at Absolute Digital Media, asks if we’ve been over-exaggerating its impact. He argues that marketers should be concentrating on a long-term mobile strategy, rather than searching for quick fixes to satisfy the algorithm.

Are We Giving the Mobile Algorithm More Attention than it Deserves?

Last year saw mobile internet use surpass desktop for the first time in the UK. It’s a trend that we know is only going to get bigger and, with each new day, there are more stats promising mobile will be the answer for everything from higher click-through rates to world domination. While we learn to take these claims with a pinch of salt, they should be motivation enough to ensure your website is mobile friendly. It’s only now, however, with threats of a mobile algorithm from Google, that online businesses have really been instilled with a sense of urgency.

Google finally confirmed rumours, on 26 February, that a mobile-friendly algorithm was on the way, to take effect on 21 April. Naturally, panic ensued. But ever since the original warning came, various members of the Google community have offered somewhat contradictory opinions on the significance of this update. While the importance of a mobile-friendly site goes without saying, the news currently raises more questions than it answers. Shouldn’t webmasters be concentrating on mobile for their users rather than on an algorithm update they know relatively little about? Is the update more of a necessity for B2C than B2B brands and, for those who are behind the times, what should be prioritised and why?

An Inevitable Move?

Google have given us a little more notice than usual on this one. Most of us have been expecting it to happen at some point, especially with the release of mobile testing tools and usability reports in the past. On top of this, every Google Partner Event over the past year or two has hammered home the importance of optimising the mobile experience. If anything, it’s a surprise the update didn’t arrive earlier.

Will it Be as Big as First Projected?

Google has claimed that it will start using mobile-friendly factors in its mobile search results, and will rank mobile apps participating in app indexing for signed-in users who have the app installed on their mobile device.

As with any rumour that begins to gather momentum, the reality doesn’t always quite live up to the hype. In a Google+ Hangout, John Mueller, Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google, pointed out that “sites that are seen to be offering a mobile friendly user experience would be given a ranking factor boost, however non-mobile friendly sites would not automatically be removed from the search results”. He is simply saying that those who do accommodate mobile users would be given an additional boost. It would seem that the algorithm is more a case of rewarding those with a strong mobile offering than punishing those without.

Mueller also said that sites not offering responsive layouts could still rank well in the mobile organic search results, as long as they are relevant and have people continuing to use their site. Surely this contradicts the whole point of a mobile-friendly algorithm?

Another regular spokesperson for Google, Gary Illyes, has stated that even after the mobile-friendly algorithm is introduced, Google will still use many desktop signals for mobile ranking. One of these signals will be site speed. Again, the fact that having a slow or fast mobile site will not impact your mobile rankings seems to undermine the point of the algorithm entirely. In theory, you could have a completely separate site for mobile users that runs significantly faster than your desktop site, but your efforts would be fruitless on the new algorithm. Illyes did, however, point out that Google would be experimenting with some of these factors on a mobile-versus-desktop basis.

So far, I’d be tempted to suggest that we’ve been over-emphasising the impact of this algorithm. Saying that, Google’s Zineb Ait Bahajji has argued that the update will impact more sites than Penguin or Panda. Quite a claim. Will each individual site be hit with the same force of Penguin and Panda, or is she simply speculating on the numbers affected?

What Action Needs to be Taken?

Sites that don’t already have a mobile offering are probably more than aware that they need to address the fact. This might be something they should have prepared for before the algorithm itself, but may not actually be so critical after all.

At SMX West, Illyes answered some questions on the topic, explaining that the ranking factor is run in real-time and works on a page-by-page basis. So, technically, webmasters could make the changes at any time and, as soon as Google picks up on it, they’ll start to benefit.

It’s also handy to know that you can make your site mobile-friendly on a page-by-page basis too. This is particularly useful if the conversion process is complex on your CMS. This is likely to benefit those in B2B markets, where the percentage of mobile users is still substantially lower than in B2C industries.

Either way, establishing your most important pages and tackling these first would be a good start for those who haven’t yet delved into the mobile world.

Doing it For the Right Reasons

The bottom line is that for every day you don’t have a responsive site, you’re losing business. According to a Google study, 61 per cent of users are unlikely to return to a mobile site that they had trouble with, while 40 per cent said they’d turn to a competitors’ mobile site instead.

Mobile should be a consideration for anyone who’s serious about protecting their business’s future. However, this needs to be a long-term investment that serves your users, rather than simply a quick fix to satisfy the algorithm.


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