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What Marketers Need to Know about Google’s Mobile Algorithm Update

in Mobile Marketing, Search Marketing with tags , , , , , , , , , Both comments and trackbacks are closed.

In February 2015, Google announced an important natural algorithm update that affects SEO and how sites will be ranked in the mobile results, which may significantly impact brands’ site traffic. Starting April 21, pages that are deemed not “mobile-friendly” may witness their rankings downgraded in mobile searches, resulting in less traffic from mobile devices. This latest round of changes will be limited only to Google’s mobile search results rankings on a page-by-page basis.

With mobile searches comprising up to 35 percent of all search traffic – and with 71 percent of in-store shoppers using smartphones for research – an immediate question is raised: Are your brand’s pages ready today?

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Image Cred: Think with Google: Mobile in the Purchase Journey, March 2015

While there are tools marketers can use to test the “mobile-friendliness” of their pages, the following post reviews why Google is making these changes and the potential impact of them on marketers today and in the future.

Why is Google Changing Its Mobile Ranking Algorithm?
According to a member of Google’s Webmaster Relations Team, “[Google is] always trying to give users the results that they like, and it turns out that users like it when they have a good experience on their device.”

What constitutes a good experience on a user’s device? According to Google’s guidelines, this is a mobile-friendly page that abides by the following criteria:

  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

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Image Cred: Google; Google deems the Ingersoll Rand’s homepage as “Not mobile-friendly” due to its small text, close links, and mobile viewport not being set. 

The update appears to be a logical extension to the organic algorithm of Google AdWords’ 2011 update when mobile landing page quality began to affect Quality Score (Google’s metric used to determine ad rank and cost-per-click) on mobile ads.

Challenges for Marketers
While the algorithm may provide opportunities for compliant brands to engage more mobile consumers, it can create negative consequences for those that don’t meet Google’s standards. Some examples include:

  • Reduced natural presence – The most evident negative consequence of this change will be felt on pages that are not in line with Google’s criteria. Mobile rankings for some pages could be pushed further down or not show at all, and given the limited real estate within mobile SERPs, a slight rank reduction could create a significant drop in traffic.
  • Increased reliance on other paid channels – If brands want to make up for lost natural traffic, they may need to increase their investments in paid search. However, if brands do not have another relevant page optimized for mobile use, costs may be prohibitive since the landing page experience impacts Quality Score.
  • Upgrading legacy technology and subdomains – Some brands will be caught off guard. Especially brands with many web properties. Brands with various publishing technologies on an array of domains (and subdomains) may need to perform a comprehensive audit to assess mobile friendly adherence and prioritization.

Opportunities for Marketers
While the changing algorithm may provide some challenges for brands and marketers, it presents opportunities as well if the below two steps are followed:

  • Begin with mobile in mind – Brands that are already “mobile-friendly” stand to gain from the April 21 algorithm update. All future content development and site initiatives should start with considering mobile devices (and their end users).
  • Follow the revised rules – In late 2014, Google updated its detailed guidelines on how to work towards mobile-friendliness, whether brands leverage separate URLs, responsive design, or dynamic serving for their execution. These guidelines (even the TL; DR versions) can provide marketers with workable technical solutions.

Speculations on the Future
The implemented algorithm changes are impacting marketers soon, but search engines may take further action. Here are a few ways mobile changes may impact natural exposure in the future:

  • Natural exclusions beyond the SERP – A lower presence in organic search may prevent content from qualifying to appear in Google Now.
  • Thinking locally – While this update is focused purely on mobile organic results, Google likes to connect the dots between entities. Brands with local listings should prepare to ensure that landing pages associated with local listings are mobile-friendly.
  • Google First, Bing and Yahoo tomorrow? ­– Google is usually the first mover with other search engines following suit. It would not be surprising to see Bing and Yahoo adopt a similar algorithm update in the future.

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What’s most unique about Google’s announcement of the “mobile-friendly” update is the sheer fact that Google announced it. Google has historically tested and rolled out algorithm changes subtly here and there, only afterwards confirming with the webmaster community that it did indeed change the algorithm. This by its very nature should emphasize the importance of the update, and that Google and its competitors will likely continue to push webpage creators to adapt and improve their mobile experiences, which could continue to cause disruption for those prioritizing mobile efforts as “nice-to-haves.”

Authors: Scott Walldren, SEO Director and Kenneth Hamner, Associate Media Director at 360i

Cover photo via Search Engine Land