On April 21, Google will begin instituting a change to its mobile search algorithm that will take a site’s mobile-friendliness into account when ranking results. Indexed apps will also start showing up among organic search results. The update applies to mobile search only.
In somewhat un-Google-like fashion, Google, which normally makes its search algorithm changes with little to no warning or transparency, provided publishers with a free web-based Mobile Friendly Test tool in the lead-up to its scheduled change and proactively sent email notifications to the webmasters of sites that aren’t mobile-friendly, with tips on how to shape up. [Click here to see an example.]
Beyond the obvious UX benefits, Google’s algorithm shuffle is just common sense. As Vincent DiBartolo, VP of technology at digital agency Big Spaceship pointed out, “Google is definitely trying to sell more phones, get more out of Google Play and let people do searches on mobile sites than deep-link into apps. It makes sense to push more and more in that direction, and it happens to be a strategy a lot of companies are attempting.”
Despite its outreach, Google had only a few general insights to share, in the form of an official statement: “As people increasingly search on their mobile devices, we want to make sure they can find content that’s not only relevant, but also easy-to-read and interact with on smaller mobile screens.”
Google’s motivations aside, publishers are starting to see more and more of their organic search traffic coming from mobile, and it’s having an impact on the bottom line.
Roughly 65% of Next Impulse’s traffic comes from mobile search, a number Kmiec expects to hit the 80% market within the next six months.
“If publishers aren’t embracing this shift, if they don’t have a mobile responsive site or if they’re mobile-unfriendly, then they don’t deserve to be in the game,” Kmiec said. "But how significant it will really be is twofold: One, in terms of how it will ding those who are not mobile friendly and, two, how much it will help those who are."
Next Impulse happens to be one of the publishers that’s prepared for the impending change. The company worked with PadSquad, a platform that specializes in helping independent publishers mobilize their web content for phone and tablet, to get its own web properties up to mobile snuff.
“Publishers are either on top of it and they’re ahead of the game, or they’re not going to do anything until they’re negatively affected and there’s an impact on their organic search traffic,” said Dan Meehan, CEO and founder of PadSquad. “But it’s logical that publishers with mobile-friendly sites will gain share and traffic when the change comes. They’re looking at it as a potential competitive advantage.”
One such publisher is BabyCenter, a Johnson & Johnson-owned content hub that presides over pregnancy- and parenting-related sites in 14 different markets across the globe, among them Australia, Brazil, China, Germany, India, Latin America, Russia, the UK and the US.
About 80% of BabyCenter’s visitors come to its site via mobile. BabyCenter started optimizing its sites about five or six years ago when it noticed heavy mobile usage among its core audience of expectant mothers.
Search for the word “baby” or “pregnancy” on a mobile device, and BabyCenter is the first hit.
“If your site isn’t completely mobile-optimized, of course that doesn’t mean you’re not going to show up at all, but these changes will force a lot of publishers to move faster to adjust,” said BabyCenter head of global sales Julie Michaelson, who noted that the company is going through a mobile redesign to continue to improve on its Google search ranking. “With mobile traffic still climbing, it’s been imperative for us to optimize for mobile.”
Womensforum.com, an online community for women founded in the mid-'90s, is in a similar position. More than 60% of its 63 million monthly uniques are mobile, according to numbers from comScore – a trend the publisher, which is planning to roll out a new version of its mobile site just ahead of Google’s April 21 algorithm tweak, is keenly aware of.
“We view this latest change to be no different than any of the previous ones. For publishers, there may be some minor reshuffling of the decks, but since 1996, we’ve seen many publishers come and go, and those that have stood the test of time have always needed to adapt to the changing times,” said Womensforum CEO Mark Kaufman.
That’s not to say that publishers that have taken steps to make their sites mobile-friendly can just sit pretty starting on Tuesday and watch the competition crumble. Having ticked all the boxes on Google’s checklist – eradicating text that’s too small to read, links that are too close together, unplayable content, slow load times, faulty redirects and irrelevant cross-links – a publisher will ostensibly be just fine, but there are always potential unknowns.
Although there’s cautious optimism around the change, there’s no way to know what’s not going to work until something goes wrong. That’s why publishers like Next Impulse Media are planning to stay hyper-vigilant.
“We’re doing what we can to make sure we’re prepared and that the next six months go well, but you never know what the algorithm will actually do. That’s our biggest concern,” Kmiec said. “There’s so much that’s unknown with these kinds of changes, [but] when we see what actually happens, we’ll have a better idea about what we may need to do."
BabyCenter’s also planning to keep its eyes peeled.
“We’re going to be carefully monitoring where our Google results stand come Tuesday,” Michaelson said. “Our SEO team will be at the ready to make any necessary adjustments in order to ensure that BabyCenter’s Google search results remain consistently strong.”
Because there’s only so much a publisher can do proactively. For its part, Womensforum has assembled a sort of mini “‘strike team’ that stands at the ready to respond to any unexpected impact to search results,” said Kaufman, who noted that Womensforum has done something similar to prep for Google’s other algorithm changes over the years.”
“This cross-functional team includes members from content, engineering and design, all charged with immediately identifying and implementing any adjustments they collectively feel are necessary,” Kaufman said. “[But] we've learned from experience that great content, delivered in a format users currently find most appealing, has historically maintained solid results, no matter what changes are made to the algorithm.”