Responding to Google’s new plan for mobile search
By Richard Rutigliano, PriMedia Inc.
Many energy marketers have had their websites “in the shop for repairs” this spring after yet another significant change to Google’s Internet search mechanism.
“Mobilegeddon” is the alarmists’ buzzword for the latest rule changes, because they pertain specifically to mobile search via smartphone. The search giant explained the change in a recent blog post: “Google is updating the way it looks at the design of mobile websites as a way to determine how a site ranks in its mobile search results. The more mobile-friendly the site, the higher it will likely appear in the search results on a mobile device, specifically on a smartphone.”
For restaurants and other businesses that are highly dependent on mobile search, the rule change is an essential development that they must address immediately. Those businesses get an important chunk of their business from consumers who find them through mobile search while they are in the neighborhood. Any restaurant whose website gets buried in mobile search will probably suffer a substantial drop in business.
Energy marketers are a different class of company, though. Prospects aren’t generally choosing fuel providers or HVAC contractors on their mobile phones while out on the town, and mobile search generally accounts for only a small portion of hits to an energy company’s website. As the research firm ComScore explained in a recent survey of mobile survey, “Categories such as Photos and Maps are more often than not used on the go, lending themselves to heavy mobile usage, while the Portals and Business/Finance categories comparatively index much higher on desktop devices.”
Given the relatively low rate of mobile search for business categories, the risk of missed opportunities for most energy marketers is low, and the new Google algorithm change does not affect desktop search at all. But that is only part of the story.
The reason that energy marketers need to care about mobile search is that it is an important and growing segment of Internet search as a whole. Studies indicate that consumers are using their smartphones more often for search, even if they are at home or in the office with ready access to a desktop computer. In its 2015 survey on mobile search, ComScore reported that mobile search now accounts for 29 percent of all search activity. More than 75 percent of all adults are now using both desktop and mobile platforms to access the Internet, up from 68 percent just one year earlier, the research firm reports. Young adults are the leaders in mobile search, with many of them never even using desktop computers to go online. Consumers aged 55 and up are actually adopting mobile search faster than any other group, with 74 percent of consumers in the age group reporting that they use mobile devices for search, up from 60 percent the previous year.
In other words, mobile search is an important subset of Internet search, and it is growing. By improving your site’s performance in mobile search, you make it readily available to the full spectrum of prospects and customers, instead of only to desktop-bound searchers.
Delving Into ‘Mobile Friendly’
Google chose to address mobile search performance because mobile is an important growth area, and the company wants to ensure that its search engine remains a popular choice on smartphones. “In the USA, 94 percent of people with smartphones search for local information on their phones,” Google wrote in a recent blog entry. “Interestingly, 77 percent of mobile searches occur at home or at work, places where desktop computers are likely to be present. Mobile is critical to your business and will continue to be so—whether you’re blogging about your favorite sports team, working on the website for your community theater, or selling products to potential clients.”
The search giant began revising its approach to mobile search in late 2014 by marking sites that meet its criteria with a text label under the URL in the snippet that reads “mobile-friendly.” Those labels remain in use for mobile search, and sites that carry them began gaining preferential treatment in mobile search when the Google mobile search update took April 21.
Google is evaluating websites on a page-by-page basis, and individual pages can achieve a mobile-friendly rating, even if other pages do not. To be deemed mobile friendly, a page must have text that is readable without tapping or zooming; its tap targets must be appropriately spaced; and the content must be completely playable and must not require horizontal scrolling.
Google says its revised search algorithm treats a web page’s mobile friendliness as one of several ranking signals, along with the relevance of the page’s content. If a page is highly pertinent to a search query but not considered mobile friendly, Google will probably still serve it up, but it might appear lower in the results, and it will not carry the “mobile friendly” label. A Google spokesman recently told National Public Radio that the algorithm change would not harm web pages that are truly relevant. “While the mobile-friendly change is important, we still use a variety of signals to rank search results,” said Google spokesperson Krisztina Radosavljevic-Szilagyi. “The intent of the search query is still a very strong signal—so if a page with high quality content is not mobile-friendly, it could still rank high if it has great content for the query. The ranking update will not make it rank below lower quality pages that are mobile friendly.”
Preparing Your Site
There are two primary ways to make a website mobile friendly. One is to create a mobile version of your website that is specifically designed to display on smartphones. The other is to build a site using Responsive Web Design (RWD), a technique that allows a site to detect the user’s screen size and adjust dynamically. Google says it recognizes both approaches to mobile friendliness. It also recognizes “dynamic serving,” a setup where the server responds with different HTML and code on the same URL depending on the type of device requesting the page.
Both mobile-specific sites and RWD sites are widely used, and both have strengths. Mobile websites can be outstanding from a user perspective. They are built separately from full-scale websites and typically emphasize bare-bones functionality. That makes them very useful for a customer who wants to go online and check their account balance or e-mail the company. With a dedicated mobile website, a company can design pages specifically for mobile devices and know exactly how they will look on the smaller screens.
Responsive Web Design is a technique that enables a web developer to create one version of a site that will adjust its layout dynamically to fit whatever screen configuration the user has. The sites draw on the Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) specifications to enable designers to separate a site’s content from its form, so that the content remains constant while the form changes dynamically. Sites designed in RWD typically feature a modular format of boxes that can shift position and size.
Over time, the fluid RWD format is replacing fixed website design. At PriMedia and other web shops, designers are using RWD and have already transitioned many websites. If you are considering a new site, RWD is an excellent choice. You sacrifice some of the control that you have with a mobile-specific site, but you’re only maintaining one site, so making updates is simpler, and there are no concerns about duplicate costs.
How Urgent Is This?
One question on many marketers’ minds is whether there is urgency to make the company website or some of its pages mobile friendly. We are telling clients that this is a top priority for some companies and a moderate priority for others. If you already maintain a separate mobile site, the pages on your mobile site will get the mobile-friendly bump. Google has probably already labeled your mobile-site pages as “mobile friendly,” so you have an advantage in mobile search vs. your less-prepared competitors. As long as all the essentials are covered on your mobile site with nothing crucial missing, Google’s update will not harm your mobile web presence.
Whether you continue to operate a separate mobile site is up for debate. If you like the way both your mobile and desktop sites work, and your web analytics do not indicate any problems with the mobile site, you might prefer to stay with the status quo. The downside is that the two sites must be maintained separately, which is more work than operating a single site.
If you currently have a fixed-design site with no mobile site, you are disadvantaged in local search. If a prospect makes a search query such as “heating oil delivery in Boston” using Google on a smartphone, your pages could be buried in the search results.
Every marketer should make their sites mobile friendly before long, but the urgency varies from company to company. If customer recruitment is a high priority this year, make plans to replace your fixed design site with an RWD site as soon as possible. If you were planning a site overhaul any way, consider doing it in two phases. First, simply launch the RWD site right away using the same content you have on your fixed site, so that the transition happens as quickly as possible. Second, revamp the new, responsive site to your specifications once you have it up and running.
Your Present Status
Google has shared a website analysis tool that companies can use to evaluate their sites. Simply visit www.google.com/webmasters/tools/mobile-friendly/ and enter the URL for any of your web pages, and Google will auto-analyze them for mobile friendliness. It’s also a good idea to search for your company using the Google search engine on a smartphone. If your pages come up without a “mobile friendly” label, they will not be advantaged in Google mobile search.
If your site is not mobile-ready, you are hardly alone. The Internet marketing firm Portent recently tested 25,000 web pages from highly rated sites and found that 40 percent of them failed Google’s mobile-friendly test, including pages for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Drugstore.com. And Forrester Research estimates that 38 percent of enterprise websites do not meet Google’s mobile-friendly criteria.
If you’d like help making your websites mobile friendly, PriMedia is happy to help. Simply contact me at 800-796-3342 or firstname.lastname@example.org to get started.