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Google's Mobile Update Has Websites Worried About Search Rankings on Phones

'Mobilegeddon' for some sites might mean better user experience

Google's search update is being called 'Mobilegeddon' because unprepared sites could see rankings drop. Photo Illustration: Alfred Maskeroni; Sources: Getty Images

Google is about to release an algorithm update that could affect mobile traffic, the new lifeblood of the Internet for many websites. The tweaks to its search recipe could help boost the visibility of sites customized for smartphones and penalize the rest, and some in the industry are calling it Mobilegeddon.

The Mountainview, Calif.-based tech giant periodically announces updates to its search properties on desktop and mobile, and the biggest changes prompt sites across the industry to adopt new practices to maintain their rankings in search results—an all important part of marketing and attracting visitors.

Google has been laying the groundwork for the mobile search changes for months if not years. Still, not all brands were ready for the changes as of Monday—Subway and Spirit Airlines had websites that looked the same on smartphones as they did on desktop computers, for instance. 

Spirit Airlines shows how not to design for mobile.

Rule No. 1 is don't show the same website on different size screens, according to Jared Belsky, president of 360i. "The biggest offenders have to recognize that they can't just shrink websites that were made for larger screens," Belsky said. "And many marketers, even blue chip brands, have been slow to make sure the quality and responsiveness of their mobile websites are on par with desktop."

The importance of the mobile Web is growing, with about a third of all traffic coming from phones, according to Statista. Google has had to adjust to a mobile world in which its search ads are less valuable because they are less effective at influencing consumers and generate fewer conversions for marketers.

"A better mobile experience means conversion rates go up and search marketers spend more per click," Belsky said.

Google has a site where publishers can check their Web addresses to see if they match the new mobile standards. Spirit and Subway were just two that failed the test as of Monday.

Meanwhile, a check of The New York Times' website returned 16 recommendations on how it could be better optimized, even though it was officially mobile friendly.

"Some of the biggest and most well-known sites in the world are not fully compliant with what Google has to say," said Daniel Meehan, CEO of PadSquad, a company that helps publishers optimize for mobile.

PadSquad has heard from about a dozen smaller website owners that received a notice from Google because they were not ready for the changes, Meehan said.

Of course, it's tough to call this an apocalypse when websites have had since 2007 to adjust to smartphones, and designing for mobile has been a priority for years. Also, Google's search algorithm takes about 200 factors into consideration—not just the new mobile guidelines.

There are a number of details that contribute to being a mobile-friendly website, including using a font that's large enough to read. All the elements of the page should be viewable without the user having to scroll left to right, and the page should load quickly.

Google could reward and punish sites in a few ways: It will label mobile-friendly sites as such and could reduce the visibility of sites that aren't. There also has been talk that it could slap a red "slow" badge next to links to non-mobile-friendly sites.

The "slow" label has many publishers concerned, but while tests of the tag have been reported, Google has not said they are coming. 

"If you get two reviews for a movie, one labeled 'mobile-friendly' and one from a site with a 'slow' label, which would you click on?" said Todd Northcutt, vp of product at IGN, a top online publisher that does get a mobile-friendly rating on Google's site analyzer. "That's why you have to make sure your content is presented in the best light."

Google has been open so far about what works on mobile and what doesn't. Below is a look at some of the key style points mobile sites need to address:

  • The format of videos will affect whether a site is considered mobile friendly, so make sure all content is playable on mobile devices.
  • Check your links, and make sure the mobile site is not directing people to a page formatted for desktops. Also, links should not be so close together that users can't easily click them.
  • When users visit a mobile site, offers sometimes pop up asking them to go to the app instead. Google is telling websites to offer the app in a banner across the top of the page rather than blocking the whole page with an interstitial.
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