Google Adds ‘Mobile Friendliness’ to Its Search Criteria
By Connor Dougherty & Jefferson Graham
SAN FRANCISCO — Many businesses around the world could wake up on Tuesday to discover their search ranking has been downgraded. After a months-long warning period, Google will add “mobile friendliness” to the 200 or so factors it uses to list websites on its search engine.
As a result, websites that don’t meet Google’s criteria will tumble in its all-important rankings.
Google has made several big changes. Companies will be docked for shortcomings like displaying links that are hard to click or forcing users to scroll horizontally on a lopsided site. In addition, the company recently announced that in certain cases it would also use information contained within apps as a ranking factor for mobile searches performed on phones that run its Android software.
“Since mobile search results are about half of what Google handles, anyone might be at risk,” said Danny Sullivan, the founder of Search Engine Land, which closely tracks changes to Google’s search engine.
The shift to mobile devices has been a challenge for all businesses, Google included. In the space of a few years, phones have become the dominant portal through which people use the Internet. The United States had 134 million mobile users last year, about 100 million more than in 2010, according to eMarketer, a research company.
Google, which comScore Media Metrix
estimates has a 65% market share of U.S. Internet searches, wants sites to load quickly and be easy to navigate on a mobile phone.
Google is doing this because it wants consumers to "find content that's not only relevant and timely, but also easy to read and interact with on smaller mobile screens," Google said in a statement.
The update will not affect results from desktop searches.
And while Google remains the dominant search engine on every computing platform, its grasp on the mobile market is slipping in the face of increased competition from “native” apps expressly meant for mobile devices. Google grabbed 68 percent of the $8.75 billion in mobile search revenues last year, down from an 81 percent share in 2012. But the mobile ad market more than tripled to $8.7 billion over that time, according to eMarketer.
Google has for years been the world’s most widely used search engine and a significant generator of traffic to websites, from major news organizations to mom-and-pop shops. Websites have little choice but to adapt to what Google considers important characteristics.
“People will kick and scream, they always do,” said Rebecca Lieb, an industry analyst at the Altimeter Group. “But ultimately this serves as a wake-up call that things change and Google is going to change with it.”
Google’s search algorithm is a closely guarded secret, so the company would not say exactly how much mobile would factor into rankings. Still, it said in a blog post that the change would have “a significant impact” on search results, and it has tried to prepare websites by telegraphing the move two months in advance and giving them tips on how to improve their performance.
“While the mobile-friendly change is important, we still use a variety of signals to rank search results,” said a spokeswoman. “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.”
Google's last big algorithm update, code-named Panda, impacted "11% of all search results," says Danny Sullivan, the editor of the SearchEngineLand website. "It was a big shake-up, and this one could be even more dramatic."
In 2012, Demand Media posted a $6.4 million loss in an earnings report, and blamed the loss on changes to Google's Panda update, which removed the firm from top spots.
Just over half of all searches done on Google are now performed through mobile devices, says Sullivan, a number that continues to grow, as more folks transition to spending more and more time on smartphones.
(Sullivan's website came up with the term "Mobilegeddon" in March, a play on a recent Los Angeles mini-crisis called "Carmegeddon," when freeways were closed for several weekends.)
Worried about your website? Google has a "Mobile-Friendly" test page in its developer section. Just type in the URL and see if it passes. The URL: https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/mobile-friendly/.
So what to do if your website doesn't pass the Google Mobile Friendly test?
• Call your local website host. Many have tools in place to transition your website. GoDaddy, the top provider of website addresses and hosting, offers a tool to completely rebuild your website to make it mobile-friendly and charges $1 monthly for the service. Competitor Bluehost has a tool that's less time-consuming and potentially cheaper. For a one-time fee of $25, it's goMobi tool builds a smaller, mobile version of your site.
• Go to a service like dudamobile for a more robust, yet smaller version of your website, starting at $5 monthly.
• Get in touch with a local Web master (try Craigslist and other local forums) to farm out the work, which would probably make the mobile site look more like the original, main site for the computer.
Finally, if you're a small business and can't get this done by Tuesday, no need to panic, says Sterling.
Most local businesses are found these days, not via their website, but through directory services like Yelp and Google's local search listings.
"You typically go to Google and look up car repair, for instance," he says. "The local listings show up first, not usually the website."
So his advice to the small business owner is to make sure all your local information is current and up-to-date in Yelp and on Google's MyBusiness section.
"They still need to update their website, but this buys them time," he adds.