Today's the day: Be mobile friendly or get lost in search

Google changed its mobile search algorithm today; laggards should panic

If your website isn't mobile friendly, prepare to get lost in Google's mobile search rankings.

Starting today, Google, the world's most popular search engine, is using a new algorithm for mobile searches. The change means that websites that have been designed to be "mobile friendly" will get higher placement on Google's mobile search results.

Websites that aren't designed to run well and look good on smartphones and tablets will sink in Google's mobile search rankings.

If companies aren't running mobile friendly sites, they could lose out to competitors with higher rankings on Google search, and that could be a big business problem.

The new algorithm will affect all languages worldwide.

"If you've been coasting along with a one-size-fits-all site, you're going to find yourself further down the list, but frankly, if people found that navigating your site was like Alice in Wonderland -- getting larger and smaller and hard to navigate – you were already alienating them," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research. "It's a much-needed kick in the pants. Most sites need more attention to the user experience anyway."

While this may mean more for work for businesses that need to update their sites, it also will mean a better experience for users who will be directed to mobile-friendly websites.

Google first warned companies in February that its mobile search algorithm would be changing today.

"When it comes to search on mobile devices, users should get the most relevant and timely results, no matter if the information lives on mobile-friendly web pages or apps," the company wrote in a blog post. "As more people use mobile devices to access the Internet, our algorithms have to adapt to these usage patterns."

Though the company would not comment on how the mobile search algorithm itself is changing, Google said the change would have a "significant impact in our search results."

This change may not just affect mobile search rankings. Google said a drop in mobile search rankings also could cause a website to sink in desktop rankings.

Today's change will have a lot of companies, especially smaller businesses, really worried today, said Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy.

"I think there's a great deal of concern," he said. "Google's algorithms are a black hole, so no one really knows what constitutes a good mobile website. Is it scalable fonts? Small graphics? Page load time? Google has put out very basic guidelines everyone knows about. They never stated thresholds or metrics."

Other analysts disagree, saying that Google gave companies a few months to get ready and even offered tools for testing their websites. The specifics of the algorithm itself aren't as important as simply knowing if your site is deemed mobile friendly.

"I think most companies are mobile friendly, but for those that aren't, I'm sure it's an anxious day," said Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with ZK Research. "But Google gave them tools to see if they pass or fail and, in fact, the tools give you advice in what they need to do if they don't pass.

"Given Google provides developers with the information on how it scores, if their ranking drops and how to fix problems, they have no one to blame but themselves if their site is having trouble," he added.

All website owners should perform searches for their company, their products and related industries today, and for the next several weeks, to make sure their sites are doing well in search rankings.

"There shouldn't be any panic," said Gottheil. "No panic. There was a need to do this anyway. I think the big sites are ready, and, if they're not, they know that they were already laggards. This will perturb some small businesses that haven't invested in mobile sites, and make happier others which have."

This change, he added, is just Google keeping up with users' increasing mobile needs.

"When Google is doing its job, it's making Google Search better for users," Gottheil said. "This change looks like Google doing its job. If website owners don't care about users, they will suffer. That was true yesterday and it's true today -- only just a little more true."

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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