Google's mobile friendly algorithm change: Why businesses could rue "mobilegeddon"

Martin Ashplant
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Google is aiming its guns at non-mobile friendly websites (Source: Getty)

Google is about to embark on a major algorithm change which could leave businesses who have yet to adapt to mobile see their customer base shrink overnight.

Billed as “mobilegeddon” in some quarters, the search engine will tomorrow start to roll out what is expected to be the biggest change to its search results in years, with a focus on only showing websites it considers mobile friendly to users on smartphones.

Whenever Google changes things, it is inevitable there will be some big losers in the business world – especially when the notoriously vague company itself says this update will have a “significant impact”.

In a recent adjustment of this type, the “Panda 4.0” update of May 2014, was estimated to have lost 20 per cent of its visibility in search – which would equate to a major dip in visitors to the site.

And judging by the results of the tool Google circulated for websites to check their status ahead of the change, there are a number of big names who could be set to lose out in a similar way.

Among the sites deemed not mobile friendly are Next and Ryanair, both of which are said to have links too close together and content wider than a normal mobile screen, while there are even big names in the publisher world affected with the MailOnline homepage and BBC’s archive stories not coming up to scratch.

These sites will only see a drop in search visibility for those on smartphones, and not desktops or tablets, but Google estimates that about 50 per cent of its searches are now conducted from mobile devices.

And given that many businesses, particularly in retail and other ecommerce sectors, rely heavily on search traffic to drive up sales and keep their bottom line looking healthy those who haven’t addressed how their sites appear on mobile need to act urgently.

Even those who have apps need to address the issue as it is websites where search traffic is sent – and a bad experience here can put people off going any further, if indeed they can still find the site after Google makes its mobile move.

Making a site automatically change layout depending on what device is being used to view it, known as responsive design, is the best way to ensure it is mobile friendly, while working to keep load times as low as possible will give the site the best chance of performing well.

Businesses with in-house development teams should make this a priority now as Google says the penalty for not being mobile-friendly goes away once the site’s issues have been addressed, while smaller operations should look for a suitable digital agency who can do the job for them.

As Joe Crowther, search director at global search consultancy Ayima, says, needing to make a site work on mobile “shouldn't be coming as a shock to business owners” but the stakes are about to be raised considerably by Google’s move.

“Responsive web design (Google's current preferred implementation) isn't a new concept but it is something that many businesses have been slow to adopt, whether that’s due to cost, infrastructure, or complexity,” Crowther said.

“While no-one knows exactly how aggressive this new update will be, Google doesn't tend to send official algorithm announcements often, so this is a strong sign of a considerable shift in the mobile ranking space and could have significant traffic and revenue implications for a number of sites."

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