Google shift underscores importance of mobile Web design

Google is adding mobile performance to its SEO equation, and that has companies reevaluating Web strategy to avoid losses in search rankings.

"Mobilegeddon" is here. Recent changes to Google's search algorithms may upend traditional understandings of what constitutes "good content" on the Web.

As of April 2015, Google's algorithms will incorporate "mobile-friendliness" as an additional factor in ranking the worthiness of content search results. When it comes to search engine optimization (SEO), websites that look good on mobile devices will get higher placement on Google's organic search.

With the number of mobile devices surpassing desktops and accelerating rapidly, mobile awareness is becoming an increasingly important factor in content development. Businesses and the digital agencies that support them are on notice. Since announcing its intentions in February, Google has reported a 5% increase in mobile-friendly sites across the visible Web.

SEO design options

What are the implications of mobile awareness? For starters, mobile Web design matters. Many digital marketers and webmasters now optimize digital content for organic search rankings -- adding headlines, titles, keywords and metadata to guide search bots. With the explosive growth of mobile devices, those maintaining sites need to test the quality of mobile displays and make the necessary updates. Google will track and rate content based on viewing experiences for smartphones and tablets.

What should webmasters do? At a minimum, sites should feature modern Web page designs, including beefy images and easily clickable graphic elements. The text needs to be large enough for easy viewing on small screens. Links should not be too close together. The content should fit the screen size. The days of scrunching lots of text together with hard-to-navigate links are also over.

If nothing else, a graphical refresh for established websites is likely in order. Replace Flash elements with mobile-aware videos. Simplify and enhance visual elements. Minimize white space and consider how HTML5 can help mobilize the viewing experience.

If you haven't already, perhaps it's time to adopt responsive web design, which ensures that page views and navigation links resize dynamically across multiple browsing experiences. Most third-generation Web content management (WCM) systems (such as WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, Adobe, and Sitecore) include responsive Web design capabilities. The decision to adopt a WCM system (followed by the necessary IT investments) depends on an overall digital strategy. Both a mobile presence and SEO are factors in this equation.

An effective mobile presence

There is also a larger context to consider. Mobile experiences are not just about screen sizes and device types. Mobile SEO is not the same as organic search from desktops. There are reasons why different experiences favor different results.

Dating from the early days of the Web, content "findability" has been a cornerstone of browsing experiences from tethered devices. Web searchers enter a text query into Google's search bar and review the results. In that environment, we rely on words and other signals, indexed by Google, to retrieve content from disparate websites. This is often termed a "pull" experience.

Findability remains an aspect of mobile experiences. But untethered from fixed work places, mobile users are engaged in much richer and more dynamic work environments. They are out and about, doing things and focusing on specific tasks and activities. They expect short snippets with quick responses. Mobile SEO lacks the salience it has for a tethered experience. Reading a long document on a small screen is rarely a satisfactory result.

Moreover, a Google search recognizes mobile-friendliness based on device types and provides links to the sites that are most easily viewed. While this is a step in the right direction, mobile users will expect a lot more. Note that Google's algorithms make no attempt to capture or anticipate context based on location or other sensor data from mobile devices themselves.

Facing the mobile challenge

There is a fundamental transformation currently under way. Desktop search is typically a pull experience, while mobile is more of a push. Mobile users engaged in tasks expect finely tuned, personalized and task-oriented experiences. But mobilizing search is only a first step. Google offers other techniques for returning relevant content, such as semantic search, based on its underlying knowledge graph. And many publishers offer mobile apps that access specialized databases for popular topics and activities.

The challenge is to develop useful and profitable mobile experiences. Whenever things change, it's essential to question the status quo and allow innovation to seep into the business environment. To this end, Google's new emphasis on mobile friendliness is such a watershed moment for today's websites and tethered computing solutions.

Digital marketers and webmasters must respond in kind or risk losing their ranking and relevance among users. Once they have a mobile-friendly site, savvy business leaders should build and deliver task-oriented experiences that meet the needs of target audiences. It is time to truly capitalize on mobility and optimize for the mobile revolution.

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