Search me: Google's 'Mobilegeddon' is good news

The blogosphere is stupidly freaking out over a needed change in Google’s mobile search algorithm

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Credit: Zach Miners/IDG News Service

Mobilegeddon? You can't be serious. The blogosphere is freaking out over a significant, but hardly cataclysmic, modification of Google's search algorithm that will grade Web pages by how well they can be displayed on a smartphone. For website creators, that's called search engine optimization (SEO) for mobile.

If you believe much of what has been written about the changes that went into effect on Tuesday, you'd think that millions of websites will fall off the radar screen as their search rankings plummet into the basement. Nonesense: "It's simply not a huge deal," says Dave Schubmehl, IDC's research director for mobile search.

The shift in page rankings, as Google made crystal clear, affects only search rankings on smartphones (not tablets or computers) and applies to individual pages, not entire sites. What's more, the standards spelled out by Google aren't particularly stringent, notes Schubmehl. If a website doesn't meet them, visitors probably avoid it anyway.

Nonetheless, click-hungry sites have been doing their best to freak out the nervous with headlines like this: "Are you ready for Google's Mobilegeddon Phonepocalypse tomorrow?" (I'm not linking to this nonsense; find it yourself.) It's classic FUD spread by both gullible writers and conniving providers.

Ultimately, the shift in criteria is good for users and businesses that rely on mobile search -- and what business doesn't these days? There is, of course, more to this than Google's solicitous concern for users: It's a smart move in its war against mobile apps and social media sites that have been stealing its search revenue.

The hardly stringent new website SEO standard

Here's how Google describes the new standard: "Now searchers can more easily find high-quality and relevant results where text is readable without tapping or zooming, tap targets are spaced appropriately, and the page avoids unplayable content or horizontal scrolling."

Imagine that -- users should be able to read the text on a site with the device's window size. The only people who should be bothered by that are sleazeballs who make the proverbial fine print so tiny you can't read it.

To make it even easier for Webmasters, Google has a simple tool, "the mobile-friendly test," you can use to see if your site is up to snuff. Like that elective calculus class you sweated in college, it's pass/fail. You cannot be more or less mobile-friendly than another Web page; you're mobile-friendly or you're not, in Google's mind. Google also has a more detailed set of pages that illustrate common mistakes on mobile sites and how to avoid them.

Not surprisingly, scammers have tried to frighten companies into buying Web design or SEO services by spreading the false rumor that Google will delist sites that don't pass the mobile test. Ashley Berman Hale, who's very active in the Google Webmaster Help channels, received an email saying exactly that. Hale posted it along with a tart response from Google.

Nevertheless, having a site or even a significant page downgraded in mobile search results is serious. More than 50 percent of Web searches are now done on mobile devices, says IDC's Schubmehl, so slipping to the second or third results page will certainly damage a business.

I suspect that freelance Web designers and developers will get a lot of calls in the next few weeks, and IT departments at larger companies that have neglected to optimize their sites for mobile will put in some overtime.

The mobile-friendly change affects sites large and small

You'd think that businesses most affected by the change in criteria are small ones. However, a survey by TechCrunch found that 44 percent of Fortune 500 websites were not mobile-friendly. It's not clear what that really means, but I'm assuming the TechCrunch testers found one or more pages that flunked the test on sites, including UnitedHealth Group, Berkshire Hathaway, McKesson, and Phillips 66.

I'm not trying to nitpick here; TechCrunch obviously put a lot of effort into this. But finding a few pages, which may or may not be critical, in a large site isn't so important. If I were responsible for a website, I'd start by looking at essential pages such as ones with hours, contact information and directions to a retailer, or prices and items that are on sale, and see if they pass the test.

Google took the unusual step of announcing the change in the algorithm well in advance -- back in February -- so websites have had time to prepare. I'll bet that many smaller companies don't pay attention to what Google is up to and didn't have a clue until they started seeing scary headlines.

The changed algorithm is now in place, but it takes a bit of time for Google to crawl websites and rank them. A helpful story in Search Engine Land says it can take anywhere from a few hours to more than three days for Google to show your Web pages as mobile friendly if you do everything right.

Google's mobile-friendly change is in its own self-interest

Although Google still has a huge share of search revenue, its business is being challenged on several fronts, including mobile. When a mobile user finds a shopping site or store via Google search, Google can serve an ad and make money. But when a shopper uses an app for a purchase, Google is out of the picture. That's why Google wants websites to work well on mobile devices.

Facebook and other social media sites are cutting into Google's search revenue as well. Facebook, for example, has forced users to install its Messenger app if they want to chat with other users on a smartphone. In the near future, users will be able to make purchases from within Messenger and receive confirmations and other notices from some retailers and e-commerce sites -- options that generate no revenue for Google.

Obviously, Google doesn't want users to get so frustrated with mobile sites that they turn to apps for shopping. Google isn't always your friend, but this mobile SEO change is one case where the search giant's interests coincide with that of many businesses and consumers.

My advice: Pay attention to the change in the algorithm and spruce up your site. But there's no need to panic. As the Brits would say, keep calm and carry on.

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