Google's new algorithm update - what's next for marketers?

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OK I admit it, I’m addicted to Twitter. But boring as it may sound, my use of Twitter is 98% work-related. That means my tweets are usually about software engineering, leadership, marketing, and start-ups. My main knowledge centre for content on these topics is also via Twitter. And, like any good Twitter addict, my smartphone helps feed my addiction. When the battery runs low, I might switch to my tablet. I spend a significant portion of my life consuming content on a mobile device.

OK I admit it, I’m addicted to Twitter. But boring as it may sound, my use of Twitter is 98% work-related. That means my tweets are usually about software engineering, leadership, marketing, and start-ups. My main knowledge centre for content on these topics is also via Twitter. And, like any good Twitter addict, my smartphone helps feed my addiction. When the battery runs low, I might switch to my tablet. I spend a significant portion of my life consuming content on a mobile device.

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Having worked with websites in a professional capacity for over 15 years, to me Google algorithm updates are nothing new. In the early days they were a big deal and I (embarrassingly) found them exciting. One could call it old age, but in recent times I’ve found it a pretty boring subject. If one is focused on the user experience and not trying to hack the system,you don’t need to worry about it too much. However, this latest announcement by Google around starting to experiment with the inclusion of mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal does excite me.

Why? I’ve already confessed to my addiction to my smartphone, and I’m reaching the end of my tether with blog posts where I have to use a microscope, zoom and scroll left and right - it’s frustrating to say the least!

Although the industry has been preaching the importance of mobile optimisation for several years, there are so many websites, some fairly prominent, that are plain "broken" when viewed on a mobile.

Not everyone loves Google, and many people believe it has too much influence over the web, or accuse it of selling data. But I’m not one of them. Regardless, I do feel this is a positive move - I really do hope it’s the kick that website owners need to take note and focus on the user . . . for their own good.

In practice

Like most things in life, User eXperience (UX) isn’t just about nailing it first time around, but maintaining it throughout its life.  Managing to do this is not just tricky, but requires a set of specialist skills.

However, the criteria Google has published to help webmasters is pretty straightforward, and like most processes to improve web usability (in the words of Steve Krug) it’s “just common sense.” It also subscribes to the pareto principle - that 80% of the effects can be achieved by 20% of the work.

Google’s definition of a mobile-friendly site is one that:

  • Avoids software that is not common on mobile devices, like Flash
  • Uses text that is readable without zooming
  • Sizes content to the screen so users don't have to scroll horizontally or zoom
  • Places links far enough apart so that the correct one can be easily tapped

Again, as Steve says, once pointed out it’s obvious really!

If you have a sizable website and you don’t know where to start, I recommend beginning with the pages that get the highest mobile traffic (use analytics to determine which these are).I would guess these are your content pages, home page, and contact us page - in that order of priority - but of course no two websites are the same.

In January 2013 we embarked on a project to optimise politics.co.uk for mobile. From 2004 to 2013 this was one of many news websites built and maintained by my team at Axonn. Politics.co.uk is a big website with significant traffic. At this point we were more than familiar with the size and associated risks with a complete website rebuild. From the outset we wanted to release mobile optimisation in small updates, which is exactly what we did. And it was very successful.  

Advanced

Google’s criteria certainly cover the basics and are a very good start. I believe the changes can be achieved with fairly basic web development skills and technology. However, gaining the extra 20% requires more advanced techniques and the right combination of technology.

For example, how quickly a page loads on a mobile device that has a relative slow internet connection is a factor, as Google uses load speed as a ranking signal. Image sizing is another thing to consider, as it is a typical cause of slow page loads. Optimising this requires several different technologies to be applied together. This is exactly where the average marketing website owner tends to get stuck in our experience as responsibility spans several departments.

Conclusion

In my opinion this is a positive and welcome move by Google. The four criteria above are the minimum and an excellent starting point. Remembering that the user and therefore good UX is the goal over technical fixes. When designing or adjusting your website, apply a healthy dose of common sense and keep it simple - if you follow Google’s rules of thumb you are 80% there.

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