The impact of Google’s new mobile algorithm explained

111Google launched its new ‘mobile friendly’ algorithm on Tuesday in what are calling ‘mobilegeddon’. The site’s Barry Schwarz reported that it was “unprecedented” for the search engine giant to announce algorithmic changes, but that in this case, “Google did so in order to give publishers ample time to make their web sites mobile friendly”.

The outcome of this change will be to boost the search rankings of websites optimised for mobile.

“Businesses that optimise their sites for mobile with fast-to-load, properly-displayed architecture will capture more attention, clicks and sales,” says Jana McMaster-Wepener, UX expert at digital marketing agency Shapeshift. “But, it’s not just about improving your design – you also need to strategically look at whether your architecture is intuitive to navigate and will make it easy for users to complete a task.”

Google’s intention is for it to become more useful to users and to improve the overall user experience (UX). To do so, its bots will search more like humans. It will outlaw text that’s too small to read, links that are too close together to tap, and software uncommon to mobiles such as Flash, among other factors.

Schwarz, asked how long it would take for Google to pick up the changes to websites, said the algorithm is real time. “Google has to crawl your web pages to determine if they are mobile friendly. Early tests show that it can take anywhere from a few hours to over 72-hours if you do everything right for Google to show your web pages as mobile friendly. I would not be surprised if large sites can take up to a month to be displayed as fully mobile friendly. So make sure your most important pages are indexed as mobile friendly sooner than later,” he wrote.

McMaster-Wepener said key to success was ensuring existing sites meet the UX needs of a brand’s customers. “Even big companies don’t always understand exactly who their online users are, how they’re consuming information and how content should be delivered accordingly.”

Shapeshift, in a crawl of 300 JSE-listed company websites and using Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test, found that only 34% of sites passed the test. A number of websites from the almost 400 listed companies could not even be found by Google’s search bots. Compared to 56% of Fortune 500 companies passing the same test, South Africa’s figure is quite low, says McMaster-Wepener.

“Before businesses spend their money on building responsive sites, dedicated mobile sites or mobile apps, they should start with the user and establish whether they answer their UX needs. Or, your investment in mobile isn’t really going to improve sales,” she said. “Mobile-friendliness is about giving users the experience they really need. It’s not just about converting your existing website into a mobile format.”

Mobile sites need to be optimised for information on the go and may have less content, different navigation or other special UX requirements, she says. For example, depending on the customer’s environment, they might be using a tablet or a smartphone with different sized screens, struggle with patchy bandwidth that needs quicker-loading sites, or be in a hurry that requires key information to be easily accessible.

McMaster-Wepener says one approach to create online experiences that evolve with the real-time needs of today’s customer is Design Thinking. At its core, this includes:

  • The discovery phase: Defining the customer (who are the real users, what do they think, feel, see, hear, say and do), finding a test subject and doing research into their environment and what needs they have that should be met.
  • Concept stage: Taking the research into a strategy phase to brainstorm ideas and define how to build new solutions and content that can meet these needs, redefining the information architecture and building a prototype with interactive wireframes.
  • Test, rinse, repeat and refine: Testing the prototype with users and further refining it with their feedback, doing the design and testing it with users again, coding and deploying the site with close monitoring of usage metrics for future upgrades.

According to The Mobile Africa 2015 study, on average, 40% of those surveyed in South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and Uganda, use their mobile phones to browse the Internet.  With South Africa leading the charge with 34% app downloads and 41% of instant messaging, use a mobile-friendly website will become increasingly vital, she says.

McMaster-Wepener says there are ways for businesses to start at any point of the process: “You don’t have to spend a fortune immediately. Good strategic thinking could make your current UX much more effective and stretch your budget further.”

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