Brands brace for ‘mobilegeddon’

Update to Google's search algorithm will downplay sites that aren't mobile-friendly

Jeff Fraser April 22, 2015

Mobile now makes up the majority of consumer web activity, and brands that haven’t come to terms with that are getting a rude wake-up call from the world’s largest search engine.

On Tuesday, Google updated its mobile search ranking algorithms to favour websites that have been optimized for a better mobile experience. Brands and publishers that haven’t developed a mobile-specific website will take a big hit on their search rankings, and potentially sacrifice a chunk of their organic traffic in the increasingly important mobile realm.

Google announced back in February  it would begin ranking sites in mobile search based on mobile usability, i.e. whether the content sizes to fit the user’s screen, whether the text is readable without zooming or side-scrolling, and whether it uses mobile-incompatible Flash coding.

It’s unusual for Google to publicize changes to its algorithm, but in this case the company wanted to give site owners ample time to prepare. It even offered a mobile-friendly test tool for them to check if they would be favoured or penalized by the algorithm.

But for a lot of companies, it’s still too soon. Some of the more hysterical objectors have taken to calling the update “Mobilegeddon” (and running badly Photoshopped images of Larry Page superimposed on an atom bomb explosion).

Global brands like Dyson, Danone and Versace stand to lose out in the big update, according to a list of major brands put together by mobile marketing company Somo. In a quick-and-dirty analysis last week, Boulder Marketing found 44% of Fortune 500 companies failed the mobile-friendly search test.

Casually searching on the iPhone Chrome app reveals that although most top Canadian brands have received Google’s “mobile-friendly” search label, a handful still use desktop-only sites — among them Air Canada, Holt Renfrew and Harry Rosen.

Is the market ready?

Peter Vaz, chair of IAB Canada’s mobile committee, told Marketing whether brands are ready for it or not, consumers have already made the move to mobile.

“Google is changing the search algorithm to reflect the change the consumer has made in terms of their digital behavior,” he said. As of the most recent study on Canadian media consumption by PhD Canada and the IAB, 53% of the time Canadians spend online now comes from mobile devices.

“I think brands will have to seriously consider providing Canadian audiences a mobile experience, as it will impact their SEO rankings without one,” he said.

Salome Sallehy, VP marketing at Plastic Mobile (recently acquired by Havas) said Google’s update shows the need for cross-device experiences has reached “critical mass.”

“The changes will have a big impact on several of the more traditional industries that may have been ignoring their customers’ clear demands to go mobile,” she said.

Google’s changes will likely have the biggest impact on small businesses. Despite Google’s outreach, many smaller businesses — which draw much of their traffic from organic search — may not even be aware of the update, and may not have the tools to prepare for it.

“The unfortunate outcome is the impact on the small business segment, which hasn’t been keeping up with technology,” said Sallehy. She said many small businesses likely don’t have the budget or technical expertise to be constantly evolving their online presence the way top marketers have to be if they want to stay on top of consumers today.

“The new reality is that if your business doesn’t exist in mobile then it will probably not exist for long,” she said.