Digital publishing news and views from the Firsty Group


April 22nd, 2015

Time to mobilise

The internet has gone mobile. Surging sales of smartphones and tablets means that browsing while on the move is part of everyday life now. But new changes to Google’s search engine algorithms mean that optimizing websites for mobile devices is about to become even more important.

Google announced its changes to the way it compiles search results in late February, and put them into action two days ago: Tuesday 21 April. It doesn’t give too much away about the details of its algorithms, which in any case are mind-bogglingly complex for all but the most dedicated SEO experts and website developers. But the main implication is simple: searches that are made from mobile devices will soon prioritise websites that are optimized for their devices. Web pages that are badly suited to reading on mobile devices will find themselves dropped significantly further down the list of results.

It is welcome news for consumers, who are often frustrated by websites that are clunky or fiddly to use on their mobile devices, and who will now be much more likely to be pointed towards ones that suit their smartphone or tablet. And given the massive trend towards mobile browsing, Google’s changes are in some ways overdue. Worldwide, four in five internet users now own a smartphone, and nearly half have a tablet. People’s use of mobile devices on the internet increased by two thirds last year, and as much as 44% of ecommerce in the UK is now done from a mobile. So while desktops remain the most popular place for using the web, that will not be the case for very much longer.

The algorithm changes made are even more crucial for companies who use websites to sell or promote to mobile users. They have been widely billed as ‘Mobilegeddon’, and while that might be overstating things a bit, there is no doubt that these developments are going to shake up the way people browse online. Google rarely makes changes to its algorithms public, and setting a date for the switchover is even more exceptional—so the fact that it has just done both underscores the importance of these updates. This, then, is probably the moment at which the mobile-friendly website moves from nice-to-have to essential.

Publishers should be as alert to these changes as anyone. For most of them, websites are all about discoverability—making sure that books and other content can be quickly found by the people who might buy it. Publishers with mobile-optimised sites will now be sitting pretty, though they will need to watch how their rankings change and make sure their mobile designs remain up to date. But for anyone without a mobile-ready site, now is a very good time to get one.

There is plenty of help out there. Google has an online test that very quickly shows whether or not a web page is suitable for mobile use, and thus more likely to do well in its new search algorithms. For those whose websites do not pass the test, Google also offers a useful guide to mobile-friendly sites with some straightforward tips and resources, plus Webmaster Tools for more detailed diagnostics and support.

One dilemma in this is whether to produce websites that are dedicated to mobile devices or ones that use responsive design that adapts to the platform being used. Google prefers the latter, but both have advantages. Dedicated sites can be tailored for mobile use, and often have less content and different ways to navigate around. Responsive websites, which take web content and tells the mobile device how best to display it, tend to be smoother for people to use and less likely to produce errors.

But while Google’s plans throw up new challenges, there are opportunities to be had too. The smartest publishers will turn these changes to their advantage and use them not just to improve their discoverability but to get a greater share of sales. Those who can make their websites a great experience for mobile users and put themselves at the top of the new-style search rankings will be very well placed to connect with users. More and more people are using mobile devices to buy their books—and this is a great opportunity to start selling direct to them.

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