Google's mobile algorithm update: Is the search giant feeling the pinch?

Adam Skalak

Google’s biggest ever mobile algorithm update took place yesterday (21 April), and the search engine giant is sending a strong message to brands – improve your mobile sites or else... But does it also hint to the fact that Google is now seriously feeling the pinch?

Clearly too many brands have failed to develop their mobile-friendliness in line with the massive increase in mobile search and this is hitting Google where it hurts most, advertising revenue. Their latest ad revenue figures show growth has slowed considerably over the last couple of years, despite mobile use continuing to boom.

The new update is going to clamp down on sites that are not mobile-friendly – sites that are difficult to navigate on mobile or are simply not optimised for mobile. And Google has said that it will impact more sites than either the Google Penguin or Panda updates did.

But what’s particularly telling about this update is fact that Google has uncharacteristically given brands so much warning – it announced the update back in February. This algorithm update is not about catching people out who have been trying to game Google’s search algorithm. This is about Google wanting to dramatically change behaviour, get brands to improve mobile friendliness and to see a marked impact on the search landscape. Google has realised that if it doesn’t do something drastic about the situation, it simply will not be able to achieve what it wants to with mobile and will not be able to maintain its search ad revenue.

In the past Google has taken a softly, softly approach to bettering its mobile search experience, but it has continued to fall below par. They have now brought out the big guns with this announcement and are clearly calling on the search community to help push a real step change in how good mobile sites are.

Why? If Google’s mobile search results continue to fall below people’s expectations, Google will see traffic drop as they choose alternative search options such as apps. This in turn will impact their ability to leverage traffic for advertisers.

And true to form, since Google announced the mobile update in February the search world has been a hive of activity, with brands checking and updating sites to make sure that they will not be negatively affected by it. Google has even launched its mobile-friendly test tool so we can check whether sites will be seen as mobile-friendly by the new algorithm.

There is little doubt that in the coming months we will see a real improvement in the way sites work on mobile – surely a good thing for everyone. Few brands will dare have a site that Google doesn’t deem mobile-friendly, for fear of dropping down the results pages and losing valuable traffic and revenue in the process.

But importantly, Google will have driven a massive improvement in people’s experience of its mobile search pages as a result and in doing so will at least go some way to preserving its search ad revenue. Clever Google.

Adam Skalak is head of SEO at iCrossing

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