“Mobile friendliness” will factor into Google’s mobile search algorithm starting Tuesday. Google gave an unprecedented two-month warning. “Prepare for the worst,” one mobile expert says.

The end is nigh! Mobilegeddon is upon us.

Many mobile search experts and retailers have taken a liking to this term, but it this needn’t be a life-or-death, Armageddon-like struggle for retailers. They just need to make sure their sites look good on smartphones.

Starting April 21, Google Inc. will change its search algorithm on smartphones so “mobile friendliness” will factor into how a website is ranked in organic search results. Steals.com and The Home Depot Inc. are two retailers that already boast Google-approved “Mobile–friendly” labels in search results on smartphones and are keen to see how the change will impact their mobile web traffic.

Businesses can check if their website earns a Mobile-friendly label here. Google offers tools to webmasters here.

“As people increasingly search on their mobile devices, we want to make sure they can find content that’s not only relevant and timely, but also easy to read and interact with on smaller mobile screens,” a Google spokeswoman says. While the vast majority of retailers, experts, research firms, and other businesses consider “mobile devices” to be both smartphones and tablets, Google only counts smartphones as mobile.


Regardless of whether retailers have prepared for the switch or not, they should expect major changes to their web traffic starting Tuesday, says Brian Klais, founder and president at Pure Oxygen Labs LLC, a mobile marketing and mobile search engine optimization firm.

“There are few brands that are not going to be impacted by this,” says Klais, referring to increases or decreases in mobile web traffic if retailers have the mobile friendly label or not.

Google announced the switch at the end of February. The long lead time hints it may have a larger impact than previous Google search changes, Klais says.  

“Google has never given a two-month warning about an algorithm update,” Klais says. “My advice is to prepare for the worst.”


If retailers already invested in their mobile offerings, they will benefit from the switch, Klais says. If retailers have not yet updated their website, they will experience some pain until they do, he adds.

In assessing how well a website renders on smartphones, Googlebot web crawlers penalize websites for the following: software that often crashes on mobile devices, such as Flash Video; the need for consumers to pinch and zoom in to navigate a page; and if a website has faulty redirects.

Steals.com, a daily-deal retailer, is one company that is ahead of the curve for the update, Klais says. Instead of adjusting its website in response to each Google update, Steals.com has taken a long-term approach to its mobile strategy, says Rett Clevenger, CEO at Steals.com. Clevenger says the retailer looks at what a Google update—such as Google’s Panda update in 2011 that put more emphasis on the quality of a web page—is looking to achieve, which is typically to drive Google searchers to a better user experience, and then the retailer molds its practices around the goals of an update. The retailer, No. 317 the 2015 Internet Retailer Mobile 500, uses Google Chrome Developer tools to test its site.

Recognizing the need to cater to mobile shoppers, Steals.com revamped its website in the third quarter of 2013 using the principles of responsive design, a format that adapts the look and structure of a site to the device a consumer is using. Today, 68% of the retailer’s traffic comes from mobile devices (smartphones and tablets). Although the conversion rate on mobile devices is 2.4%, a full percentage point less than its 3.4% conversion rate on desktops, sales from mobile devices exceed sales from desktops, Clevenger says.


Steals.com is shifting more toward a dynamic-serving approach to its website, which is a hybrid approach between a responsive design site and a stand-alone mobile website. For a website that uses dynamic serving, the URL is the exact same on a mobile website and desktop, but the server detects that a consumer is on a mobile device and displays different content, without redirecting the consumer to an m. site. Steals.com is eliminating some of the content on its mobile website that isn’t shopping-related, such as additional research tools, to make the commerce portion stand out.

Clevenger believes the mobile-friendliness update will only benefit Steals.com, not only because of its responsive design, but also because the company tagged with keywords mobile-specific images and uses the YouTube player, which works well on mobile devices, to play video content, he says.

The Home Depot, No. 20 in the Internet Retailer 2015 Mobile 500, is armed with a Mobile-friendly label, as well, but is unsure how the change will impact its web traffic.

The retailer tested each page on its stand-alone mobile commerce website to ensure every one earned the Mobile-friendly label, says Dave Abbott, vice president of online marketing at The Home Depot. And every page does, Abbott says. Unfortunately, the hardware store’s large competitors also have Mobile-friendly labels, he says.


He says Home Depot may gain an edge over the smaller mom-and-pop hardware stores that may not have the resources to update their websites. One feature on its mobile website Home Depot emphasizes is directions to stores nearest the consumer. That includes enabling consumers to select a Home Depot location as their local store so they can see a store layout or an aisle number for a product they are looking for. 

Home Depot’s web traffic is growing fastest on smartphones, compared to tablets and PCs, although Abbott declines to give specific figures.

Retailers that have created a separate mobile website, have updated to responsive design or use dynamic serving are likely to earn the Mobile-friendly label, although they are not in the clear yet, Klais says.

Retailers should make sure that each of their web pages are mobile-friendly, not just the home page, he says. Load time also is important, as Google penalizes web pages that take a long time to load. This is an especially important consideration for companies that have gone the responsive design route, because those web pages tend to load more slowly than a similar page on a stand-alone mobile site or a similar page that is dynamically served.


In an audit of the retailers in the Internet Retailer 2015 Mobile 500, Pure Oxygen Labs found that 59% of the 500 leading retailers in mobile commerce use a separate “m.” mobile website, 15% use dynamic serving, and 14% have no mobile presence (likely because at the time of the audit the retailers were conducting a site update), and 9% use responsive design. 3% could not be audited.

Any change in how Google ranks websites when consumers search on smartphones is critical because the Google search bar is pre-loaded on all Android smartphones, and Google is currently the default search engine for the Safari mobile web browser on Apple iPhones. Google has 85% of the market share for mobile search, Klais says.


Follow mobile business journalist April Dahlquist, associate editor, mobile, at Internet Retailer, at @MobileStrat360A.


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