Why Mobilegeddon could hurt Irish businesses' online bottom line
They called it 'Mobilegeddon'.
On Tuesday, Google changed its online algorithms to boost websites that are 'mobile friendly'.
In other words, if you have an old-fashioned website designed mainly for PCs, you could drop down the search results. The change will reportedly affect 40pc of the top websites.
It is also creating a scramble among ordinary businesses to modernise their websites so as not to lose business by falling off the all-important first page of Google search results.
"If your site's pages aren't mobile-friendly, there may be a significant decrease in mobile traffic from Google Search," said Google's Takaki Makino on Tuesday.
So how many Irish businesses could be affected? Most big media publishers have mobile-friendly sites. But the results from major retailers is mixed. While Dunnes Stores (dunnesstores.com) and Brown Thomas (brownthomas.com) pass Google's 'mobile friendly' test (available at Google.com/webmasters/tools/mobile-friendly), rivals such as Arnotts (arnotts.ie) do not.
The move only affects searches on phones, not from PCs or tablets. But, as research from Dublin-based web analytics firm Statcounter shows, over a third of all web activity in Ireland now happens on smartphones. And Google has a complete lock on the search market here, with 96pc of Irish mobile searches done using Google.
But there's no need to panic just yet, say the Google engineers.
"While the mobile-friendly change is important, we still use a variety of signals to rank search results," said Makino. "The intent of the search query is still a very strong signal. So even if a page with high quality content is not mobile-friendly, it could still rank high if it has great content for the query."
They also say that the changes apply to individual pages, not entire websites.
So what constitutes a 'mobile friendly' site?
According to Google's Makino, it's where "searchers can more easily find high-quality and relevant results where text is readable without tapping or zooming, tap targets are spaced appropriately, and the page avoids unplayable content or horizontal scrolling".
And for those wondering whether their site will be affected by Google's algorithm changes, Google's free online tool, Google.com/webmasters/tools/mobile-friendly, will take a quick look at the website in question and come back in about 20 seconds with a verdict.
It even tells you why sites fail its test. For example, Taoiseach.gov.ie was deemed not to be mobile-friendly because its "text [is] too small, links [are] too close together" and the "mobile viewport [is] not set".
For those with big websites, it is possible to simply change a few pages within the site to make them mobile-friendly as a start, says Google.
"If ten of your site's pages are mobile-friendly, but the rest of your pages aren't, only the ten mobile-friendly pages can be positively impacted," said Makino.
Last year, Google issued another update to its search algorithm, called Panda. The change affected between 10pc and 12pc of all websites,
In Ireland, website experts say that Google's algorithm change is a wake-up call to businesses that are not keeping up to date with consumer habits online.
"Google's decision highlights the pressing need for SMEs to reflect on the enhancements they need to make to their websites and take action," said David Curtin, chief executive of the .ie Domain Registry (IEDR), which regulates .ie web addresses.
"Our own findings, published this week, show that over half of all Irish SMEs have websites that are poorly suited to phones and tablets. This will have tangible negative effects on their page rankings and their ability to do business, especially in an ever-growing pool of users eager to browse and transact online from their mobiles.
"Mobile unfriendly sites already frustrate and put off users with awkward interfaces and poor design. Google's move, from a consumer perspective, is a positive one. But it will make matters worse for SMEs without a modern online presence, who will find themselves pushed down the front page or moved off it entirely."
The IEDR recently launched a €150,000 incentive scheme to encourage small businesses to modernise their websites. The organisation's 'Optimise Fund' will be divided among 20 different small businesses and will be made up of expertise, advice and online consultancy.
The IEDR's most recent research relating to Irish small firms' activities online show a large scope for improvement.
While more than six in ten SMEs have a website, 91pc admit that they cannot process sales via the internet, according to its research.
Other findings from the research show that 68pc cannot process payments online, while 51pc don't have the ability to interact directly with customers through social media or webchat.
The research was conducted among 500 Irish businesses, 86pc of which employ up to 10 people, with the bulk in professional services and retail.
"In an ever more global economy, the absence of an online sales presence puts Irish businesses at a huge disadvantage to competitors," said Curtin.
"It acts as a major disincentive to attracting customers, for whom buying online is now the norm."