Are publishers ready for Google's 'mobile-friendly' rankings?

Google’s “mobilegeddon” is coming, and not all publishers are going to be prepared.

Google said in February that it plans to factor in “mobile friendliness” into its mobile search rankings. The tweak, the first iteration of which hits April 21, means that publishers with mobile-unfriendly sites — those with small text or elements that are too close together, for example — risk losing their top placement in Google’s search results on mobile devices.

Top publishers, for the most part, appear prepared for the change. Out of the U.S. publishers in comScore’s top-100 rankings, the vast majority of them — including About.com, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, pass Google’s mobile-friendly test.

There are, however, some exceptions. One of the more noteworthy examples, Mail Online, the world’s most popular English-language newspaper, which is already well-known for bucking trends by not optimizing its homepage for mobile screens, doesn’t get the Google seal of approval for its homepage. Ditto for Weather.com, which Google’s tool says features content that’s wider than the screen and links that are too close together.

For publishers that run afoul of Google’s criteria, the prognosis is potentially grim.

“Because you don’t have a mobile-optimized site, you’re going to get bumped down from position one or two to the third page, and suddenly you’ve lost all of your organic traffic,” said Chuck Price, founder of Measurable SEO. “That’s a big deal.”

One saving grace for the Mail Online: While the site hasn’t tweaked its homepage for mobile, it has tweaked its article pages. This could prevent the site from being affected too adversely, considering that Google’s upcoming changes work on a page level rather than a domain level. Unlike Mail Online’s home page, its article page does pass Google’s mobile-friendly test.

There’s a strong business case for Google to go through the trouble of potentially upsetting the many sites that rely on it. Last year Google’s Web spam lead Matt Cutts said he “wouldn’t be surprised” if Google’s mobile traffic outpaced that of desktop in 2014. Because Google is incentivized to create the best experiences for its users, it’s also incentivized to only link out to sites that also offer good user experiences, particularly when it comes to spam and security. The stakes are even higher with mobile, where users are more sensitive to unhelpful search results.

Publishers should be worried, if history is any indication. Previous Google algorithm changes, particularly 2011’s Panda and 2012’s Penguin, were disastrous for sites that Google thought were “low quality” or those that relied on black-hat SEO techniques. Content-farm company Demand Media, for example, attributed a $6.4 million loss in 2012 to Google’s Panda change. Ebay and Metafilter have also been burned by tweaks to Google’s algorithms.

While it’s too early to say exactly how badly publishers will be affected by Google’s changes, most signs point to a fairly significant shift in terms of how search rankings appear on mobile devices, according to Shahzad Abbas, digital media vp at Define Media Group.

“It would foolhardy for someone who is responsible for mobile optimization or SEO within an unprepared brand to not expect to take a hit,” Abbas said. “They have to expect to take a hit no matter who they are.”

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