Some people are calling it Mobilegeddon. That’s a bit of a stretch. But for the Google search engine—something that’s such big part of our daily lives—it’s likely the biggest change of the past three years. And it’s reminder of the wonderfully magnanimous yet deeply selfish way that Google uses its market power to accelerate changes across the rest of the internet.
Today, Google is updating its algorithms so that they consider a site’s “mobile-friendliness” in determining whether it should prominently appear in your search results. Basically, this means that some sites will turn up less often if they aren’t as easy to read or use on mobile phones (the change will not apply to tablets and other devices, Google tells us).
The new algorithms could end up demoting sites that are undeniably legitimate, valuable, even important.
“We will be expanding our use of mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal. This change will affect mobile searches in all languages worldwide and will have a significant impact in our search results,” Googlers Takaki Makino, Chaesang Jung and Doantam Phan said in a blog post announcing the change back in February. Last month, another Googler said during a public appearance that the change would have a bigger impact than its “Panda” and “Penguin” algorithm updates, which Google rolled out in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Panda affected about 12 percent of English searches, while Penguin altered four percent.
But today’s change also overshadows these past updates in another way: it removes more than just “spam” (what Google sees as inappropriate content) from the company’s search engine. In this case, Google is pushing for a sweeping change in the way the web is put together. “This update is really about Google’s vision of what the web should be—using its search results as a lever to move everyone in the direction it wants them to go,” says Danny Sullivan, the founding editor of Search Engine Land, a site that closely Google’s search engine and other search services.
'The change is paternalistic. And very self interested.' Greg Sterling, Search Engine Land
As Sullivan points out, the new algorithms could end up demoting sites that are undeniably legitimate, valuable, even important. “If you’re searching for something on Home Depot, you probably still want that,” he says, “even if it means double-tapping on your screen or stretching the page a bit more with your fingers so that you can see it.”
Flexing Its Muscles
Google has a history of flexing its financial, technical, and competitive muscles to nudge other online players to improve their own technology. Sometimes, it acts in big ways, like when it rolled out Google Fiber, pushing the country’s ISPs to speed up their wireless internet services. Others times, it makes smaller moves, like when it bid for a chunk of wireless spectrum, just so the likes of Verizon and AT&T would open those airwaves to any smartphone. Today’s search engine update fits somewhere in between. The company has encouraged “mobile-friendliness” in the past, and now, it’s making a harder push.
As always, the company paints the change as a way of improving life for the world’s internet users, who are increasingly searching for stuff on phones, as opposed to desktops and laptops. “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,” Google said in a statement sent to WIRED. No doubt, it does. But in improving things for users, it’s also improving things for itself. “The change is paternalistic,” says Greg Sterling, a contributing editor with Search Engine Land. “And very self interested.”
According to Google’s own numbers, about fifty percent of searches now happen on mobile devices. But generally, the experience isn’t as smooth as it is on the desktops, because people so often use local smartphone apps in lieu of websites —and so many sites aren’t suited to phones. By improving the state of the mobile web, Google makes its mobile search engine more attractive. In doing so, it makes more money.
“If the experience of searching on smartphone is frustrating or poor—if there’s a lot of content that can’t be read—people are less inclined to use Google search,” Sterling says. “And if search traffic declines, Google won’t be able to serve as many ads.”
This may annoy some site owners. When Google demotes their sites, they get less traffic, and ultimately, they make less money instead. But Google warned site owners of the update weeks ago. The site changes required don’t appear that onerous (Google offers a tool for testing the “mobile-friendliness” of sites, and frankly, it approves of many sites that aren’t that mobile friendly). And, well, all this is just part of being on the net.
“It’s a good change,” says Jason DeMers, the founder of AudienceBloom, a company that helps businesses market their sites via online search engines. “Complying can be complicated, but for smaller sites, it’s really pretty simple.”
In all likelihood, this is just one push in a series of pushes from Google, all with an eye towards a mobile web that’s far easier to use. That’s what we all want. And it’s what Google wants too.