How Google’s mobile algorithm change has impacted online retailers

April 2015 ushered in one of Google’s biggest algorithm changes, nicknamed “mobilegeddon” by tech experts around the world. While the change was heralded as one of the most significant algorithm updates of recent years, a few months on, what effect has the change had on e-commerce retailers?

Figures on “mobilegeddon” are hard to come by and some experts believe it had a limited impact.

However, marketing and e-commerce digital group Econsultancy has conducted research into how the algorithm change has impacted major brands, including Barclays and British Airways in the UK. The research clearly found that “sites which are optimised for mobile have benefitted, while pages which aren’t mobile friendly have fallen down the rankings”.

Here are five things online retailers in Australia need to know about the change.

1. It hasn’t been as devastating as predicted

James Horne, Managing Director of Balance Internet, believes the algorithm update wasn’t as bad as many experts originally predicted, which he largely attributes to Google having provided businesses with enough time to make changes to their sites before the update was implemented.

Jamiel De Abrew, Digital Media Analyst at Next Level Online Marketing, works with Balance Internet and reinforces the point that this early warning about mobilegeddon was important in giving businesses time to optimise their website.

“Sites had a scare when Google sent them an email,” he says. “A lot of people took action and the algorithm didn’t affect as many websites as we were expecting.”

2. Mobile growth isn’t going anywhere

Google’s algorithm change was very much driven by the growth in use of mobile devices. Google has recognised that if people are searching on mobile devices, it needs to return websites that are optimised for those devices.

“People are always browsing on the move, and they are becoming more comfortable with shopping on mobile as speeds and image rendering improve,” says Horne.

While users are becoming more open to the idea of buying products and services on their mobiles, conversion rates on mobile devices still remain low. “The common behaviour is to browse on a phone and to buy on a desktop,” says De Abrew.

3. Google aims to improve overall usability

All of Google’s algorithm changes are aimed at making the internet better for users.

This is key for online retailers – all elements of a website should be designed around making it easy and simple for customers to navigate and make purchases.

Think about how you can improve the experience for your customers – can you provide them with larger and better-quality product images? Can you reduce the number of times they need to click to make a purchase? Is your website as easy to use on a phone as it is on a desktop?

“This is a user-experience [UX] change – other changes have been more textural, but this one is about UX,” says Horne. “The question to ask is: ‘are you looking after the customer?’ If you are rewarding your customers, you get rewarded.”

No-one knows what Google is likely to do next, but James Horne says it could be an algorithm change around conversions. “Google might start guiding users to sites that convert better and to those with low bounce rates,” he says.

4. There are options when it comes to mobile sites

There isn’t just one way to think about a mobile website.

Some online retailers might opt to build a stand-alone mobile site for both phone and tablet. Others might decide to have a fully responsive site that can be adapted in size, according to the user’s device. And some might want to have their own online shopping app.

“We normally suggest that our customers either optimise a mobile-only site or optimise a responsive framework, but it really depends on their customers and where they are coming from,” says Horne.

A mobile-only site is more complex to maintain and update, but it can be a much better option if a lot of your traffic is already coming from mobile devices.

5. Use all the Google weapons at your disposal

This particular algorithm change dealt specifically with mobile optimisation, but Google still takes other factors into consideration when returning search results.

“While the mobile-friendly change is important, we still use a variety of signals to rank search results,” says the internet giant. “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.”

De Abrew confirms that Google still considers factors such as popularity, relevance and reputation when it comes to search queries. “If you have a physical outlet, get listed on Google Maps and Google Earth and be relevant. Consider having a Google+ account, as this can also help to lift your overall standing,” he suggests.

Two easy ways to ensure your site ranks highly is investing in an AdWords campaign or a Shop Now advert. “Both of these can be powerful and they can even be device specific,” says Horne.

If you are still unsure where your website traffic is coming from, it is time to get to grips with Google Analytics.

“If you aren’t using this, you are crazy,” says De Abrew. “There are lots of insights to be had. Things like bounce rates, page load speeds, conversions, time of day – it’s all valuable information for businesses.”

Google Analytics is free and there are a number of online training programs available.

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