What Google’s Mobile-First Rules Mean For Your Marketing Strategy
Columnist Josh Manion explains why Google's update should encourage marketers to move beyond the mobile Web into native mobile apps.
The news that Google was rolling out a mobile-friendly algorithm should have come as no surprise. As the search giant revealed yesterday, mobile search queries on smartphones now outnumber those on tablets and desktops.
Nonetheless, the announcement was unprecedented in one respect: Google ostensibly manages some 200 algorithms that govern how websites are ranked in its search engine, but changes or adjustments rarely, if ever, trigger public notice. This time, Google announced the change in mobile search months ahead to give companies time to optimize websites for mobile users.
It’s a clear signal. We now live in a world in which mobile increasingly comes first — and that means marketers need to deliver mobile-friendly experiences.
Google Redefines Mobile-Friendly
What’s at stake? Portent, a market-research firm, ran tests based on the new rules and found that, “40% of the leading sites failed Google’s ‘mobile-friendly’ test and may be down-ranked in search.”
Under the new mobile rules, Google will be giving preferential search rankings to sites optimized for mobile. Or, as Google said, “This test will analyze a URL and report if the page has a mobile-friendly design.” The change will affect mobile searches in all languages, Google says, and have a “significant impact on search results.”
Google defines “mobile friendly” as sites featuring readable text without zooming, content sized to a smartphone screen (no horizontal scrolling required), easy use of links and the absence of applications not customary in mobile like Flash. Sites not meeting this standard will likely fall in search rankings, although strong content will continue to be rewarded.
At this point, the rules relate to searches on smartphones, but it’s likely only a matter of time until tablets are added.
Mobile’s Increasing Role In An Omni-Channel Strategy
The key here is the growing importance of mobile in the overall omni-channel marketing strategy. Goldman Sachs, for example, has predicted that the number of people making purchases on smartphones and tablets will grow from an estimated 535 million last year to 1.09 billion in 2018, nearly half of all e-commerce.
Let’s look at the Google news in the context of the marketing funnel. The traditional marketing funnel provides a framework for looking at the customer journey — and marketing investments at each stage — from awareness at the top of the funnel to purchase at the bottom.
We can expect that mobile-optimized sites will result in more customer conversions, because consumers will have a more positive experience when they click through on mobile links. Mobile will become an even more powerful channel to generate marketing ROI and revenue.
Google is known for promoting a last-click view of the world given that it heavily favors its search engine. But in a digital world with multiple Web, social and mobile platforms at play, the consumer can no longer be so clearly characterized, tracked or motivated.
Marketers must optimize spend not just on last-click metrics, but also on lower-funnel retargeting and nurturing activities. That requires a fresh look at the traditional marketing funnel to accurately track and attribute offsite versus onsite behavior to better understand the omni-channel customer journey.
Beyond The Mobile Web
While the attention now is laser-focused on mobile-friendly websites, it’s also important to note that the mobile world includes more than just Web experiences. Whereas mobile websites tend to deliver that first brand experience (think top of the marketing funnel), native mobile apps help engage customers who are closer to buying, or who have converted once and are now being nurtured.
Customers engaging with brands on mobile apps tend to be the best customers. Analysis shows that they engage more, spend more and become brand advocates via social and other channels. As a result, optimizing mobile app experiences is just as important as doing so for the mobile Web.
But using mobile apps to acquire new customers has been challenging because Google searches could send someone to a mobile app, but not to a specific content location within it. As a result, Google has historically sent users to the relevant page within the website as the “page” within the mobile app has not been accessible.
That’s yet another reason why the mobile announcement earlier this year is so significant. Google also reported it will now use information from indexed native mobile apps “more prominently in search,” as new app indexing enables Google to index apps just as it does websites. This applies to the Android app world, and is likely to be extended at some point to iOS.
Let’s look at how this all works to assess the impact to mobile marketing strategies.
If a customer is searching for “hammers” on Google, and Home Depot is competitively ranked, Google can either send the customer to the Home Depot mobile app or the company’s website. Historically, Google would have chosen the website because it was easy to send the user to the best category page, “hammers,” due to how the site was indexed. With the mobile app, the user would traditionally be sent to download the app, update the app, and then begin the search for “hammers” all over again within the app — not the best experience.
Mobile app indexing by Google helps solve this problem, ensuring consumers will be sent not just to the mobile app, but to the appropriate “page” within. This is significant, because in many cases the app delivers a much better experience than the website. And, if Google can send customers to relevant locations within mobile apps, there is a higher likelihood of converting them to a sale.
This shift naturally will drive marketers to extend their current optimization efforts beyond website experiences, including mobile Web, into native mobile apps — and do so swiftly.
The mobile-first philosophy has been about optimizing mobile business — not just the mobile Web. The change in Google’s search rules now delivers strong incentives to create the high-quality, mobile-friendly experiences required to achieve just that.