When you search Google on a mobile device, any website that is not mobile-friendly will be harder to find from today.
Picture: Kārlis Dambrāns
Depending on the website, this may translate to fewer visitors, an apocalyptic scenario that has been dubbed "mobile-geddon".
Being ranked highly on Google search results is important for most organisations with websites, especially small businesses. A high Google rank means your website is easier for people to find, as many people don't read beyond one or two pages of search results.
In other words, if your site is not in the top 20 search results returned by Google, chances are people won't be finding your website quickly, if at all.
How Google works
When you type some words into Google and click the search button, Google checks an index it has created of the web, and finds all the pages that contain the words you searched for. Once Google has the list of webpages that match your search, it organises them in order of relevance.
The precise method that Google uses to order its search results is a closely guarded secret, and with good reason. If Google's page ranking method (or algorithm, in computer science terms) was well known, then people would engineer their web pages to improve their search rank.
Very soon unscrupulous individuals would use this knowledge to promote their web pages, even if they were unrelated to the search term you had entered. Relevant search results would be buried under a mountain of spam.
Despite the secrecy, web developers have deduced a number of well known things that can be done to improve the search rank of a web page. The art and science of this is called search engine optimisation, or SEO for short.
Google's decision to improve the search ranking of mobile friendly sites reflects the rapid growth in mobile browsing. Around 30% of all web traffic now originates on a mobile device rather than a desktop machine, with many sources predicting that mobile internet use will eventually overtake desktop use.
As mobile browsing becomes more common, Google is trying to ensure that its search engine continues to find sites that are relevant to its users. So this change is essentially about maintaining the quality of Google's search results.
But because the mobile test is design-related rather than content-related, it also means that one site can potentially be ranked more highly than another even if its content is less relevant.
Designing for the mobile
A mobile-friendly website is one that is designed to be used on mobile devices. Generally speaking, this means larger text, simpler layouts (single column, like a book, rather than multi-column, like a newspaper), and larger buttons and links which are easier for fingers to click.
From a web design perspective, creating websites that work equally well on desktop and mobile devices presents an interesting design challenge. A site that works well on a desktop often does not work well on a mobile device, and vice-versa. This means that designers often have to come up with more than one design for a web site.
In general, designers attack this problem in one of two ways: either, they create two separate web sites (a mobile one, and a desktop one), or they come up with a single "responsive" design that automatically modifies itself based upon the device that is looking at it.
Most web designers are already adopting a mobile-first approach to design, where web sites are designed around mobile use, and then adapted to desktop, rather than the other way around.
Google's decision to change its page ranking algorithm raises some important issues, not the least of which is how reliant some organisations have become on a single company to direct traffic to their websites.
Although Google is not the only search engine (Microsoft's Bing is its main competitor), it dominates its competitors, getting around two in every three searches in the US. By comparison, Bing gets only one in six searches.
Organisations with older websites, or those which have not been designed to be mobile friendly, may find that making their web sites mobile friendly is not a trivial undertaking. For many, this will mean making a decision between spending money on upgrading the web site, or suffering a lower page rank on Google.
But organisations should consider the impact of the changes on their web site before rushing to update, as not all websites will be equally affected. The biggest impact will be on organisations who rely on people discovering their site through Google search and whose customers are more likely to use mobile devices to find their websites.
Although predictions range from the benign to the calamitous, it's not clear how much of an impact Google's new algorithm will have. Organisations that are concerned about these changes should monitor their web traffic closely over the next week to ensure that they are not seeing a significant reduction in web traffic.
If the number of visits on a site start to fall, it may signal that the site is succumbing to the mobile-geddon, and it's probably time to think seriously about an upgrade.
Sam Hinton is Assistant Professor in Web Design at University of Canberra.