Thursday, April 23, 2015

Algorithms Have Consequences: "Mobilegeddon"

We've written before about how algorithms have real world consequences. Remember #Ferguson? Remember the ice bucket challenge? Both occurred around the same time. It was natural that the ice bucket challenge would dominate Facebook--and not Twitter. After all, the point was to share a video of your "challenge," and at the time Facebook was more amenable to posting and sharing videos. (Twitter only introduced their mobile video feature in January, 2015). Yet it seemed strange that only Twitter was talking about the story that had gripped the nation: the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teen, Michael Brown, by a cop, in Ferguson, Missouri.

In fact, people on Facebook were talking about Ferguson. The talk just wasn't showing up on most people's News Feeds. Why? At the time, there was much speculation that Facebook's algorithm had somehow buried the story. To some, this amounted to algorithmic censorship. As Zeynep Tufekci wrote at the time:

"But I wonder: what if Ferguson had started to bubble, but there was no Twitter to catch on nationally? Would it ever make it through the algorithmic filtering on Facebook? Maybe, but with no transparency to the decisions, I cannot be sure. Would Ferguson be buried in algorithmic censorship?"

Tufecki went on to say, famously, "algorithms have consequences."

Unfortunately, for many websites this simple statement will ring particularly true this week. On Tuesday, Google rolled out a new algorithm for mobile rankings--an event many in the media have taken to call "mobilegeddon."

Mobilegeddon, indeed, at least for some sites. We've been writing for weeks about this update, imploring website owners to make sure their websites are optimized for mobile--or else! Before we get to that "or else", we'll answer the simplest of questions: How do you know if your website is optimized for mobile?

1. You can easily take Google's "Mobile-Friendly Test."

2. Alternately, Google your website from your mobile device. Since November, Google has distinguished mobile-friendly sites with a "Mobile-Friendly" tag in search results.

3. You can look for that "Mobile-Friendly" tag, or simply view your site on a mobile device. If you looks like the website below, you might have some problems.

Tiny text: a hallmark of a not-so-mobile-friendly page.

We profiled the website above in a prior article about the change. At the time, the page actually ranked third on a search for "summer blazer." Googling the same phrase today on the same device, we see that the page now ranks sixth--and likely, soon, it will fall off the top page entirely--unless the site optimizes for mobile. 

The downfall of an article about "the summer blazers every man needs" is trivial. (We're tickled by the plural "blazers"--every man needs multiple summer blazers?!) But Google's algorithm updates can have real world consequences that are anything but trivial. 

In one of its article about "mobilegeddon" the BBC profiled the case of Out There Interiors, a web-only furniture store:

"For any online retailer, appearing on page one of Google's search results can make all the difference between a profitable business and one heading for the scrapyard.

Just ask Jenny Hurren, owner of a furniture retailer called Out There Interiors which sells its products exclusively online.

Search Google for "mirrored furniture" and her site pops up on page one...

But in 2011 when Google released the Panda update to its search engine, disaster struck.

'We went from having page one positions, to being nowhere or page six or seven,' she remembers. 'It had a massive impact, we almost lost the business because of that algorithm change.'"

The case of Jenny's furniture store is not unique. The algorithm can make or break many a business. Now, we do have a quibble with the BBC article, which continues:

"Since then, she has tried to depend less on crude SEO techniques, more on the kind of PR which will get the firm linked to from high-quality sources, and so boost its search ranking."

No doubt, certain SEO techniques can be crude. But the author of this article, Rory Cellan-Jones, a "technology correspondent", is likely referring generally to the practice of SEO. How do we know? Well, he seems to misunderstand SEO. Remember, high quality SEO necessarily includes good PR, and acquiring links from "high-quality sources" (by creating spectacular content) is the hallmark of any high-quality SEO firm.

In any case, the writing is on the wall for sites that have not been optimized for mobile: optimize now or risk the one-time fate of Out There Furniture, which nearly went out of business after the Panda update.

As we've seen before "algorithms have consequences."

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