Many businesses around the world could wake up Tuesday to discover their search ranking has been downgraded. After a monthslong warning period, Google will add "mobile friendliness" to the 200 or so factors it uses to list websites on its search engine.
As a result, websites that don't meet Google's criteria will tumble in its all-important rankings.
Google has made several big changes. Companies will be docked for shortcomings like displaying links that are hard to click or forcing users to scroll horizontally on a lopsided site. In addition, the company recently announced that in certain cases it would also use information contained within apps as a ranking factor for mobile searches performed on phones that run its Android software.
"Since mobile search results are about half of what Google handles, anyone might be at risk," said Danny Sullivan, the founder of Search Engine Land, which closely tracks changes to Google's search engine.
The shift to mobile devices has been a challenge for all businesses, Google included. In the space of a few years, phones have become the dominant portal through which people use the Internet. The United States had 134 million mobile users last year, about 100 million more than in 2010, according to eMarketer, a research company.
And while Google remains the dominant search engine on every computing platform, its grasp on the mobile market is slipping in the face of increased competition from "native" apps expressly meant for mobile devices. Google grabbed 68 percent of the $8.75 billion in mobile search revenues last year, down from an 81 percent share in 2012. But the mobile ad market more than tripled over that time, according to eMarketer.
Google has for years been the world's most widely used search engine and a significant generator of traffic to websites, from major news organizations to mom-and-pop shops. Websites have little choice but to adapt to what Google considers important characteristics.
"People will kick and scream. They always do," said Rebecca Lieb, an industry analyst at the Altimeter Group. "But ultimately this serves as a wake-up call that things change, and Google is going to change with it."
Google's search algorithm is a closely guarded secret, so the company would not say exactly how much that mobile would factor into rankings. Still, it said in a blog post that the change would have "a significant impact" on search results, and it has tried to prepare websites by telegraphing the move two months in advance and giving them tips on how to improve their performance.
"While the mobile-friendly change is important, we still use a variety of signals to rank search results," a spokeswoman said. "The intent of the search query is still a very strong signal - so if a page with high-quality content is not mobile-friendly, it could still rank high if it has great content for the query. The ranking update will not make it rank below lower-quality pages that are mobile-friendly."
© 2015, The New York Times News Service