If you’re reading this, I can only assume that the world did not come to an end. Predictions of imminent doom have been circulating around as a result of Google’s algorithm change this spring, which has promised to upend search engine ranking as we know it. Hopefully you’ve escaped the destruction, but if your site is scattered amongst the ruins of the “mobilepocalypse”, I may have a rope to pull you out of the debris.
OK, I’m probably taking a few dramatic liberties here. If you’re not a nerd like me and don’t keep up with search engine news, the biggest story of 2015 has been the change that Google has made to its search engine ranking “signals” (basically, the various factors that are fed into their formula to determine ranking). That update is a simple one, but it’s unfortunately a change that many web site owners are unprepared for.
What is it? Essentially, Google has added “mobile-friendliness” as a substantial ranking signal to its search algorithm. At a very basic level, that means that if your site is “friendly” to mobile users, you may see a ranking boost; conversely, if you don’t have a mobile-friendly site, you might see your ranking decline.
I use the terms “may” and “might” because Google doesn’t really explicitly state when and where the mobile-friendly assessment will directly impact ranking. Google has made it clear that mobile-friendliness should affect mobile rankings (in other words, a search from your phone or tablet), because they want to make sure that a mobile user gets to a page that is friendly. But Google has also made it clear that mobile-friendliness won’t trump good content – in the words of a Google spokesperson, “if a page with high-quality content is not mobile-friendly, it could still rank high if it has great content for the query.”
What all that means is that you might see a ranking drop if your site isn’t mobile-friendly, and that you’re probably more likely to see a ranking drop for mobile searches, assuming your content isn’t otherwise more compelling than your competitors’. For any given business, it’s hard to tell whether this will have much impact, but you shouldn’t ignore it. It might even affect you more than you think it could.
Why? Because, whether you’re aware or not, a big chunk of searches for your site are likely coming from a mobile device. Worldwide, mobile web usage averages anywhere from 40–50 percent, depending on whom you ask. For our clients, mobile usage isn’t quite that high, but it’s getting there – 35–45 percent mobile traffic is not unusual for a promotional products web site.
That means that a third or more of your users are likely coming from mobile devices, and if those users are doing their searches on those devices, your ranking for 30–40 percent of your prospective customers could suffer as the result of this change. So while I recommend against a full-blown freakout, you should absolutely be aware of what’s happening, and assume that this will become even more important in the future.
What is Mobile-Friendly and How do I get it?
Of course, regular readers know that I’ve been pushing mobile-friendliness for quite a while. Just two columns ago, I noted “mobile-friendliness” as one of the four most important improvements to your website going forward, and that article includes a good primer on what you should consider for mobile-friendly design.
Since you might be in panic mode, though, I’ll give you a quick rundown of how to achieve mobile-friendliness. You might want to attack this with a “quick-and-dirty” retrofit to your site, or you might want to upgrade to a platform that has mobile layouts built-in. Either way, here are some tips for getting back in the good mobile graces of Google’s search engine:
- Find a provider that includes mobile-friendly layout(s) in their package – Many web and e-commerce providers now include mobile-friendly design in their packages. Your provider might include this as well; make sure you ask. If they don’t, ask them when they’re going to have it. Nearly every web provider worth their salt will soon have a mobile-friendly option, because, well, that’s the way the world is heading. Yours should too.
- Retrofit your site – For a stopgap solution, you can probably find a web designer or developer that can “bolt on” a mobile version to your existing site. Sometimes this strategy can actually be a beneficial first step because it forces you to work with a designer or developer to define exactly what you want to show to mobile users. For example, you might want to just show product information and pricing on the mobile version of your site and disable or hide features that are unlikely to be used by someone on a smartphone.
- Start simple – Mobile-friendliness, as mentioned above, doesn’t necessarily mean that everything needs to be right there for smartphone users. Remember, Google isn’t checking to see if you kept everything but the kitchen sink in your layout; it just wants to make sure that a mobile user can get around easily. Don’t hesitate to keep the mobile version simple.
- Cut out the fat – I also mentioned a couple months ago that speed is becoming more and more important in ranking. This is part of mobile-friendliness as well; often, smartphone users are on slower connections than a desktop computer or laptop on wifi. All of which points to the gradual slimming down of web sites – removing Flash, big images, animations and so on. It’s time to trim out those little darlings that you’ve held on to for so long.
- Think touch – Speaking of little darlings, many websites have menus and navigation that do certain things when a user “hovers” their mouse over links, image or menus. You know the feature – you move your mouse over an “Apparel” link and it expands to show you all the subcategories underneath apparel, without ever even clicking on the link. There’s only one problem with that – mobile devices don’t use a mouse, and a smartphone or tablet can’t tell when your finger is hovering over something. So, you’ll need to get rid of those hovering actions, along with any other animations or interactions that don’t work in a touch interface.
- Prepare for fat fingers – Fingers are unfortunately a much less precise pointing device than a mouse. Therefore, your tiny text links and buttons may be infuriatingly difficult to tap successfully on a smartphone or tablet. Make your buttons and links bigger overall, or at least increase the size and spacing between them when your site is on a mobile device.
Finally, don’t forget the most important piece of advice – Google will help you with this! That’s right – if your site is set up with Webmaster Tools (something I recommend everyone does), Google will actually let you know how you’re doing. For instance, if your buttons are too small, Google will send you an email letting you know that you need to make them bigger. Google ultimately wants a great mobile experience, because it sees that the world is heading rapidly in that direction. So, whether you retrofit your existing site or build an awesome new responsive one, make sure you take advantage of the tools Google offers to make sure that your mobile experience is as smooth as possible.
A version of this article also appeared in Identity Marketing magazine.
As many of you know, Adobe’s Flash technology is on its way out, at least for the kind of animations and banners that most companies feature on their homepages. Flash animations do not work with Apple’s mobile devices, which now constitute a large chunk of the web browsing public. In general, Flash animations do not work well with any “touch” device because of technical limitations. In order to keep our clients at the forefront of web and mobile technology, eBlox is pleased to offer two new services:
- Flash conversion: If you have any Flash-based content on your home page, eBlox will rebuild it in HTML5, which works in all modern browsers and touch devices. HTML5 is the standard that most web sites and devices are moving toward, so conversion of your animations, including their interactive features and buttons, is a wise move for forward-thinking company store managers.
- HTML5 Animation: eBlox will create original HTML5 animations and presentations for your homepage or other site areas (we’ve got a couple of good examples in this project and this one). HTML5 banners work on almost all mobile and touch devices, such as iPads and other tablets, and have the same type of animation, interactivity and “gee-whiz” factor as Flash animations. If you’d like a quote on HTML5 animations or banners for your company store (or any site you manage), please contact us for a quote.
QR codes are popping up everywhere these days, from store windows to packaging to magazine ads. You’ve probably seen them; they look an awful lot like a cross between a bar code and badly-pixelated artwork from a 1980s video game. They’re black and white with big squares on three of the corners and, like their more primitive counterpart, the UPC barcode, they store encoded information in that mass of glitchy-looking pixels.
More information, in fact, than the short set of numbers that a barcode can represent. Originally designed to help automate car manufacturing, QR codes—the QR stands for “Quick Response”—are now employed by marketers of all stripes to transmit a large block of information in an image, often to a phone.
The general idea is this: You see something that interests you —say, an ad, a sign or a shelf tag in a store—and you take your smartphone and snap a picture of the QR code that’s displayed along with it. Many smartphone apps can read these codes and take action on them. For instance, the Google app on your iPhone can decode a QR code directly and read the information from it (the Google app, along with many others, can also do the same nifty trick with regular barcodes).
It’s pretty cool, and there’s something satisfying about deciphering this clutter of computer-generated code into its real-world output. QR codes are also compact, can be printed just about anywhere, and require nothing more than a quick snapshot from your camera to record their information. In some ways, they’re like the quickest note you’ve ever taken.
Take Me Back
Yet if taking a picture of a strange, pixelated code seems a little bit, well, dated to you, that’s because it is. The format of QR codes is almost 20 years old, and there’s something quaint (and, to my mind, a little bit backwards) about scanning codes to get information. In this world of wireless communication, texting, instant messaging, Bluetooth and apps, it’s odd to have to take a picture of a code to get vital information about a company or product.
In fact, if you’re a geek like me, this may give you an overwhelming sense of déjá vu. Back in the late 90s, when the first internet boom was just gearing up, a product called the CueCat was released that did much the same thing – except you had to plug it into your PC in order to read the barcodes. Wired and a number of other magazines joined in briefly with the CueCat hysteria, printing odd slanted barcodes in their publications that you could scan with a cat-shaped reader (I’m not kidding) and have the information input directly to your PC. Because, you know, typing the URL of a website was such a chore – you needed a plastic cat with a cable for a tail to do it for you.
Of course, we now have smartphones with capable cameras, so you don’t need a fake feline to read the codes, and the web browser in your phone can go directly to the web site or resource that the QR code specifies. But, this leads to my primary problem with the current excitement over QR codes—do we really need them? In most cases, at least in a marketing or retail environment, they’re used to transmit very simple information, like the web address of a company. For the marketers, they do have the advantage of also transmitting that the visitor arrived via a QR code—which is great for the marketers to know, but useless for the consumer, who just wants to get information.
So, scan a code with your smartphone, wind up at a website. It’s not too hard to type the URL of a website into your phone (some of you with fat fingers might disagree with me, but still), so it’s tough to see QR codes in a marketing or retail campaign as much more than a gimmick. Mind you, I’m not suggesting QR codes or any type of barcoding are gimmicky when used in situations like purchasing, badge scanning, manufacturing, and so on. But in an ad for a beer company that takes you to that beer company’s website and nothing more? That’s a gimmick.
Which is not to say gimmicks are a bad thing. Many of them work, especially if they have a gee-whiz factor, and QR codes get people excited about what their smartphones can do. Look, it’s a scanner! The risk with any gimmick, however, is whether or not it will hold its appeal.
Should You Use Them?
For marketers looking to make it simple for their customers to get to their e-commerce website or download their app, QR codes are a potentially risky investment. Luckily, they’re inexpensive to implement and relatively innocuous—few consumers will be bothered by the presence of a small barcode in an ad or on packaging or signage. Still, it’s worth considering some of the threats to the long-term livelihood of this old-school technology:
- Wireless replacements: While wireless technology might not supplant QR codes printed in magazine and newspapers, elsewhere the threat of wireless technology is very real. Google and others have put their support behind NFC (Near Field Communication), which is a technology very similar to the SmartPass gas station payment cards and security system access cards that many of your currently use. NFC and RFID (a similar system that is slowly replacing barcoding in many warehousing and distribution systems) both constitute substantial threats to QR codes as they become more inexpensive and ubiquitous. After all, if you could get information about a product just by waving your phone near it (instead of holding up and focusing your camera) wouldn’t that be much simpler? As these technologies get even cheaper and smaller, don’t be surprised to find an NFC code in your favorite magazine or in a shelf talker at your grocery store.
- Limitations: While QR codes can store many times the information of a barcode, they’re still very limited in most forms. They’re fine for a website URL, a link to an app, or a special link to a promotion, but they’re not too useful for longer-form information. It’s best to think of QR codes as a quick way to transmit a short blast of information—at most, someone’s full contact info – but not much else.
- Fatigue: Like all gimmicks, QR codes run the risk of becoming passé, even as they enter the mainstream. As a supplementary form of marketing your product, there’s nothing wrong with throwing a QR code onto your marketing materials. But any marketing strategy that relies purely on QR codes for user response is likely going to be short-lived.
In a strange way, QR codes are actually forward-thinking: they are geared primarily toward mobile users of smartphones. Mobile web usage is skyrocketing and there’s no doubt that a good deal of the future of marketing lies on the mobile web. If you do build QR code campaigns, make absolutely sure that your landing pages (the pages that users go to when they scan the QR code) are mobile-friendly. But I’d recommend against building your mobile strategy on QR codes—they’ll likely be replaced by more advanced technology before you know it.
– Brent Buford
A version of this article also appeared in Identity Marketing magazine.