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.
Your web site is an advanced piece of technology. Even if it’s a few years out of date, it’s still quite astonishing that information, products, videos, music and more are all at our fingertips on a daily basis. It’s easy to lose our sense of wonder about all this – just two decades ago, very little of what we now call the internet existed. Now, most of us depend on it at some level for social interaction, shopping, research, and business transactions, among many other things.
As that sense of wonder has slowly vanished, replaced by the workaday reality of checking your bank balance or ordering a pair of shoes, it’s worth remembering that there’s still a little bit of room for fun online – even on a buttoned-up e-commerce site. I’m not suggesting that you plaster your online store with cat videos. But it might not hurt to lighten up your presentation – a dose of character, properly administered, could give you the online personality to stand out from the crowd.
If this sounds trivial, it isn’t – if there’s one thing I hope you’ve learned from these columns over the years, it’s that uniqueness is one of the most important traits your website can have. Unique, original websites rank better than websites that substantially duplicate one another, and with promotional products and apparel, you’re competing with thousands of other sellers offering overlapping product selections. There are numerous strategies for making your content stand out, and many of them are labor-intensive and expensive. Injecting some fun into your website is cheap and easy, and you might even enjoy it. Why not give it a try?
If you’re stomping your feet, grousing about being a “serious business”, think about that for a minute: this is primarily a marketing business, and many of your customers are marketing professionals. They love fun. They want to know that you have at least a small creative bone in your body. Jazzing up your website with a touch of personality shows them your creative, entertaining side.
Beyond that, simple, bright, easy web sites are the norm these days. Years back, you decked out your web presence out in dark, serious, corporate colors to impress potential clients and show them that you were, you know, for real. These days, few people expect (or respect) that kind of presentation – we live in an app world, where attention spans are short, technology is back behind the scenes, and unique ideas and character get you eyeballs. Drop that dark maroon and stifling gray and get with the program – fun, open, simple web sites attract visitors and reflect well on your company.
Put a Face on it
Let’s start with the easy stuff. First, think about getting some people on your site. I don’t care if it’s a stock photo (as long as it isn’t that same blonde-haired call center operator that nearly every e-commerce site uses), just put a human being out there. For promotional products and apparel e-commerce sites, this action alone can make a big difference. Unlike buying a book or DVD, an ad specialty order can be an intimidating process, and visitors like to know that a human being is there to help them.
Want to take it to the next level? Put yourself and your employees out there! This is often a business of relationships, so why not just go out there and show people who you are? Smiling faces give visitors confidence that they’ll be taken care of. If your employees enjoy their jobs – if they have fun with it – get that out there! You don’t have to have them dancing in hula skirts and playing ukelele, but a happy face can help keep a visitor sticking around a little longer.
Add Local Flavor
It’s tempting for any online business to downplay their location – you want to be available everywhere, to everyone. For some businesses, if they’re big enough, talking about where you are or where you’re from doesn’t make much sense. But most small to medium-sized businesses will benefit more from talking about their location than simply trying to be a faceless juggernaut.
Why? Because of that uniqueness factor. Everyone is selling everywhere these days, so touting your “everywhereness” (and hiding your location) doesn’t really buy you much as a business – unless you’re huge. Instead, a touch of local flavor is a great way to make your content unique and give visitors a sense of who you are. You don’t have to make it a dominant feature of your web presence, but talking a little bit about the region or city you’re in in your blog posts or “About Us” section is a good start. Even better, tie it in with your employees and let them tell a little story about themselves!
Tell More Stories
This one may seem obvious, but your customers are often your best storytellers, and you should put them on your site. But it can be hard to get a good customer testimonial, which is why they’re often dry and uninteresting. So, go beyond the “Linda went above and beyond” pull quote and actually let them tell a story – let them have some fun.
If they don’t have a good story to tell, you can always make one up and ask for their permission. Just don’t think about testimonials as a stuffy, prove-how-professional-you-are endorsement. In face, so many testimonials read that way that they’re frequently ignored. A fun testimonial, on the other hand – say, a “here’s how Jill saved my bacon at a tradeshow” kind of story – shows that you solve real problems for real people.
Make it Move
It’s hard to overrate the value of videos on your site. They make content unique, offer a means of introducing yourself to your customers, and can even kick up a little bit of social media awareness for your company if they’re done right.
A great way to do them right is to have fun with them; product usage and demonstration videos are a fabulous place to start. If you’ve got a fun product, have some real fun with it – toss a stress ball around, hit the sidewalk outside with an umbrella, or go drive a few branded golf balls and talk about them. Remember, you tell stories about your company and your people with these videos, and if you make them fun, you not only give your visitors something to enjoy; you also show them your expertise.
How’s that? Well, when you handle something with comfort and aplomb, you appear as an expert. It’s the dry, nervous, overly formal presentation that drives viewers away. The more fun you can have with product videos, videos introducing your staff and anything else that you care to put out there, the better. Start your own Youtube channel (it takes a few seconds), get out your smartphone and start recording!
Finally, while social media sharing for e-commerce is a decidedly mixed bag, having a bit of fun with your web site increases your chances of getting noticed – videos get shared, stories get likes, and you begin to build up an online character that customers enjoy. Those social signals help with search engine ranking, as does the originality of your content – there’s really no downside. So loosen up that tie and inject a dash of fun into your site!
A version of this article also appeared in Identity Marketing magazine.
We’ve been building technology for the promotional products/wearables business for almost 14 years, and we’ve learned a lot of lessons along the way, including how challenging it can be for e-commerce sites to rank well in search engines. We finally decided to distill years of experience practicing and teaching search engine optimization into a free eBook.
This easy-to-digest volume includes tips on how to correct problems with your site, how to build original content and how to leverage some of the idiosyncrasies of search traffic to craft a strategy for grabbing more visitors and sales. It’s almost 30 pages of SEO goodness and knowledge and it’s absolutely FREE. Download it here.