Fiona Salmon: publisher solutions director at Vibrant Media
Fiona Salmon: publisher solutions director at Vibrant Media
A view from Fiona Salmon

Non-mobile publishers face search engine peril

Unless more digital publishers start implementing a mobile site strategy, Google's going to start to penalising them in natural search rankings, believes Vibrant Media's Fiona Salmon.

Some publishers have already responded with mobile sites, with content and ads that work for mobile and that enable them to monitor consumer content browsing habits to get an understanding of the revenue opportunity mobile consumers offer.

My concern is focused on the sizeable number of digital publishers showing apathy towards mobile – as it's conceivable that future updates to Google's algorithm will punish the mobile strategy laggards.

Most digital publishers are already well aware of the power Google's algorithm wields to disrupt traffic to their digital sites.

Many digital publishers have been plunged into peril as pretty sounding search algorithm updates – Hummingbird, Panda, Penguin – have caused their content to plummet out of search engine results pages.

Even media titles with loyal visitors can suffer as traffic to their sites from people using search engines to find editorial are fish-hooked by other sites that match Google’s decision of what users truly wanted to find. The decline in visitors impacts the performance of ads, which hits revenue and makes the sales and ad operations teams edgy.

The media title's SEO and editorial teams – on the back foot, yet again – try to reverse engineer Google's update and work out new tactics that will improve their search engine performance.

Most people recognise that Google's most recent algorithm updates have been to focus on prioritising quality content – which is nothing new in terms of Google’s updates. Undoubtedly, the search giant does an excellent job of continually improving the relevance of its search results.

The updates have also given more attention to content which becomes popular organically by being shared around non-Google sites, like Facebook and Twitter. The quality publishers I work with don't have much concern over these sorts of issues. Whilst SEO is important to them, they produce such excellent content that Google updates actually help rather than hinder their performance in search.

However, Hummingbird signals a move that all digital publishers should be concerned about – particularly as Vibrant Media’s R&D department found that 68 per cent of the UK’s 175 top publishers do not have a digital site that displays effectively for mobile devices.

A key objective of the Hummingbird update is to accommodate the fact that more searches are being conducted, and more content is being consumed, on smartphones. Savvy consumers have often tried to second guess how search engines will interpret the search terms they use by typing in a very specific keyword.

They put extra thought and consideration into their keywords choice to help search engines find precisely the information they want. Yet now, people are beginning to use their smartphone's voice recognition functions to actually talk to Google.

It's almost as if they're speaking to a person at an information desk (and if you haven't tried using an Android or IOS Google Search app, you really should). The impact of the mobile phone has made Google decide that they need to respond to search terms in natural speech – a key part of the Hummingbird update.

This signals that Google is already looking at the mobile consumer experience of search and content consumption, not just the quality of the content itself. Google's own guidelines dictate that pages of content they decide "aren’t viewable on a mobile phone won’t be included" on their mobile site index.

If a search on a handheld device takes people to quality content that consumers can't read, watch or view because the site does not display effectively on mobile devices, there's little point in search engines directing mobile consumers to that content.

I believe that in the not too distant future, search engines will begin to prioritise media titles with mobile responsive sites in their results pages when consumers conduct searches on handheld devices.

Regardless of the secrecy of Google's algorithm update strategy, I predict that an update is coming that will see publishers without a mobile site, both mainstream and niche, drop down mobile search results pages and then scramble to get a decent mobile site together.

Undoubtedly that will cost them more than just development time. Making such decisions in a rush risks that their new mobile optimised website won't work as effectively for them as it should. That may cause them problems in terms of content management and ad display, hampering their revenue potential.

Fiona Salmon is publisher solutions director at in-content digital advertising company Vibrant Media.