Unless you happen to work in search engine marketing (like we do), it’s pretty easy to overlook Google releasing an update to the algorithm that determines search engine results. While major updates happen every so often, the algorithm is quietly adjusted almost constantly to keep the highest quality, most useful web sites at the top of the results pages for millions upon millions of searches.
Most of the time, these updates – even the larger ones – pass by without changing things around too much. But the most recent update could have a massive impact on websites for everything from small businesses to major universities.
On April 21st, Google announced the rollout of what’s been ominously dubbed the “Mobilegeddon” update. This change is meant to boost the rankings of web pages that are “mobile-friendly”, or that can be viewed easily from a smartphone, while negatively impacting the rankings of those that don’t have specific mobile design tools in place. While the update only applies to searches that come from smartphones, with mobile web traffic now outpacing desktop traffic in volume, this could mean a pretty dramatic hit to incoming visitors for those left unprepared.
Why Could This Be a Problem for Your School?
For the sake of example, imagine that your department offered an online MBA program and had a page (or pages) dedicated to offering prospective students information about the degree. Several thousand people search for either “online MBA” or “MBA programs” or some variant thereof every month, which is a large potential pool of new enrollments that are already interested in pursuing an MBA.
Ranking on the first page for such a competitive search term isn’t easy, but following “mobilegeddon”, it’ll likely be near impossible to engage smartphone users if your relevant web pages aren’t prepared for mobile traffic. If your pages aren’t mobile-friendly, regardless of where you ranked previously, Google will instead send search engine users to other related web pages that are. This means that instead of capturing a massive market of potential students, you’ll be left missing out as competing institutions with mobile designs take hold of the top spots.
Even if the “mobilegeddon” update hadn’t happened, not having sites that are programmed to adapt to mobile visitors (or a dedicated, separate site with a redirect for those using smartphone browsers) has a significant, negative impact on the user experience – not to mention its effect on whether or not they pursue your program.
A 2012 survey published by Google found that if mobile users encounter a site with usability issues, 61% of them will move on to another site immediately. On the other hand, if their experience is positive and easy to use on a smartphone, 67% of visitors are more inclined to engage with the featured service or product. With the increased emphasis on mobile traffic and the overall shift towards smartphone browsing, it’s safe to assume that these numbers have only increased over time.
Suffice it to say that not making your sites and web pages mobile-friendly could potentially have a clear, adverse effect on new enrollments.
How to Prepare
For .edu domains, especially in cases where schools and departments have each developed their own unique websites, this can be a somewhat tricky issue to resolve from a logistical standpoint. The update doesn’t analyze sites as a whole, but scans individual pages for mobile formatting, meaning that each page needs to be set up to handle traffic from smartphones. The reality is that many schools may not have the resources to undertake this kind of project, or it may take months to coordinate between departments and make the necessary changes. Meanwhile, it’s very likely that sites that aren’t prepared for Google’s mobile update will see drops in traffic within the next few weeks.
That’s where we come in. At All Campus, we’ve always believed in the power of the mobile audience. As a result, we have a great deal of experience ensuring that web pages are mobile-friendly.
Regardless of whether you’re seeking the help of an external partner, if you’re concerned about the status of your own pages, the first step is use this tool to scan each page in question and identify any potential issues. These are just some of the things that Google looks for when determining whether or not a page is mobile-friendly:
1. A defined, responsive viewing area
Nowadays, the devices people use to browse the internet vary widely in terms of their screen size, which means each page has to adjust its sizing and viewable area to account for smartphones, 30-inch desktop monitors, and everything in between. Google scans for lines of code that dictate how a page should respond to mobile users in terms of sizing. This applies to the design and layout of the site as well as text. Everything should scale to suit various sizes and remain legible without requiring pinch-zooming or sideways scrolling.
2. Easy-to-use spacing for touchscreens
If you’ve ever used a site that isn’t mobile-friendly on your smartphone, then you’ve likely encountered the infuriating process of accidentally tapping on the wrong link, going back, zooming in to make the links larger, precisely lining up your finger with the desired button, missing again, and on-and-on it goes until you leave the site in a huff. A frustrating experience like this will almost certainly turn away potential students. Well-designed mobile sites leave plenty of space for fingers to navigate the site without bumping into unwanted links.
3. Doesn’t use flash for animations or other content
It may be a complex problem to solve, but the value inherent to maintaining a strong, mobile-friendly user experience is absolutely immense. Not only will this help engage with mobile users, which now comprise the majority of web traffic, but now, with this mobile-focused update, it’ll also help you stay well-placed in search engine rankings. “Mobilegeddon” isn’t the end of the world, certainly, but being unprepared might cut you and your program off from a large potential audience.
To learn more about All Campus and what we can do for your school’s online programs, click here.