Warding off 'Mobilegeddon': Google’s increased emphasis on mobile is a wake up call for retailers

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For commercial organisations who live and die by the products and services they are able to sell, dropping off the first page of a search engine’s results can be catastrophic. Given that few users will ever look past the top handful of links, let alone beyond the first page of results, the bottom line really is at stake.

So it was no surprise that Google’s move on April 21 to intensify the emphasis placed by its page-ranking algorithm on the “mobile-friendliness” of websites – dubbed “Mobilegeddon” – made such serious waves. Reports warned of the dangers for small independent retailers, but one study found that household names including Nintendo, Versace, Channel 4, and the Daily Mail were at risk of falling foul of the changes. Another found that two-fifths of FTSE 100 companies lacked a mobile-friendly website.

Google’s decision reflects the fact that mobile devices are increasingly consumers’ primary method of going online. This significant change in how the world’s most popular search engine organizes results is a timely reminder of the importance of good mobile web design for retailers – not only for SEO purposes, but also for creating the ideal environment and experience to drive sales once consumers are on their site.

M-commerce ready for take-off

Having an effective mobile presence is particularly important for retailers as online shopping increasingly migrates from desktops and laptops to smartphones and tablets. A third of UK consumers now make at least one purchase on their smartphone every month, while three in ten admit to abandoning transactions before completion because of dissatisfaction with a poorly-optimised mobile shopping experience.

The immediacy of mobile devices heightens consumer expectations of speed and convenience. Simply replicating desktop web layouts and content on smaller mobile screens is no longer sufficient; brands must create experiences that address the different ways in which consumers interact with content on mobile.

Adapted for the small screen

The particular constraints of mobile devices when it comes to presenting, consuming, and interacting with content call for a fresh and adaptable approach to the design, content, and functionality of m-commerce websites.

Screen size considerably limits the amount of content that can be displayed at any one time, as well as the feasibility of complex interactions. Google’s tool for testing mobile-friendliness particularly calls out the size of text on a mobile screen and the proximity of links and buttons to each other. Meanwhile, the battery life of mobile devices and the reliability and speed of connections to mobile networks restrict the effectiveness of rich media. High-resolution images, video, and interactive content can lengthen loading times and rapidly drain batteries, making consumers more likely to leave a site. In addition, device manufacturers are increasingly following Apple’s lead and disabling the rendering of content built on Flash, a popular but notoriously battery-intensive platform.

Responsive – or adaptive – design, whereby website elements are resized, relocated, or removed acording to the size of screen on which they are being viewed, can ensure the look-and-feel and experience of a brand’s mobile site is consistent and familiar to visitors to the desktop version while retaining on-the-move usability.

Many brands will already have a distinct, mobile-specific website. While this approach can be successful if the mobile experience is distinctive, resembling an app rather than a mobile version of a desktop website, but many such mobile sites can look like limited “lesser” versions of their desktop equivalents.

The importance of relevance

But creating the ideal mobile commerce site is not just about making sure everything looks correct on a smaller screen. Content, features, and the user interface also need to be relevant, and the mobile shopping experience streamlined according to consumer behaviour on mobile devices.

Visitors to m-commerce websites typically have only a limited amount of time to find the information they want; brands should prioritise ease of access to the most-visited areas of their site. For mobile consumers, these are likely to be store locators, product search boxes, and baskets of selected items, but behavioural analytics can be used to identify the relevant parts of individual websites. Interface design should also take into account that the website will be manipulated by fingers and thumbs, rather than a mouse. Navigation and interaction that is driven by gestures will be intuitive to use and expected by consumers who have become accustomed to using mobile devices in this way.

Mobile shopping can be either impulsive or calculated. In either case consumers are likely to be looking for a specific item rather than browsing the site thoroughly, so m-commerce sites need strong search functionality and short, clear navigational paths. Using clearly signposted expandable menus can help maximise use of screen real estate. Finally – and perhaps most importantly – this simplicity needs to extend to the mobile checkout, to discourage consumers from dropping out of the purchase process before the transaction is completed.

Test and test again

Given increasing mobile device ownership and the rapid growth in the volume of online sales completed on mobile, retailers must ensure that their m-commerce sites are fit for purpose for the long term. This means ensuring cross-device and cross-platform compatibility – does a website function properly on tablets as well as smartphones, on Android and Windows as well as iOS? Keeping abreast of updates to operating systems and browsers, tweaking website design and functionality accordingly, and conducting regular stress-testing of a website’s capabilities, especially ahead of periods of heightened demand, will ensure an m-commerce site stands the test of time.

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