Humans win in ‘Mobilegeddon’

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Humans win in ‘Mobilegeddon’

Mobilegeddon is here!

At least that’s what the headlines are saying. Google, for its part, prefers something less Michael-Bay-disaster-flick and is calling it “the Mobile Friendly update.” Basically, Google is updating its search algorithm to take into account how well any company, institution or individual’s web page functions on small mobile screens as part of its secret sauce for determining how highly it ranks the page in search results.

The folks at Search Engine Land point out that this only affects searches on smartphones, not tablets or desktop computers. Web developers have known about the change for weeks. Yet the shift has caused all sorts of hand-wringing among web users and observers who fret that it might hobble their businesses or activities.

With the algorithm change, USA Today notes that: “A website ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in a search query could hypothetically fall to ninth or 10th place, causing a loss of thousands of dollars in potential business, says independent analyst Greg Sterling.”

I think that this is a pretty good change. If Google’s mission is to bring us the most useful information in the world, it seems logical that on very tiny screens the design and functionality of a site would be as much of a factor in its usefulness as the actual information contained on the page. If I search for, say, Metropolitan Opera performance times, I’d rather get the information from a site that loads well on my phone, even if it’s not the site operated by the Met Opera, as long as the data is accurate. This is one of those things that just .?.?. makes sense.

So if this mobilegeddon update affects 40 percent of the top websites - as USA Today reports that it does - I think that’s fine. It’s all the more incentive for those websites to get it together and create a mobile-responsive design that makes their results usable to me.

But I’m sure that the business owners who fell down in the search result rankings Tuesday are less happy with the change. For example, what if a pizza place that was once my top search result no longer shows up on my phone because it doesn’t have a mobile optimized site? That could feel wildly unfair if the owner thinks that her restaurant is the most relevant to my search because it’s the closest to my house or has the best reviews. (Weighing all of these factors, customers might think the results are unfair, too.)

Even scarier for our slice purveyor: What if Google’s own restaurant results get the job done in the most mobile friendly way? Wouldn’t that feel like Google was taking advantage of its power to harm this business?

The mobile search change comes on the heels of European regulators sending Google a Statement of Objections that accuses the company of anti-competitive behavior. The European Commission said that the company systemically favored its Google Shopping product in its general search results pages. “The Commission’s preliminary view is that such conduct infringes EU antitrust rules because it stifles competition and harms consumers.”

Google argued (convincingly) that it has not actually harmed online shopping rivals as much as those rivals claim. The company also argues consumers have lots of e-commerce choices and they still get a good digital shopping experience.

Mobilegeddon offers a small window onto why the EU’s seemingly strong case against Google might be more tenuous.

At the end of the day, what makes for a good search result is a somewhat subjective notion, whether you’re Google or a vendor or a user. That’s why not everyone will get behind some subjective decisions - like advocating mobile optimization - that seem on their face like a good idea. Creating the most relevant search is a process that relies on opinions of what’s important. It’s not truly objective. And it always create winners and losers.

*The author is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about technology, innovation, and the cult and culture of Silicon Valley.

by Katie Benner

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