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GUEST OPINION Why mobile performance matters in 2014

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Google has upped the mobile ante with an aggressive stance on mobile SEO and performance for 2014. Three months in, Chris Liversidge, CEO, QueryClick assess the likely impact of this move

“Smartphone users are a significant and fast growing segment of Internet users, and at Google we want them to experience the full richness of the web.” So stated an update on the Google Webmaster Central blog, posted in June, warning of its plans to clamp down on sites that are misconfigured for smartphone users. Performance issues such as faulty redirects inevitably disrupt a user’s workflow, and Google has been explicit about its intention to implement ranking changes to improve the mobile web.

In August, Google went further with another update, announcing the search engine’s most aggressive target for mobile site performance to date: sub one second page load times. Google’s guidelines focus specifically on rendering ‘above-the-fold’ content in under one second while the rest of the page continues to load and render in the background. In its explanation, Google cited usability research by Nielsen Norman Group, which found that users’ concentration is interrupted when response times exceed one second.

Enforcement for this aspiration comes via Google’s usual source: algorithmic rewards for sites achieving this goal and penalties for those that fail to meet its targets. You just need to look at how industry commentary has exploded around desktop site speed issues over the last couple of years to see the impact this strategy has had. It is not so long ago that large organisations considered a page loading time of 10 seconds to be a success rather than a problem which needed to be fixed.

Very few e-commerce sites would meet Google’s requirements without at least some modifications. Indeed, while global mobile device loading times are dropping year on year, the average remains at just over seven seconds. Add to this the announcement that smartphone ranking will now exclude sites running Flash assets if the device won’t support it (iPhones, for example), and it is clear that online retailers have work to do.

Given Google’s commitment to mobile, it looks like 2014 will be the year that retailers are forced to address the performance of their site on smartphones. And unfortunately, a strong history of ranking highly means nothing when search engines change their rules. So if you want your site to continue ranking well and avoid losing out to your better prepared competitors, now is the time to start making improvements to the rendering of your ‘above-the-fold’ content.

Will we see a difference over the next 12 months?

Before Google ramped up the importance of page speed for its main desktop algorithm in 2010, uptake amongst webmasters to implement its performance recommendations was poor. And although many today would argue that uptake still has a long way to go, sites in competitive SEO niches have certainly made great strides. More and more businesses are demanding fast websites, which have the dual carrot of preferential rankings and better conversion rates. Put simply, more traffic and happier users will tend to convert to revenue in bigger volumes.

Over the last year, Google’s audience has begun a dramatic shift from desktop to mobile and tablet devices. With this trend set to continue, the importance of this segment of users is growing daily. In the end, Google’s incentive for smartphone performance will undoubtedly force an improvement in mobile performance.

While it would be easy to rest on your laurels and whinge about Google’s power in shaping the Internet, these changes need not spell doom and gloom. Those mobile retailers who react quickly and effectively have a valuable opportunity to steal a march on their competitors. And if you are constantly fighting in a competitive SEO niche, getting your mobile performance up today could give you around 12 months of competitive SEO advantage.

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