Rank Outsider

Putting on our Internet user hats, very few of us are interested in what actually goes on in the engine of the World Wide Web when we press the “Google Search”.  Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) experts make thousands of pounds a year helping organizations make minor tweaks to their websites and their digital strategies to gain the smallest of advantages over rivals.  Hundreds of studies have been published, trying to understand consumer behaviour when engaging with search results, ranging from where our eyes naturally focus on a page, to hot spot analysis of where we click.

Google, for obvious reasons, keeps very tight-lipped about how they rank websites.  The secret algorithm is probably kept in the same vault somewhere as Colonel Saunders original recipe for his fried chicken and what the US military really found in Area 51.  Every so often they may announce a major change, but on an annual basis they actually make around 500 changes to the algorithm.  Most of these are minor tweaks, all designed to deliver on their strategy of making every search result as relevant to the user as possible.  However, there have been four major algorithm updates, named (in chronological order) Panda, Penguin, Hummingbird and Pigeon in recent years that have had a major impact on search rankings.

However, our searching habits are changing.  Part of that is due to the number of Internet-enabled mobile devices we own and use on a daily basis.  It is rare to see a commuter these days on a train into London not interacting with their mobile or tablet for instance, with free newspapers that used to be hard to come by at railway stations, now sitting solemnly in their racks.  The latest change in the search rankings, dubbed “Mobilegeddon” in some quarters, will have a major impact on how results are displayed for the millions of mobile surfers.

The change in algorithm is focused on websites that are ‘mobile-friendly’ and will see those brands who have adapted their online presence to deliver the same user experience whether the user is accessing via a mobile or fixed device benefit from more favourable ranking.  With more than half of all searches on Google now originating from mobile devices, some very big brands may find themselves falling foul of this new change which came into play on Tuesday 21st April 2015.

In addition, the way it displays the search results may also be a concern for brand holders.  Up until now, the full URL would be listed below the search result, enabling the user to identify the brand within the domain name string.  However, for users in the US, the URL will disappear and be replaced by a breadcrumb-style result.  For instance: www.netnames.com/company/management-team will now be displayed as ‘NetNames > company > management team’.

Before a brand starts thinking how they could potentially fool users into pretending they are someone they are not, Google have issued some criteria.  The details to be displayed need to be included within a small metadata file that is held within the website itself.  This includes ensuring that the title of the website is similar to the domain name used, not misleading and most importantly, unique to your website.  As of yet they have not defined what would happen if two companies who owed confusingly similar domain names would be treated in terms of how results are displayed – for instance someone searching for the Polo mean Polo the game (www.polo.co.uk), Polo the car (www.polo.de) or Polo the Ralph Lauren brand (www.polo.com).

Whilst it is early days for both of these changes, they certainly shouldn’t be ignored by brand holders.  The impact of a decision to do nothing could be costly, especially where every search ranking place makes a huge difference in traffic and ultimately revenue to an online strategy.