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Pretty sounding search algorithm updates (Hummingbird, Panda, Penguin...) have plunged many digital publishers into peril as their content plummets out of search engine results pages in consequence.

The decline in visitors impacts the performance of ads, which hits revenue. Under pressure from the publisher and ad sales team, the media title’s SEO and editorial teams try to reverse engineer Google’s update and work out new tactics that will improve their search engine performance.

In the main, quality publishers producing compelling shareable editorial need not worry too much about Google algorithm updates. Google’s focus has generally been to prioritise quality content.

However, a key objective of the Hummingbird update is to accommodate the fact that more searches are being conducted, and more content is being consumed, on smartphones.

As people are beginning to use their smartphone’s voice recognition functions to actually talk to Google search apps, Google has started to respond to search terms given in natural speech, a key part of the Hummingbird update.

'Big whoop', right? No. Massive whoop, especially for the 68% of the UK’s 175 top publishers do not have a digital site that displays effectively for mobile devices.

Rather than just being concerned about content relevance, Google is already looking at the mobile consumer experience of search and content consumption, not just the quality of the content itself.

If a search on a handheld device takes people to quality content that consumers can’t read, watch or view because the site does not display effectively on mobile devices, there’s little point in search engines directing mobile consumers to that content.

Regardless of the secrecy of Google’s algorithm update strategy, I believe there’s an update coming (Kitten, Baby Seal, Chinchilla – whatever cutesy name they want to give it) that will see publishers without a mobile site, both mainstream and niche, drop far down mobile search results pages and then scramble to get a decent mobile site together.

Undoubtedly that will cost them more than just development time. Making such decisions in a rush risks that their new mobile optimised website won’t work as effectively for them as it should. That may cause them problems in terms of content management and ad display, hampering their revenue potential. 

Of course, publishers should start going mobile now. Forget the threat of a search algorithm update, there’s more than £526m up for grabs from mobile advertising.

There’s a few things that seem to be holding digital publishers back from investing in mobile sites.

Some ad tech on desktop sites works for mobile

Some publishers have deployed responsively designed ad technology, so they are already generating revenue from mobile content browsers even if their site isn’t fully mobile optimised.

These publishers simply haven’t felt the same urgency to launch a mobile optimised site yet but it’s definitely on their horizon, and they’re using the performance of responsively-designed ads to evaluate their future needs.

Most publishers aren’t seeing mobile money

Although they’re hearing about the half a billion pounds being invested in mobile ads, most publishers simply haven’t seen any of it yet because they do not have a mobile optimised website.

The non-mobile ads on these publishers’ sites often render so badly on handheld devices, displaying as either huge and interruptive, or with creative so small it's almost invisible, that consumers simply cannot interact with them effectively even if they wanted to, hitting the revenue publishers can earn from mobile.

Even when smartphone and tablet users do interact with these ads, more than half (51% do so by mistake, creating a negative digital experience for mobile consumers.

Good mobile ad formats nestle within digital content, sitting natively and nimbly within editorial, and only launch on consumers’ positive action. To realise the value of mobile visitors, publishers should adopt ad formats on their desktop-designed sites that work for mobile screens.

That will inform publishers’ choices before investing in a mobile optimised site.

App distraction

Probably the biggest delay factor has been the amount of time publishers have spent trying to work out their app strategy.

Two years ago they were enthusing about the iPhone apps they were developing. Then they launched the apps. Then they were promoting their apps.

Over the last quarter it’s gone a bit quiet, perhaps due to the realisation that according to Orange’s 2012-2013 Exposure report, iPhones account for only 31% of the UK mobile phone market.

It’s been a bit like asking a friend in a bad marriage how their partner is – I’ve not really wanted to push it. Some publishers are still trying to make their app strategy work, but the realisation for the vast majority is that the most important content app on a consumer’s mobile phone is the web browser.

Even if the content a consumer is looking for is within the publisher’s content app, consumers are most likely to use a search engine to find it or type a media title’s URL into their web browser rather than going to a publisher’s content app.

Content management confusion

Then there’s the downright confusion about the mobile content and ad consumer experience in the long term.

Digital publishers are worried about investing revenue into new content management systems, responsive mobile site development and exclusive ad supplier contracts only to find out there was a simpler or better mobile strategy.

Large publishers who have 30 sites or more don’t want to get their mobile strategy wrong because they don’t want to have to do it all over again. But with that impending Google algorithm change, they may find they’re forced to make some quick decisions.

Non-mobile brands don’t want mobile ads

Finally, the fact that it’s not very common for certain advertisers in certain vertical markets to have a mobile optimised website hasn’t helped either.

IAB UK data shows that 47 of the UK’s top 100 brands don’t have a mobile optimised website. Despite the increasing use of mobile ads for brand building, these marketers don’t want to drive consumers to a site that doesn’t render effectively on handheld devices, so they’re not running mobile campaigns.

Consequently publishers supporting these vertical markets don’t have the incentive to run mobile campaigns. Until more advertisers are mobile ready, and start requiring media titles to run more effective mobile campaigns, publishers won’t feel the pressure to go mobile.

Digital publishers seem to be in three stages of mobile strategy. Some have taken the risks and invested in nearly everything possible for mobile consumers – apps, mobile sites, mobile specific content and ads – to see what pays off in terms of revenue.

Others have deployed responsively designed ad formats on their desktop sites so they can earn revenue as well as learn about consumer mobile content browsing habits. This is giving them intelligence about the mobile opportunity prior to making their mobile publishing change.

However, the publishers I worry most about are those sitting there in either ignorance or disillusionment, not realising that Chinchilla’s gonna get them. They must mobile up.

Fiona Salmon

Published 29 November, 2013 by Fiona Salmon

Fiona Salmon is Publisher Solutions Director at Vibrant Media and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter.

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Vito Canale

Great article. Really surprised at the number of large publishers without a mobile provision.

almost 3 years ago

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