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The Persuader

My personal blog, started in 2006.



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20.04.2015

Musings on making friends with mobiles

I see Google has messaged me in Webmaster Tools about some sites of ours that aren’t mobile-friendly.
   No surprises there, since some of our sites were hard-coded in HTML a long time ago, before people thought about using cellphones for internet access.
   The theory is that those that don’t comply will be downgraded in their search results.
   After my battle with them over malware in 2013, I know Google’s bot can fetch stale data, so for these guys to make a judgement about what is mobile-optimized and what is not is quite comical. Actually, I take any claim from Google these days with a grain of salt, since I have done since 2009 when I spent half a year fighting them to get a mate’s blog back. (The official line is that it takes two days. That blog would never have come back if a Google product manager did not personally intervene.)
   When you’re told one thing and the opposite happens, over and over again, you get a bit wary.
   To test my theory, I fed in some of our Wordpress-driven pages, and had varying results, some green-lighted, and some not—even though they should all be green-lighted. Unless, of course, the makers of Wordpress Mobile Pack and Jetpack aren’t that good.
   Caching could affect this outcome, as do the headers sent by each device, but it’s a worry either for Google or for Wordpress that there is an inconsistency.
   I admit we can do better on some of our company pages, as well as this very site, and that’s something we’ll work on. It’s fair enough, especially if Google has a policy of prioritizing mobile-friendly sites ahead of others. The reality is more people are accessing the ’net on them, so I get that.
   But I wonder if, long-term, this is that wise an idea.
   Every time we’ve done something friendly for smaller devices, either (a) the technology catches up, rendering the adaptation obsolete; or (b) a new technology is developed that can strip unwanted data to make the pages readable on a small device.
   Our Newton-optimized news pages in the late 1990s were useless ultimately, and a few years later, I remember a distributor of ours developed a pretty clever technology that could automatically shrink the pages.
   I realize responsive design now avoids both scenarios and a clean-sheet design should build in mobile-friendliness quite easily. Google evidently thinks that neither (a) nor (b) will recur, and that this is the way it’s going to be. Maybe they’re right this time (they ignored all the earlier times), and there isn’t any harm in making sure a single design works on different sizes.
   I have to admit as much as those old pages of ours look ugly on a modern screen, I prefer to keep them that way as a sort of online archive. The irony is that the way they were designed, they would actually suit a lot of cellphones, because they were designed for a 640-pixel-wide monitor and the columns are suitably narrow and the images well reduced in size. Google, of course, doesn’t see it that way, since the actual design isn’t responsive.
   Also, expecting these modern design techniques to be rolled out to older web pages is a tall order for a smaller company. And that’s a bit of a shame.
   It’s already hard finding historical data online now. Therefore, historical pages will be ranked more lowly if they are on an old-style web design. Again, if that’s how people are browsing the web, it’s fair: most of the time, we aren’t after historical information. We want the new stuff. But for those few times we want the old stuff, this policy decision does seem to say: never mind the quality, it’s going to get buried.
   I realize Google and its fans will argue that mobile-friendliness is only going to be one factor in their decision on search-engine ranking. That makes sense, too, as Google will be shooting itself in the foot if the quality of the results wasn’t up to snuff. At the end of the day, content should always rule the roost. As much as I use Duck Duck Go, I know more people are still finding us through Google.
   What will be fascinating, however, is whether this winds up prioritizing the well resourced, large company ahead of the smaller one. If it does, then those established voices are going to be louder. The rich melting pot that is the internet might start looking a bit dull, a bit more reflective of the same-again names, and a little less novel.
   Nevertheless, we’re up for the challenge, and we’ll do what we can to get some of our pages ship-shape. I just don’t want to see a repeat of that time we tailored our pages for Newtons and the early PDAs.

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Filed under: business, internet, publishing, technology—Jack Yan @ 09.00

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