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Why following Google to optimise web design isn't always best

By Rob Short, Digital Account Manager

There are several reasons why Google is central to many online marketing strategies: it’s the most popular search engine in the world for a start- and as consumers – we tend to search for information online rather than visit a website directly.

From a business perspective, a Google-centric approach to SEO makes a lot of sense – you’re catering to the largest market. Therefore, it’s important to ensure your website is well optimised for Google and that your products and services are highly visible in its SERPs.

But does it make sense from a strategic perspective? Essentially, Google dictate how most of the web should be – how things should look, how they should work.

Don’t get me wrong – there are lots of pros to this, amongst them:
1. It leads to better industry standards – in the quest to get favoured by Google, a lot of companies have invested in improving their websites to make them more user friendly
2. There’s more relevant content on the web and thanks to Google’s fight against web spam, it’s now harder to find spammy sites when searching online

But to me, there are a lot of cons to this:
1. It can lead to bad strategic decisions, blindly taken because it’s what you ‘need’ to do to please Google
2. There are other search engines, marketplaces and channels that should be catered for, especially if you operate in global markets
3. Google don’t always live up to its own standards

Let’s take the relatively recent update that made SSL certificates a ranking factor as an example. SSL certificates are designed to protect user data by encryption – they exist for things like ecommerce sites, or sites where sensitive information is being sent online.

If you have a brochure site which doesn’t capture any visitor details, why on Earth do you need an SSL certificate? You don’t. But people are being misled into thinking they have to, purely in fear of ‘dropping down the rankings’.

Another example is the update to favour sites that are mobile friendly. Nothing wrong with this on the surface – I’m a big advocate of mobile friendly sites; and every aspect of a site should ideally be tailored to the user’s device.

But Google’s own standards for measuring mobile friendliness are abysmal as their mobile optimisation algorithm lacks any subtlety: you’re either mobile friendly or not. In reality, there are so many factors that make for a truly mobile optimised experience; it’s not simply a case of making sure your site scales to fit a smaller screen – messages and calls-to-action (CTA) need to be tailored as well. On this basis, you cannot promote or demote sites on an essentially yes/no basis.

Google promotes its Mobile Friendly Test Tool as an indicator of how good your site is on mobile and what needs to be improved. Having tested it with sites that I know provide a very poor mobile experience, I wouldn’t feel confident using the tool for any kind of analysis. The sites I tested with were responsive which was deemed to be enough to pass with flying colours. But these sites were not well optimised. The webmasters might have rejigged the design and content into view, but the structure and order of that content was not clear nor user friendly. So, when you’re out and about and say, want to find your nearest chain restaurant, is a giant newsletter signup box that half-fills the screen really what matters to a mobile user? No. Did that site pass the Google test? Yes.

To me, the saddest part in this quest to make Google happy is that we end up all trying to do the same thing which stifles innovation and creativity.

The result? The online world will end up homogenised – and nobody will stand out unless they try to do so.

In no way am I advocating a return to the 90s when the internet was a virtual Wild West. But I do think it’s important to focus more thought, energy and creativity into website design when the criteria for ‘doing things right’ is getting quite rigid. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to web design and development, just as there isn’t to any other channel of marketing.

China is an interesting example of this – the online shopping mentality is so different. Largely dominated by marketplaces, such as Alibaba and Tmall, that some argue there’s little point in having a localised ecommerce website in China at all; and who can blame them when roughly 90% of Chinese electronic retailing occurs on virtual marketplaces*! Sometimes, a standout website will forego SEO considerations entirely; shunning the idea of being highly ranked in Google in favour of being shared on Social and publicised via PR to gain visibility and traffic. Arguably, Google did this themselves with the excellent Android KitKat site amongst others.

Of course, a campaign website allows for a certain degree of flexibility and creativity in approach. Nevertheless, in terms of a more ‘typical’ website, we should look beyond the homogenised web for design considerations. A well thought out user journey, with the customer in mind, will facilitate a website design that stands out from the crowd.

This underscores the importance of properly investing in your online presence. Your website is your shop window after all. Delve into your website metrics and evaluate not only what can be improved, but also whether pleasing Google is the right route in any case.

For more information on how you can improve your web design for mobile, call us +44(0)1273 480 404 or email info@caburnhope.co.uk

*Mckinsey – China’s e-tail revolution

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