If you’re like most people, you probably searched Google today. You received thousands of results, ranked in order of relevance, delivered in nanoseconds for your review. And, like most people, you probably found what you wanted—or an option that seemed good enough—in the first few results, perhaps on the first 1-2 search result pages at most.
That is the power of Google. And it’s made possible by page rank, which you can think of as two interrelated things.
On the one hand, page rank is Google’s brilliant answer for how to bring order and meaning to web searches. By identifying “signals” that align with a user’s search intent, they are able to surface the most likely and best results first. They do a remarkable job combining multiple signals to determine relevance.
On the other hand, page rank takes advantage of the very human tendency to satisfice—that is, select the first option that seems to meet your need (rather than making an “optimal” decision). This approach delivers tremendous market power to the first page of results, because that’s where most people begin and end their searches. This has led to an entire “SEO” (search engine optimization) industry, which attempts to divine Google’s “secret sauce,” and alter the content and design of sites to increase their page rank, ideally to occupy the coveted first results.
So while page rank in the abstract is like a 21st century Dewey Decimal system for the Web, bringing order to chaos, in practice, it’s also a highly competitive, commercial space that means literally millions won or lost depending on those clicks.
When Google makes a change to the page rank formula (or “algorithm”) people pay attention. And, after many years of stability, they are doing just that: changing why some pages will be returned at the top of results, and some at the bottom. It's been characterized in two broad ways: on the one hand, a change to the algorithm to improve search results from mobile devices (search as a considered system of discovery), and on the other “Mobilegeddon” (the commercial consequences of not being on page 1).
Website traffic coming from mobile devices from 2010 to 2014
In a nutshell, Google will now consider, as part of its page rank formula, whether a website has been optimized for mobile use when someone initiates a search from a mobile device.
It makes sense. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of arriving at a virtually unusable site because, for example, the font is too small on our phones, or links are impossible to tap with our fingers.
Indeed, how many of us have felt rage at a bad design that in the moment when we need some bit of information, does everything—small font, complex layout, pop-up ads, etc—to get in our way?
Much of the frustration has to do with context
"Context" is really how I think about this whole change. Google is making this change because, philosophically, it aligns with what search should be. It also happens—just happens—to align with their market interest.
Similarly, for site owners: You can approach this as an SEO challenge, working to divine the “secret sauce” that powers Google’s page rank. Or, keeping one eye on SEO, you can take a further step back and ask what your users really need? How can your product or service best fit into the lives of your existing or potential customers?
It brings us back to the power of human-centered design. Understanding people—what, why, where, and when they want or need something—gives organizations tremendous power to deliver value where it’s needed. Approach this change by Google in the spirit in which it’s offered: to improve the search experience of mobile users. If you’re likewise thinking about your users, and how best to deliver the experience they deserve, this change will seem less like a threat and more like a great opportunity.