shutterstock_114417286On April 21, Google made sweeping changes to their search engine algorithm for mobile devices. Sites that are not "mobile friendly" will appear lower in search results on mobile devices.

Google announced the change months in advance, to give site operators time to make changes. They even provided a Mobile Test Tool to determine if a page is mobile friendly.

Many sites made great efforts to be ready for the April 21 deadline... but neglected to take into account Google's indexing cycle, which may take weeks or months to revisit a site.

One client's site was ready for the change by April 18.  However, Google last crawled the site on April 14.  Now, two weeks after the algorithm change, Google Webmaster Tools still reports 56 pages with mobile access errors (despite that fact that all pages have been fixed).

I am gathering data on how the changes impact a number of sites, and I'll be reporting the results once the dust settles.  However, many sites that made an honest attempt to meet Google's widely trumpeted deadline are still going to be penalized until Google catches up.

Despite the delays, the recent changes are a clear indication of the direction search companies are going.  Sites that have made changes will benefit in the coming months. Businesses that have not upgraded their sites should do so soon.

A responsive website adapts to fit the size of the viewing window. It should work equally well whether it is displayed on a large-screen desktop monitor or a smart-phone.

When you visit a responsive web page, the server sends your browser the complete content for the entire page, as well as styles, or display instructions, for all types and sizes of device. Your browser then uses the style information to determine what to display, and how to display it.

The styles may tell your browser to re-arrange elements on the page, or to discard some elements entirely. Pictures and graphics may be scaled down, type sizes may be changed, and navigation menus may be displayed differently.

On the surface, this sounds like a great idea. The webmaster need only manage one version of each page, and it will be automatically formatted to fit any device.

However, there is a cost! Responsive sites are often made up of many large files. As a result, it can take a long time for a responsive page to download, especially if the user has a slow data connection (which often happens with phones). If the connection is really bad, the page might not display at all.

Also, it's important to realize that desktop users and mobile users are looking for different things. Someone who visits a business site using a smartphone may want to know your business location, or hours of operation; he may want to see a restaurant menu. However, smartphone users are usually not interested in reading large amounts of text, or visiting lots of pages.

Rather than building a responsive website, it often makes sense to build a small number of pages specifically for small-format devices and phones. The pages should contain just the information that mobile device users are likely to want, and they should be made up of small files built to load very fast.

Your server can be configured to automatically send the simplified pages to mobile device users, resulting in a better experience for your customers.

Note that this website is built using a lightweight, responsive commercial theme from Mojo Marketplace.

A custom website, designed and constructed from scratch, can be the perfect way to create a unique image and brand for your business, with precisely the features you want to offer site visitors. Unfortunately custom websites are expensive, often costing tens of thousands of dollars or more.

To reduce costs, many companies purchase commercial themes, which can be uploaded to your content management system to create an attractive, feature-rich website. Most themes allow a degree of customization, allowing some control over the website appearance.

However, there are potential problems when using commercial themes.

Themes are often designed to offer as many options and features as possible, thus increasing sales. But at the same time, to keep costs down, the companies that build themes may skimp on development and testing, resulting in features that simply don't work, or are incompatible with other third-party plugins.

Also, in order to support a lot of features and design options, the theme may be made up of many large files, resulting in a site that is very slow to load. I've worked with commercial themes that downloaded over 100 files!

If you decide to use a commercial theme, choose one that has been downloaded many times (this information is generally shown on the developer's website), and has good ratings. Plan on downloading and trying the theme before making a commitment. If you plan on using other plugins on your site, test them with the theme before investing time in completing the entire site.

Unless you have a lot of experience building websites, you may need to hire a professional web designer even if you use a commercial theme, and the cost to install, test, and configure the theme will likely costs more than the theme itself.

You may also choose to take a hybrid approach. Some web design shops use themes as a starting point, and then create a child theme with extensive customization to meet your specific needs.

Note that this website is built using a lightweight, responsive commercial theme from Mojo Marketplace.

Studies show that over 90% of consumers use online reviews before visiting local businesses, but the majority of small business owners don't even monitor their reviews. Your online reputation has a direct impact on your bottom line.

A quick online search for most businesses will turn up a great deal of information… and sometimes that information is very damaging!

Online “rating and review” sites have become common. In addition to general rating sites like Yelp, Google+, and Angie's List, there are sites devoted to rating many different types of businesses, including restaurants, hotels, auto mechanics, doctors, lawyers, and even funeral homes!

Here are several things you should be doing to protect your online reputation:

  1. Provide great service and a great customer experience.  When things go wrong, have a clear procedure for customers to talk to someone in charge and have the issue addressed, and be sure all your employees understand the procedure, and let customers know about it.  The best way to deal with bad online reviews is to solve problems  before a review is ever posted.
  2. Monitor your online reviews and mentions on social sites.  You can check the major review sites (at least once a week), or you can use a service like ReviewPush or Trackur.  You can also sign up for Google Alerts to find new mentions of your business on the web.
  3. Invest in SEO for your website, and create pages on Facebook, Google for Business (Google+), and online directory sites.  Your goal is to make sure that users who search for your business online will find lots of quality, positive mentions which you control.
  4. When you find a bad review, see if the rating site has a way to challenge the rating, or to ask that it be reviewed by the site moderators.  If not, see if there is a way to post a response to the review.  Be sure your reply is calm and professional. Apologize for any problems that may have occurred, and stress the positive aspects of your business.
  5. You may be tempted to threaten legal action, or to actual contact a lawyer.  In the United States, this is fruitless.  The law is clearly on the side of the review sites, which are not responsible for content posted by users.  The operators of the sites understand this, and ignore threats of legal action.

Learn more about the business of online reviews at the Rating and Review Professional Association.

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