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What Google’s mobile-first indexing plan for 2018 means for hotel websites

At the end of 2016, Google announced it would be experimenting with a mobile-first indexing plan. While there isn’t a fixed release date, Google webmaster trends analyst Gary Illyes expects the rollout will happen at a time later this year.

So how are things going to change? Well currently, Google’s ranking system focuses primarily on the desktop version of a website. But these days, most people use Google on a mobile device. According to the latest figures, mobile accounts for 52.21 percent of all internet traffic.

As a result, Google is making this update to ensure the vast majority of its audience get the best possible user experience. Based on the upcoming change, the following article will describe the implications for hotels and the steps you can take to be fully prepared for a truly mobile-first world.

How Google’s mobile-first ranking system will work

At present, Google’s algorithm ranks your website primarily on desktop performance. Very simply, the new algorithm will instead focus primarily on the contents of your mobile site to determine ranking position.

It’s important to say that desktop sites will still be part of Google’s new ranking algorithm, but they will be considered less important to the mobile experience.

What are the implications for hotel websites?

Mobile-first indexing will have a major impact on how all websites are ranked. This won’t  result from new factors coming into play—it’ll result from mobile-specific ranking factors becoming primary ranking factors, rather than secondary or tertiary factors.

For hotels, organic search contribution typically accounts for 35-50% of both total traffic and conversions. But when mobile-first indexing comes to fruition, a hotel could see very tangible revenue decline if its website performs poorly in any of the following areas:

1. Site speed
Site speed has a direct impact on SEO for a simple reason: Google wants to direct users to websites that offer the best online experience. That’s why slow loading sites do less well in terms of search engine rank.

Mobile users are typically far less tolerant of slow loading sites than desktop users. So when Google begins to rank primarily by mobile experience, site speed will become even more crucial to your online visibility.

Hotel websites that load slowly could very well see a sharp fall in ranking position. The decrease in organic traffic could also result in an equal decrease in associated revenue. So if your mobile’s site speed is lackluster, making the necessary changes to optimize its performance could have a direct impact on your bottom line.

2. Responsive website development 

Responsive website development

We’ve spoken before about the importance of having a responsive website to offer a seamless user experience. And with mobile-first indexing, this asset will become even more essential.

According to their Webmaster Central Blog, Google has stated that if you have a responsive site or a dynamic serving site, you shouldn’t have to make any changes when mobile-first indexing arrives. That’s because the content on your mobile site will be largely the same as your hotel’s desktop site. Of course, if you haven’t got a responsive website in place, now’s the time to get that sorted.

3. Pop-ups and distracting ads
Pop-ups and distracting ads have an especially poor user experience on mobile. So the decision to include or omit them from your site will become extra important.

In addition, it’s likely that Google Adwords (PPC, pay per click advertising) will also be impacted by mobile-first thinking. Essentially, Google wants ads to not only bring a user to a relevant landing page, but to a landing page that delivers the best experience.

Ultimately, the same things that help (or hurt) organic search performance also impact the cost and efficiency of a hotel’s digital marketing program.

Therefore, don’t be surprised if CPC (cost-per-click) goes up more significantly for websites that either load slowly, aren’t developed to be responsive across multiple screen sizes, or serve a pop-up or distracting advertising to users.

How can hoteliers prepare for this change?

Based on the points above, here are our top three tips to optimize your mobile experience.

Run multiple site speed tests using online tools.
Running site speed tests several times is critical to get a consensus on whether your website really is fast, average, or slow to load.

Google tools such as Think With Google: Test My Site and PageSpeed Insights are great. But it’s best to experiment with other free-to-use tools such as Pingdom Tools, GTmetrix and WebPagetest.

Google mobile speed test

If the result of your test is less than ideal, there are a number of ways you can improve your site speed. For instance, optimize your images for web (aim to reduce their size to around 200 kilobytes or less). Also, ensure your site is uncluttered and not overloaded with content, and avoid using too many custom fonts.

Finally, work with your website maintenance provider to do an audit of scripts, widgets, and integrations running on your site. This will help you identify any specific issues that may be slowing it down.

Test your mobile experience.
Given the fact that the typical consumer switches between multiple devices along the travel journey, it’s crucial that your website is responsive to mobile, tablet, and desktop. But with Google’s upcoming update, it’ll be most important to focus heavily on delivering a great mobile experience.

Where to start with this task? Put yourself in the headspace of a user. Explore your site on mobile as though you’re coming across it for the very first time. To help with this, give yourself a specific goal to see how easy that goal is to complete just by browsing the mobile website. Of course, like all good website usability testing, it’s best if you use someone who is less familiar with the site as yourself, such as hotel employees, friends/colleagues, or even helpful guests.

For instance, you could ask your tester to:

  • Look for a king-size room;
  • Try to find out if the hotel has a pool;
  • Find a good place to eat while you’re staying at the hotel;
  • Look for the hotel’s contact details to change your reservation.

For each task, track the time it takes and the number of taps the mobile user has to make to find the info.

Once you’re done, look at potential sticking points. Where can improvements be made? As a general approach, aim to make the most common scenarios the most accessible. The goal here is to simplify the actions that users must take across the board, while removing as many distractions as possible along the way.

Develop an abbreviated mobile website for fast booking. 
For years, research has shown that although travelers are increasingly spending more time browsing on mobile, then end up booking on desktop. But that trend is changing. Overall, the mobile purchasing experience is getting better across e-commerce websites. Mobile transactions are growing rapidly, and users are becoming more comfortable making purchases away from desktop.

By creating an abbreviated mobile experience, you can give the user the option to immediately book when they enter your site. Abbreviated sites use a simplified menu structure that focuses on core pages, and they avoid overwhelming users’ with too many options.

As a basic guide, an abbreviated mobile experience should focus on core conversion elements that allow a guest to book a room right away, with the option of viewing the whole website if need be.

Stewart Hotel’s website, designed by Travel Tripper, features such an abbreviated mobile experience, displaying only a few major elements as the user first lands on the site: tonight’s rate, a map, a book button, and the ability to click over to the full website.

Preparing for change

As with most Google algorithm changes, the rollout happens gradually, but most SEO experts believe the bulk of these changes will take place this year. It’s important to plan now so your hotel doesn’t suffer any severe changes when it does switch over.

At the very least you’ll want to make sure to have a mobile-friendly site with responsive design. Testing out other new mobile-friendly features such as abbreviated mobile pages would also be wise to do this year as well.

Of course, optimizing your mobile presence won’t just serve the interests of SEO. It’ll also deliver a better experience to your mobile customers. So not only will your website rank better, it’ll also convert better.

Nate Lane

Nate Lane

Nate Lane is a senior global director of business development, product development, and agency operations with 10+ years of experience driving growth and innovation as an "intrapreneur." He's an avid mountain biker, a coffee and craft beer enthusiast, and a proud family man. Contact him at nate.lane@pegs.com.

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