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IRS.gov

How often does this happen to you -- you type a search query into your smartphone, click on the first link and find yourself at a site that looks like a schematic of an anthill? You know -- tiny letters, paragraphs that run off the page, photos the size of a deer tick. 

It happens to everyone. A lot. And the reason is that way too many sites that rank highly on Google have for whatever reason not bothered to make their sites "mobile-friendly" -- a phrase that simply refers to having a separate format that automatically displays to users who are using a phone or small tablet.

It's hardly a secret that mobile devices are steadily replacing desktop and laptop computers, after all. You may not be aware of it but your browser communicates with every site you visit, passing along information about your operating system, browser and device, among many other things, so it's not as though the world's webmasters don't have access to the information.

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Server data from a community website showing mobile devices used to access the site

Currently, it's reported that 29% -- nearly one-third -- of Google's search queries come from smartphones and tablets and the number is growing fast.

Why would a site not want to accommodate those visitors by presenting a layout that's easy to read and understand? Good question. While it's obviously a no-brainer for retail sites, the simple truth is that consumers aren't just using their phones and tablets when they're out and about, perhaps looking to duck in somewhere and buy something. They're using them at home, at work and at school as well. It's no longer unusual to watch television with one eye while nosing around on an iPhone with the other, so every kind of site needs to make itself mobile-friendly.

If you've muttered to yourself that someone should do something about this little annoyance, rest assured. Someone is and that someone is Google, a name that gets attention from web publishers everywhere.

Web aflutter

The web is all aflutter today because come April 21, Google will be making a major modification to its search algorithm. This is something that happens every now and then and is greeted with the awe and trepidation usually reserved for the unveiling of a new Apple product.

Earlier Google algorithm changes have resulted in many previously successful sites being shoved off the edge of the earth. Companies large and small have literally gone out of business in some extreme cases when they were banished from the first few pages of search results. 

Major changes over the past few years have been aimed at eradicating sites that trafficked in stolen content or played games with keywords, hoping to lure visitors who were looking for topic Y only to find a site that instead specialized in topic X. Or even XXX.

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One site, three formats (Graphic: Coffeecup.com)

The change now pending could be even more far-reaching. It is intended to recognize -- and reward -- sites that are optimized for mobile users. In other words, if your site looks good on an iPhone or other mobile device, it will be more likely to rank highly in Google's index. If not, well ... you can always get a job driving for Uber.

Google takes heat for some of its ventures but no one can say it doesn't try to stay ahead of trends on the web. While those who lose out in the algorithm upgrades are understandably critical, there's general agreement among experts that Google does its best to deliver honest, useful results and that its algorithm adjustments are made with the consumer's best interests in mind.

So the results come April 21 should be mostly good for consumers, even though they're likely to take a big bite out of the traffic totals for many sites that have failed to look out for mobile users.

Smaller sites

PhotoFor smaller sites that use WordPress and other popular content management tools, it's not that hard to get into the mobile era, experts assure us. To test this theory, I went to one of the small community sites I manage and ran Google's mobile test and found my site did about as well as I did the summer I took intensive Russian. Flunked, in other words.

Ah, but salvation sometimes is easy for little guys. I loaded a small plug-in (free, open source) called WPtouch Mobile, activated it and ran the test again, with much better results. If you have a small site, you should do the same. If your site is built in what webmasters call "flat HTML," you may have to do a little more work but it's not all that difficult. Easy-to-use programs are available from comanies like CoffeeCup. That's the good news. 

233 big bad sites

The bad news is that for a large site, becoming mobile-friendly is no simple task. You could just as easily invent a new and improved version of the aardvark as totally rework a site that sprawls over thousands and thousands of pages and has all kinds of complex interactive elements.

Big sites that have retooled for mobile users have spent months and hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more, trying to prepare for April 21, a date that is now circled in very thick red ink on web developers' calendars.

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The IRS may think it can apply for an extension.

Not all big sites are going to make the deadline, however. Some are working feverishly but others appear to be asleep at the switch, a ConsumerAffairs survey found.  

We looked at the top 1500 sites, as determined by Quantcast, and found that fully 233 did not pass. Among the flunk-outs were 8 sites in the top 100, including MSN.com.

Perhaps because they are not as plugged into audience statistics and generally don't sell advertising, .org sites seemed to be over-represented in the no-pass list, including PBS.org and ConsumerReports.org. 

But other no-shows were a bit more puzzling. They included RollingStone.com, which has recently flunked a couple of other tests we could mention. (At the last minute, RollingStone completed an upgrade and now passes Google's test). 

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And then there are the .gov sites. Flunk-outs include irs.gov, weather.gov, nih.gov and senate.gov. It's perhaps not a surprise that many of them didn't make the grade. Given the speed at which government moves, it may very well be that efforts to upgrade mobile readability are just about to get started after a few more studies and may even begin to show results in a few more fiscal years, which would probably be considered -- as the old saying has it -- good enough for government work. 

What about the states? Same story: va.gov and wa.gov lead the no-shows with many trailing behind.

So what?

What does this mean to Joe and Jill Consumer? Maybe not much in the abstract but in terms of the Google searches we all rely on for day-to-day tasks, it may very well mean that some familiar sites no longer pop up where we expect them. The next logical conclusion is that some sites we may not know about will get their chance to rise to the top and may turn out to be not only more user-friendly but much more useful all around.

After all, a site that pays attention to its technology to make sure it delivers the most useful possible product to its visitors probably pays attention to the other parts of its business as well.  

Those who criticize Google for gobbling up so much of the known universe may want to pause and be thankful that, unlike other companies that grab a big share of the market, it at least keeps stirring the barrel, keeping things frothy and fresh rather than stable and stale.

Despite the discomfort it causes webmasters, it should make life easier for consumers. 


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