Mobilegeddon: SEO, Fear, and the Echo Chamber
Maybe you haven’t heard, but Google unveiled a new algorithm recently.
On April 21, Mobilegeddon struck.
Meh. Fairly underwhelming. At least by the standards of what many were anticipating. For example, this is the first image that appears in an image search for “Mobilegeddon.”
Scorched metropolis! Helicopters escaping from the blackened smoke! A freaking crater!
Is this an algorithmic update, or a rejected poster for the San Andreas movie? Judging from this image, you’d think Google singlehandedly unleashed unprecedented carnage upon the world as we know it.
Except that wasn’t the case at all. In actuality, Mobilegeddon was about as explosive as Mayweather-Pacquiao.
Author note: For $150 million, I too can hug a man for 45 minutes. Just in case any boxing promoters are reading this.
The Actual Impact of Mobilegeddon
Let’s peek at the data. Pete Meyers made an alternative version of his famous application, MozCast, specifically for the purpose of Mobilegeddon. If you’re unfamiliar with MozCast, you should know that 70 degrees represents an average day of movement in the SERPs.
So with that in mind, take a look at this picture from his recap of Mobilegeddon.
You’ll notice that from April 21st on, only four out of seven days eclipse the 70 degree mark. In two of those cases, just barely.
Is this a higher average temperature than usual? Maybe, but only by a little. If you look at the regular MozCast, it ordinarily looks similar to this graph: a slew of average days, a hot outlier, a smattering of colder days, etc.
Despite the minimal impact, it was hard NOT to hear about all things Mobilegeddon over the course of the last two months; how Mobilegeddon was going to forever change search; how it was going to cause an inordinate amount of mayhem.
The problem is, it didn’t. And as SEOs, we knew better.
We knew it was coming. It’s incredibly rare for Google to announce a tweak to the algorithm in advance. But on February 26 of this year, they did just that on their webmaster central blog. And by all standards, Mobilegeddon is a completely logical update in an online landscape in which mobile searches outnumber desktop searches.
Aren’t we supposed to be the experts, the professionals who are supposed to utilize logic and reason in an effort to better serve our clients? These end-of-days prophecies don’t make us look as such, and I’m embarrassed by these scare tactics.
The Only Thing We Have to Fear is Fear of Ourselves
And when I say scare tactics, I mean it. Here are some headlines from the days leading up to the update:
- Surviving Mobilegeddon: What You Really Need to Know
- Will Google 'Mobilegeddon' Wreak Havoc on Small Business?
- Essential Survival Guide for Google's Mobilegeddon
Maybe you’re more interested in the pictures. Mobilegeddon provided a delectable menu of horrifying apocalyptic visuals.
Even the name Mobilegeddon--created by SEOs, of course--is ludicrous. Anything with the “geddon” suffix is meant to sound like a cataclysmic episode, in which mere mortals are destined to perish. This is a logical algorithm update, meant to make online search more convenient than ever before.
Mobilegeddon is not the first time the SEO industry has entered into hyperventilating terrain. Remember when Google announced they would introduce SSL as a ranking signal? The fear spread quickly. Dan Shure lampooned it fittingly:
How misinformation spreads; HTTPS is a lightweight ranking signal HTTPS is a ranking signal HTTPS is a ranking factor HTTP gets penalized
— Dan Shure (@dan_shure) August 7, 2014
Don’t even get me started on Penguin 3. Just try and erase this image from your mind.
I don’t mean to call anyone out here specifically. I have nothing against Link Research Tools. We’re all culpable, in that we created an environment in which anyone thought this gruesome image was a good idea. What’s startling about this image is that though this particular penguin may lust for blood, the penguin refresh itself actually did minimal damage.
But to be fair, the first iteration of Penguin really hurt a lot of websites AND SEO agencies who engaged in black hat tactics at a large scale. Therefore any mention of the term will inspire fear in the hearts of many of these people.
The same can not be said for Mobilegeddon, however. There was no real precedent; nothing to really point to as a past example of why we all need to be afraid of the big bad Google.
We all had to know that something like this was coming. Back in November 2014, Google introduced the mobile-friendly tag. It’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like. When you do a mobile search, a mobile-friendly result will look like:
It should have been crystal clear to any SEO worth their salt that Google was going this direction. Our public fit of mass hysteria was wholly unnecessary. Not only that, we did ourselves a great disservice. We are the SEOs who cried the wolf algorithm, and now we look like we don’t know what we’re talking about!
And all for the sake of arming the content machine.
Fear is the New Clickbait
The Internet is capable of many things. It can connect me to friends that live on other continents. It can give me up-to-the-minute information on protests in Baltimore. It can even keep track of the stuff I DIDN’T publish.
You know what the Internet can’t do? Take a deep, calming breath.
The content marketing business is only getting stronger. And LOUDER. Just about every study conducted under the sun concludes that brands are investing more and more into content marketing every year.
And why not? For many brands, content marketing has proven to be incredibly effective. It’s done wonders for my company.
But as more brands invest in content marketing, and also effectively become publishers, a consequence of that is an exorbitant amount of content. The output will often reflect the hefty investment. Some sites want to pump out content for the sake of pumping out content. They want to take advantage of every content opportunity, regardless of whether or not they really have anything valuable to contribute.
One amazing tip for creating a neverending stream of content is to observe what’s trending; what people are looking for right now. This is newsjacking, and it’s a practice I preach.
But when a bevy of content specialists such as myself indulge in this practice, we inadvertently start a game of one upmanship. The content arms race we make for ourselves will sometimes elevate stories to make them look SO MUCH MORE impactful than they really are.
If you’ve used the Internet since 2009, you’ve seen a headline like this:
14 Reasons Chris Christie Covered Up the Bridge Scandal. Number 6 Will Shock You.
These are Inside Edition teases disguised as headlines. Will number six actually shock you? Sometimes. Sometimes not. You can ordinarily expect it to be the latter. But you read it anyway, because of the hook in the headline. The reason editors use this format--despite the endless eyerolling of many--is that they generally work. It’s Upworthy’s world, and we’re just writing in it.
This is just one type of clickbait. Now imagine a version of clickbait dosed with the element of fear. Even in an era of new media, when studies conclude that positive, life-affirming stories gain more traction, we’re creatures of habit. There’s a vestigial contingency that lives and dies by the old mantra of “If it bleeds, it leads.”
This is what happened with Mobilegeddon. The echo chamber we SEOs are responsible for creating went into full force, and our echo chamber can from time-to-time eerily resemble a panic room.
Outside of the Panic Room
One of my personal favorite movies is the 90s classic Jerry Maguire. The opening sequence involves the titular character writing a memo...
Okay fine, geez, it was a mission statement. The point is that his mission statement revolves around the idea that sports agents such as himself have sold their souls chasing commissions; they’ve signed a string of athletes with questionable morals, and had less time to care for the ones they actually like. About a week later, Maguire gets fired. He’s the only one agent at his agency that feels this way.
Well, I suppose this is something of a mission statement on my part. But in my instance, I’m comforted by the fact that I’m not alone.
Miss Piggy just karate chopped the Swedish Chef for not making his site responsive #Mobilegeddon
— Ian Lurie (@portentint) April 21, 2015
Little known fact: #mobilegeddon may cause sterility
— Ian Lurie (@portentint) April 21, 2015
And thanks Ian, for retweeting one of my tongue-in-cheek tweets from the day.
— Jesse Stoler (@JesseStoler) April 21, 2015
Even on the day of, not knowing all of the aftermath, Lurie understood just how ridiculously unwieldy the hype machine had become. On May 12, HuffPo UK posted this article courtesy of Jonathan Guy of Aqueous Digital.
Guy is right when he says that, “It’s actually starting to become quite embarrassing now.” When we hit the proverbial panic button, we don’t represent ourselves as the search marketing professionals we actually are. Honestly, would you hire us based on our public display of paranoia and irrationality?
Disarming the Fear from the Machine
I was a child once. Apart from memories of waking up at the crack of dawn to watch Gilligan’s Island reruns on TNT, I remember a breaking news story about a flood in a neighboring town. The news station was attempting to enlist volunteers to toss sandbags that would blockade the flood.
The effort worked. Enough people around the community came out to put in work, and the town was spared from the flood. It was pretty inspirational actually.
My point is: remember when breaking news was a signal of importance?
In today’s media, the term breaking news has lost all relevance. About five years ago, I was watching CNN. A reporter in the field was discussing the ramifications of a United Nations forum on nuclear weapons. Midway through her sentence, the anchor cut her off so they could refocus to the “breaking news.” You thought nuclear disarmament was important? Too bad, because Paris Hilton is going to jail!
That’s a true story. If you want another true story, here’s one: that’s the same day I stopped watching CNN.
Many of today’s content marketers come from journalism programs, myself included. The skillsets required for both trades differ, but not extraordinarily so.
I don’t want my job to become meaningless, the same way that those who came before me in my journalistic ilk rendered “breaking news” meaningless.
I love my job in content marketing. I really do. And I want to keep it that way. I understand that nothing is perfect, and there are parts of any occupation that are destined to bother anyone. But I don’t want to cynically inspire fear as a branding opportunity. That’s not what content marketers should do; that’s stepping on a politician’s toes.
Did Mobilegeddon have an impact? Certainly. And for all I know, it could be the first little step of a much bigger plan.
But we do ourselves a great disservice when we shamelessly pump the fear.
Would you hire the television ad agency that consistently created content around the idea that the Federal Communications Commission was ready to pull the plug on television advertising? I didn’t think so.
I hope that Mobilegeddon is a lesson to all of us in the future. I’m geddon tired of the endless barrage of unnecessary fear amplification.