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Google's 'Mobilegeddon' shows tech's focus on forced progress

Google's latest update to its search algorithm could hurt businesses that aren't tech-savvy. It highlights how Silicon Valley insists on dragging us all into the future.

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In a very Silicon Valley move, Google made a huge change to its search algorithm this week that will prioritize “mobile-friendly” websites in its search results on phones.

Web pages that don’t meet certain standards, such as displaying readable text without needing to zoom, will no longer appear at the top of results when someone searches using a smart phone. (Google told Wired it would not affect tablet searches.)

This is not the first time a change to Google’s algorithm has created a stir. But, according to Wired, unlike its previous updates such as the codenamed Panda formula in 2011, which affected 12 percent of all English searches, and Penguin in 2012, which altered 4 percent of English searches, this update is not just about streamlining results and subtracting “spam.” This update cuts legitimate content that contributes to a user’s experience.

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“This update is really about Google’s vision of what the web should be—using its search results as a lever to move everyone in the direction it wants them to go,” says Danny Sullivan, the founding editor of Search Engine Land, in an interview with Wired. “If you’re searching for something on Home Depot, you probably still want that…even if it means double-tapping on your screen or stretching the page a bit more with your fingers so that you can see it.”

But Google has its reasons for the abrupt change, which it announced last November: consumer satisfaction.

“It’s really important from Google’s standpoint to do this because it makes the majority of its revenue from search, and the majority of search is now shifting to mobile,” says Scott Strawn, research director at IDC. “If it turns out that apps are far superior to what you can have through a browsing experience, that’s going to be problematic.... They need to make the browser environment as useful as it has been historically on the desktop, and this is a step in that direction.”

Mr. Strawn says changes such as prioritizing of mobile-friendly sites have been a long time coming in the age of technology. Business is a cutthroat world where, he says, if you stand still, “you die.” 

“Clearly, more and more commerce is shifting online [and] part of doing business in this time is that you need to be able to adapt,” says Strawn. “Is it fair? I don’t know. It’s the nature of the world. If you can’t keep up with technology and you don’t have the resources and brainpower in place, you’re going to have problems."

While all modern businesses heavily rely on the tech industry, Silicon Valley lives in its own special version of a dog-eat-dog world, he says, and the products it creates are only accelerating corporate Darwinism. 

“It's really interesting, that it's not just faster, but it’s getting faster at a faster pace,” says Strawn. “Just the fact that processing power improves at such an incredibly fast pace, forces companies to change materially on an annual basis, and that pace of change is not going to slow down any time soon.... It’s fascinating, but at the same time it makes competing in this environment very challenging for those who are not prepared.”

While this latest technological shift to our lives is one that has huge implications for unprepared establishments, certain Silicon Valley giants have made a thriving business out of forcing new technology and standards on consumers. Apple’s latest change to its MacBook highlights how Silicon Valley has been willing to flip the whole table on consumers.

The all-in-one port on the latest MacBook has been called “a taste of the future.” Instead of the laptop having separate ports for a charger, monitor, USB, etc., the new USB-C jack allows for one port to be used for all attachments. But reviewers repeatedly commented on how the innovation was a bit too ahead of its time.  While a future without cords seems like a great idea, we live in a world where most people still need more than one plug-in at a time. It also didn’t help that Apple charges $79 for an adapter with three jacks, instead of just one.

So what is Silicon Valley's relationship to the world? In a place that looks to solve problems before they exist, are we all expected to bend to the tech industry’s will and accept forced progress? Not if you ask Strawn. 

“I hesitate in blaming the technology companies themselves, because everything changes, it’s the nature of the world,” he says. “In some ways, yes, they are forcing change, but there are sound business reasons for forcing that."

Strawn adds that consumers are assisting in pushing this trend. As long as people are willing to pay tech giants to experiment with societal norms, these companies will continue to attempt to redefine the world.

It is also a fact that new technology comes with growing pains. As businesses attempt to find their footing in the 21st century, there will be some who fall and never recover, but there will be others that thrive.

“We went from typewriters to word processors to computers to, now, mobile devices, and the next step will probably be augmented or virtual reality,” Strawn says. “It will continue to change, [and] it will never really stop changing. It’s the nature of humans, I think – to find the next problem and solve it. That’s really what these technology companies are all about, and the ones that do it best, reap the rewards in the form of billions and billions and billions of dollars.”

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