Search engine giant Google Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., recently changed its search results algorithm to place greater priority on a website's mobile-friendly status when users conduct a search from their mobile devices. This could have a detrimental impact for financial advisors who rely upon the web as a marketing tool if their websites are not rendered properly for smartphones.

In fact, many advisors are not ready for this change, says Maggie Crowley, marketing manager with AdvisorWebsites.com in Vancouver, noting more than 90% of the 870 American and Canadian financial services websites that her company surveyed in 2014 were not optimized for mobile devices.

"Not having a mobile-friendly website [means] you're definitely going to end up lower in the search ranking, according to search engines such as Google," she says, "which is tough and making it harder for people to find you. As a result, you will have less web traffic."

That possibility is particularly concerning because prospective clients are being more proactive in searching for financial services - and using their mobile devices more frequently when conducting those searches, Crowley adds.

"For years and years, [advisors] used things such as direct mail, paid advertisements, television and radio ads to do prospecting and get people to find [them]," she says. "[Prospective clients] are no longer waiting for you to reach them. People are looking for you."

Although a website's ability to be accessed by different mobile devices already was a factor in the way Google determines its search results, the search engine is now allowing users to see a website's mobile-optimized status more easily.

Specifically, if a website is configured for mobile devices, the site will have the label "mobile-friendly" listed beneath its web address when shown as a result for a Google search query made from a smartphone or tablet. In contrast, a website that is not mobile-friendly will not be distinguishable in this way.

"[This mobile device-friendly website configuration] is going to make it that much easier for the user to say, 'This is going to be a good option for me if I'm on my smartphone'," Crowley says.

The increasing emphasis on a website's mobile optimization is not unexpected, says Meagan Hency, director of product marketing with Hearsay Social Inc. in San Francisco.

Prior to Google's announcement, the search engine had been putting more ranking weight on local results - meaning that when someone searches for a term, the results were likely to favour options close to that person's location. So, if a Toronto resident is looking up "financial advisor," he or she is likely to see listings for advisors in that city.

Google's increasing emphasis on mobile-friendly websites was inevitable, as the connection between users searching for local results and their use of mobile devices to conduct such online searches is strong. "When people are searching on their mobile phones, they're most likely searching for something that is local to them," Hency explains.

Although Google indicates that a website's mobile optimization will have a significant impact on search results conducted from such devices, Rob Green, president and CEO of Adversponse Communications Inc. in Vancouver, says advisors shouldn't panic just yet.

"Google has dozens, if not hundreds, of ranking factors," he says. "This [new algorithm] is becoming one of them. We don't know yet how big of a ranking factor this is going to be."

Another factor to keep in mind is that a website's mobile optimization will have no impact on the search results conducted from a traditional desktop or laptop computer.

So, if your website already appears at the top of the search rankings for your location or specialties, Green suggests, you should be paying great attention to this new search algorithm. "If [you're] ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in their city, you're not going to want to lose that," he says.

However, Crowley and Hency argue, having a mobile-optimized website will become increasingly important for all advisors, as more people are using their mobile devices to search for information online.

This belief is confirmed by recent data from Virginia-based comScore.com, which conducts research on the use of digital media. In the U.S., online searches conducted via smartphones increased by 17% between 2013 and 2014. The use of tablets for online searches rose by 28%, while searches using traditional computers declined by 1%.

Thus, if your website is difficult to read or to access on a mobile device because the site was designed for a traditional computer, it's likely that prospective clients will become frustrated with their search experience and simply leave your website, Crowley says.

"It's just one more barrier in the way you target your audience," she adds.

If you are looking to see if your website has made the grade, Google has provided a "mobile-friendly test" tool, which can be found at www.google.com/webmasters/tools/mobile-friendly, to check the level of your website's mobile optimization.

When you plug in your website's address into Google's tool, it will state whether your website is mobile-friendly, as well as provide a visual that lets you see how your website looks on a mobile device. And, if your website is not optimized for a mobile device, Google's tool will explain the reasons why.

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