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New Google rule will penalise Hong Kong government websites lacking mobile versions

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 April, 2015, 9:36pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 April, 2015, 5:49pm

Despite pledging HK$555 million for the "use of IT in government", some Hong Kong government departments look set to be given a huge thumbs down by Google for not offering mobile-friendly versions of their sites.

A new rule introduced by the search giant will penalise sites without mobile versions by giving them lower rankings in search results.

Smartphone users are well accustomed to the frustration of navigating to a website only to find themselves presented with a miniscule version of the desktop site, forcing them to zoom and swipe, trying to click the correct tiny button or link in order to navigate properly.

This is the result of websites that haven't been designed to work well with mobile devices, and is the case for the websites of several major Hong Kong government departments, including Leisure and Cultural Services; Fire Services; Transport; Agricultural, Fisheries and Conservation; and the Hong Kong Post.

A 2013 Google-Ipsos MediaCT report found that more than 95 per cent of smartphones users in Hong Kong users surf the web on their devices every day, the highest proportion in the Asia-Pacific region.

Last November, a market research firm found that Hongkongers born after 1980 are far more likely than their counterparts in Britain or the US to go online via a smartphone or tablet. Seventy-one per cent of Hong Kong respondents said they mostly used mobile devices to access the web, compared to only 18 per cent in the US.

Mobile-friendly websites provide a version designed for smaller screens, as the South China Morning Post does, or use so-called "responsive" designs which resize depending on the visitor's screen-size.

Read more: What business owners think about Google's plan to punish sites that don't look good on mobile phones

"This change will affect mobile searches in all languages worldwide and will have a significant impact in our search results," Google said in an announcement this week.

Experts have dubbed the change "Mobilegeddon" because of the drastic effect it is expected to have on older, non-mobile-friendly sites, such as those operated by the Hong Kong government.

Jeanne Tam, a spokeswoman for the office of the Government Chief Information Officer, told the Post that "government bureaux/departments are encouraged to develop mobile versions of websites in addition to desktop versions. This would facilitate the public to access government information anywhere anytime."

She pointed out that many official websites do already have mobile versions. However, many of these websites failed Google's test for mobile-readiness, presumably because they do not auto-redirect users to a mobile-friendly version as is common practice. 

Google is not the only critic of the government’s IT strategy. Transparency campaigners have long complained of clunky, non-user-friendly government sites and called for better access to official information and data.

“A lot of the infrastructure, both citizen facing and inside of government is very old and lacking,” said Mart van de Ven, a data scientist and co-founder of Open Data Hong Kong.

He added that while the government has improved the look and feel of some websites, such as Data.gov.hk, “fundamentally the mechanisms by which data actually reach the portal are the same old rusty mechanisms they used in the past.”

One lawmaker who has been praised for her use of technology is Legislative Council member Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, who this week won an award from the Hong Kong Internet Registration Corporation (HKIRC) for her official website in a category that assessed LegCo members' online presence.

Ip's website is not mobile-friendly according to a Google tool. Neither is that of the HKIRC.