Mobile website design requires you to make difficult decisions ranging from implementation decisions, SEO impact, and user experience. What do you need to know to deliver the best website possible?
When crafting a mobile website you must decide what actually is a mobile device to begin with? Most people agree that smartphones would be considered mobile. But what about a tablet? What about a feature phone? Should you create separate websites for each of them, or can you combine them?
Those aren’t simple questions to answer, and they vary from business to business. Nor is there any guarantee that an answer that meets today’s needs will remain correct tomorrow. My only word of advice in this regard is to not just look at your site’s analytical data and decide based purely on those. You could look at it and say “I do not need a mobile website that optimized for a tablet because I hardly ever get any hits from them.” It’s entirely possible that the reason there aren’t any hits is that your site doesn’t work very well on a tablet and they are abandoning you. Conversely, if you have many hits from such traffic you may say you don’t need it because they are already on your site. Congratulations, that means you have great content. That doesn’t mean you can’t improve upon things.
Mobile Website Decision: Implementation
The next decision that you will come across deals with how exactly will you implement the mobile website. Are you going to have a separate subdomain such as “m.” that you will redirect all mobile traffic, or will you serve the mobile website from the main URL? If the latter will you explicitly serve different content for the mobile users, or will you go mobile first and implement responsive design?
If you go with the different content route then you must decide how exactly the content will vary. There will come times when you want to update content on both, so you may run into the situation where you have to update two different places and thus run the risk of out of date content. With this approach you are going to run into situations where users need the desktop site so you are going to have to make some form of toggle that lets the user switch back and forth.
If you go with the responsive design solution you are going to run into times when users are downloading extra content just to support mobile. Given that these users typically have poor speeds or costly bandwidth restrictions this solution may prove itself unfriendly to users, but it will allow you to have one website that you will need to support. You’re also limited in that users cannot access the desktop version of the site because they technically are already on the desktop site, it just has some portions hidden away from view.
Mobile Website Decision: SEO Impact
SEO consultants have been very weary of the subdomain implementation of mobile websites fearing that a penalty from Google for cloaking. These consultants had it beaten into their heads that sending out different content based off of the user agent string — a bit of text submitted to a web server saying what web browser you are using — would be considered black hat SEO, or would be considered duplicate content. Google has flat-out stated that this is not the case:
Google only considers it cloaking if you send out different content because you have specifically detected that it was their crawler. If you serve out your regular content to Googlebot and your mobile content to Googlebot-mobile than you will be fine. Google actually likes the “m.” subdomain approach because it is easier to test, and it gives users an idea about what is going on.
Mobile Website Decision: User Experience
That being said, having a separate subdomain may not count as duplicate content, but think of the user experience when a mobile user shares your content on a social media platform such as Facebook or Twitter and a desktop user clicks the link. Because some desktop users prefer the mobile friendly version of a site is not considered a good idea to force them to the desktop site, but now those other users are getting the wrong content. Of course, the “m.” subdomain is a give away that you are on the mobile site so these users may notice and are savvy enough to replace the “m.” with “www.”, or they may click the “request desktop site” link that you should always include.
In the end you are going to have to look at the what makes the most sense for your website. There is no one size fit all solution that can definitively stated as the best way to design a mobile website. Decide what will work the best for your organization. Good luck!