Summary: for the most part the concept of a mobile site is outdated; aim for mobile delivery instead.

What's A Mobile Site All About?

mobile-phones

Not long ago browsers on mobile telephones were as clunky as the very first mobile phones themselves.

Many mobile-specific recommendations you read on the web date back to this era.

Between the limited capabilities of those older phones (text only, to name one) and the very limited screen estate (3 to 6 lines of 12-20 characters per line!!!), mobile browsers felt like a proof of concept ("look, it works!!") more than anything else.

Because of the severe limitations there was no way in hell you could just send your web site to a phone like that. You had to make a 98% stripped down version of your site. Think of it as summarizing a page on your site, including essential navigation options, to a 140 character tweet — that's how bad it was.

Companies that could afford it did their own "clunky mobile browser" sites. The golden days of WAP development!

For those who couldn't or wouldn't pay special services sprang up; mobilizers. These services would essentially take your site, rip most everything out and deliver the mangled, stripped down version to a phone.

Opera built such a service into their browser giving Opera Mobile a very speed feel. Google still runs one.

"And we are calling it iPhone!"

apple-reinvents-phone

January 9, 2007, isn't a turning point in the history of the mobile web — it's where the mobile web really began.

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone.

The iPhone, Steve explained, didn't come with a so-called WAP-browser (what mobile-specific browser were called); it would come with a real browser, Safari.

"Now I want to show you something incredible, I want to show you Safari running on a mobile device. I'm going to load in the NYT, rather than just give you the WAP version, we're showing you the WHOLE NYT web site. I can put this into landscape mode and there it is, I can scroll up and down here…"
– Steve Jobs

It was amazing, it was unbelievable; it looked precisely how you imagined mobile to be — like the real web, but smaller.

The iPhone made mobile specific crapped down minimalist versions of a website not needed, redundant, outdated.

One Website, Multiple Platforms

Since then we're moving to a web where you have your one web site and deliver it in such a way that every sane device can show it to its best potential.

Using browser-sniffing and/or so-called media-specific style sheets make it so your web site can look great on an iPhone, an iPad and a desktop PC.

One Site, One URL

internet-in-your-pocket

With the difference between mobile and "real" site disappearing, the need for a mobile-specific URL is disappearing as well.

Search engines, web surfers, web site owners and — yes — sheer sanity cannot continue to let the web fragment into isolated pockets of trimmed down-ness.

Besides the fact that it would make no sense to continue to do so a serious problem is too that the mobile web lacks the history and pattern of the traditional "real" web. That means that many essential ranking factors don't work for the old "mobile" web. A link to m.example.com/great-post.html does not benefit www.example.com/great-post.html — and that makes no sense.

The future proof solution is to use one URL for all versions of your web site and deliver as to the capabilities of whatever is requesting your page; and to leave the judgement of those capabilities to the device doing the requesting. It will do or not do certain things based on device specific stylesheets; you don't need to decide that for it.

Of course common sense good practices remain applicable. Huge image file size was already not a good idea for the traditional web; for mobile it's neither. Keep it slim and speedy. Deliver what you have to, no more.

What Do Google & Bing Say?

Remember that this is an emerging situation but this is where things stand at the time of writing.

Bing (formally):

"At Bing, we want to keep things simple by proposing the one URL per content item strategy. For each website, instead of having different URLs per platform (one URL for desktop, another for mobile devices, etc.), our feedback is that producing fewer variations of URLs will benefit you by avoiding sub-optimal and underperforming results. It can help manage unwanted bandwidth usage as well."
Building Websites Optimized for All Platforms (desktop, mobile, etc.)

Google (informal):

"An easier solution, if you can do it, is to just serve smartphone and desktop users from the same URLs, using something like special stylesheets or CSS3 media-queries to optimize the content shown on smartphones. The advantage of that is that you don't need special URLs, think about the crawling and indexing of them, nor would you need to consider how you'd redirect smartphone users."
John Mueller, Google Webmaster Trends Analyst

Conclusion

  • Much of what you read about mobile SEO and mobile recommendation is outdated
  • The gap between mobile and regular internet is fast disappearing
    • …and so automatically does the need for mobile-only versions
  • Instead of spreading your link love and efforts over multiple URL's, use one and the same URL to deliver to all devices
    • which does mean you target the desktop, tablets, and smart phones
    • but you don't target WAP browsers
      • Should you try to target those? What's the ROI vs the effort, seriously?

Macworld images: Engadget

Ruud Hein

My paid passion at Search Engine People sees me applying my passions and knowledge to a wide array of problems, ones I usually experience as challenges. People who know me know I love coffee.

Ruud Hein

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12 Responses to “Q: What URL Should I Use For My Mobile Website? A: Responsive Design”

  1. Cory Howell says:

    This is spot on with what we recommend for all our clients who want a mobile site.

    One URL is the best option and the only thing that prevents this from being utilized more, is perhaps the cost – and even that is becoming less of a hurdle these days.

  2. Ruud,
    Very timely post! Just a few days ago Nielsen released a study stating that 50% of all cell phones are smart phones in the US. Analytics show that most common mobile devices are iOS, Android and Blackberry. I think, the biggest concern now should be speed.
    Lyena

  3. Jared says:

    "Instead of spreading your link love and efforts over multiple URL's, use one and the same URL to deliver to all devices"

    Exactly. This is great advice for anyone starting a website that has long term goals in mind. If you optimize for mobile in the beginning, you can save yourself a headache later.

  4. Mike Wilton says:

    Do you think that sites that adopted the mobile site structures of the past that use a mobile subfolder or subdomain with mobile specific content will be impacted by the search engine's desire to have one URL for all content? I think responsive is the way to go, but with so many sites using subfolders or domains for mobile content I imagine it's going to cost companies a ton of time and money to adopt to responsive web design and make sure sites work on various devices.

    • Ruud Hein says:

      Search engines don't know what they want yet; Bing is the first to come out in favor of the one URL option. But Google has long made a difference between mobile content (WAP-ish kind of stuff) and smart phone type of content which they do *not* consider mobile content.

      A company that has already invested in a mobile site shouldn't have to revert its decision or investment.

  5. jeff loquist says:

    We (somewhat) recently spent a loooonggg time discussing the idea of a "mobile friendly" site when the traffic to our sites from mobile devices started hitting double digits (currently 17% with 14% of revenues coming from mobile). And then after speaking with our Google reps we are estimating 25% by the end of the year. Needless to say this got the wheels turning.

    Upon further digging, though it turns out 80% of that traffic is coming from Apple products and 98% from tablets & smart phones (which are site works amazingly well from).

    I have a feeling these are pretty common numbers.

    This is a a long, drawn out way to say my feeling is it is more important to worry about page load times and usability than building out a "mobile" site as most sites out there will work fine with only a few (if any) alterations.

    • Ruud Hein says:

      And that's the beauty of doing things The Right Way, isn't it Jeff? If you build your site responsibly then it will work everywhere the right way :) I keep hearing Holmes in my head: make it right the first time

  6. Henry Sim says:

    I love that – one size fits all. One URL should be good enough for all versions of website. This also make it easier for web designer and developers. By default, we don't include mobile ready website and we have cases of clients coming back to us to request for that. It's a different price quote.