With so many conflicting views in the SEO community as to whether it is best to design a separate mobile site or make your site responsive, I thought I should take a look at what Google & Bing recommend. They are the two biggest search engines, so following their guidelines makes sense.
Google have been giving out mixed signals on mobile vs. responsive. Most recently, Google’s John Mueller responded to a Webmaster Help question on mobile sites by claiming responsive web design as the ‘easier solution’.
Mueller sees this as an advantage because ‘you don’t need special URLS… nor would you need to consider how you’d redirect smartphone users.’
However, this is muddied by the official mobile guidelines published by Google’s Pierre Far in February 2011. There is no indication of problems with duplicate content or URLs and Far puts the decision down to the webmaster’s personal preference and ‘how you can best serve your users.’
In December 2012, Google did release an update to their mobile-bot that now crawls the web as a smartphone, but most blogs reported little change to results – Google still seemed to favour desktop sites over mobile sites.
So what is best?
Until there is a new ‘official’ update to the mobile guidelines, Google are completely leaving it up to you, but that reply from John Mueller hints that they favour the ‘one URL approach’ of responsive web design – using media queries to serve different versions of the same site. That he uses the word ‘easier’ also hints that they are afraid to come out in favour of responsive web design because it’s not as easy to do as a static desktop + a mobile site for inexperienced designers.
Congratulations Bing for taking a stance! On the Bing Webmaster Center blog, Duane Forrester clearly states: ‘At Bing, we want to keep things simple by proposing the “one URL per content item” strategy.’
Forrester refers to a Bing document on design site for mobiles and in strong terms says ‘redirection to alternative URLs for mobile content… is not the approach we recommend for best SEO results.’
Great news that they’ve made up their mind, but many people will remain unconvinced because Google still dominates search. However, Forrester makes some compelling points that should swing the pendulum in favour of responsive web design:
Especially for small and medium businesses, it’s not ideal to be building and maintaining two separate websites. You’re doubling both time and money spent on your web presence rather than creating great content!
As Forrester says, these costs add up each year and if you aren’t seeing a return to justify increased costs then what is the point?
Google claim that their mobile-crawler will mean that they always display the mobile version of a site in rankings – which is why it doesn’t matter whether you have a separate site. However, Bing actually indicates that this could have a negative effect on your rankings!
Forrester is talking sense when he writes ‘you have more ranking signals coming to [the desktop] URL.’ After all, who is going to link to the mobile version of your site? There is no way any links will be natural. A lot of pro-mobile site bloggers claim that the mobile algorithms are more focused on sharing than links, but why lose all that great SEO you’ve done to your desktop site? Especially when current research shows that the mobile/desktop results are very similar.
Double the content = double the pages to crawl. Forrester points out that ‘fewer URLS to crawl reduces the bandwidth our crawlers consumer.’ If you run a big site with say 1000+ pages, doubling that to 2000 pages to crawl is not ideal.
Updating a page on your site? With a mobile site you have to do it twice every time. Bing says give yourself ‘less work’ with responsive web design.
Forrester says to use browser detection and follow Bing’s guide to Designing Web Sites for Phone Browsers and to always avoid cloaking.