By Chuck Price March 9, 2015
Few things get a webmaster’s attention quite like waking up to a Twitter feed filled with news about a major algorithm update. In the world of SEO, hummingbirds, pandas, and penguins are akin to the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Most algorithm updates come with vague or no warning, but Google recently announced, “Starting April 21, we will be expanding our use of mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal. This change will affect mobile searches in all languages worldwide and will have a significant impact in our search results.”
Game on Google – Time to Prepare for Mobilegeddon
Google may have announced the update early, but it hasn’t exactly been forthcoming with details. Webmaster trends analyst Gary Illyes did share a few details in a recent Q&A.
- Responsive design does not have a ranking benefit
- Mobile friendliness is determined at the page level – not sitewide
- Tablets will not be affected by this update
- Google is currently working on a dedicated mobile index
Preparing for the Update
Google has been telling webmasters to prepare for mobile for years, now. Thanks to the announcement of the Mobile Search update, many webmasters now have a compelling reason to take action. If you find yourself scrambling to be mobile-friendly and can’t decide between a dedicated mobile or responsive design, it makes sense to weigh the pros and cons of each before making a decision:
Constructing a separate mobile site allows you to optimize it for mobile users. Mobile sites may have less content, a different navigation system, or other unique mobile-only options. All of the work in making the site mobile-friendly is done on the server and by the Web designer.
Despite having a separate mobile website, there remains a problem with presenting an optimal display on intermediate resolutions. The device screen widths on the market today have a lot of variations. Some of the standard resolutions are 320px wide, 480px wide, 600px wide, 768px wide, 800px wide, and 1024px wide. It’s generally not cost-effective to have a separate version for each resolution.
A responsive site takes a standard website and instructs the mobile device on how to display it properly. Responsive websites can handle any resolution with changes in CSS files, which affect how the elements on Web pages are presented. Computers, laptops, smartphones, and tablets will all display the website in the best way possible.
“Mobile-only” designs are relatively simple to build and generally economical in development cost. Responsive websites are more complicated to build; having a higher upfront cost. One important consideration is the “lifetime” cost.
Over time, it can be much more cost-effective to build a responsive website and optimize it for all standard resolutions. This also means that future updates related to content are to be done at one place instead of multiple versions of the website(s) that cater to each screen width.
Search Engine Optimization
Most mobile sites are built on a subdomain, m.domain.com. If you choose to go that route, remember to utilize canonical tags pointing to the desktop URL for duplicate mobile pages. This resolves potential duplicate content issues. Don’t put canonical tags on unique mobile content. Both the mobile and the desktop pages can rank for competitive phrases. Responsive sites require no special SEO consideration beyond normal best practices.
From a practical perspective, link-building to one site is more productive and cost-effective than building links to two sites. Mobile link-building is different from traditional link-building and requires a different approach. A responsive design mitigates running a second campaign.
Statistics gathered by a variety of companies show that mobile sites have much better conversion rates. This goes back to the fact these sites are designed only for mobile platforms. They tend to load faster and are easier to navigate. In short, they offer a better mobile user experience than responsive designs.
Preparing for Future Updates
Does your site meet the Mobile-Friendly test? Even if your site makes the grade today, there’s no guarantee that it will continue to stand up to future changes. Staying on top of mobile search trends needs to be a priority item. Mobile designs may not be fully compatible with future mobile browsers or devices. Responsive websites, on the other hand, will most likely be able to work with newer browsers and devices, so they’re more of a one-time investment.
So Which Is Better?
So which type of website is best for you? If you’re still uncertain, here are the highlights of both types of sites:
Pros of Mobile Sites:
- Can be customized for mobile users
- Should be the most mobile-friendly version of a site
- Easier and cheaper to design
Cons of Mobile Sites:
- Recurring maintenance
- Higher costs for updating the content of multiple websites
- May need to be reworked to meet future browsers
Pros of Responsive Web Design:
- Highly flexible – one responsive website works on all devices, so only one site has to be created and maintained
- This is Google’s recommended configuration
- Can be a better return on investment since most responsive sites won’t need much future maintenance to comply with new browsers
Cons of Responsive Web Design:
- More expensive upfront cost
- Doesn’t convert as well
The Bottom Line
It truly depends on what your site is focused on and what you need it to do. Make your website user-friendly, helpful, and relevant and you will have the opportunity to rank in Google organic search, regardless of the website type.