Does Google Hate Mobile Subdomains?

Since Google announced its most recent smartphone ranking changes last month, I’ve seen a number of commentators online saying that Google will penalize you if you don’t use a responsive site. This isn’t the case.

Your risk of being attacked by Bigfoot riding a Sharknado may be greater than your risk of becoming less visible in search as a result of dedicated mobile URLs.

Your risk of being attacked by Bigfoot riding a Sharknado may be greater than your risk of becoming less visible in search as a result of dedicated mobile URLs.

I’ve gone over many of these issues in detail in past columns, but here’s a short rebuttal for those of you who are considering hosting your mobile site at a mobile subdomain (like m.exampledomain.com) instead of making a responsive site.

The Risk Of Duplication Myth

“There’s a risk of duplication,” they say.

I say…

I have yet to see convincing evidence that dedicated mobile sites lose out to responsive design sites in mobile search rankings. In fact, I’ve seen m dot sites perform well in mobile search even when they fail to employ bidirectional annotations.

I recently heard a speaker who claimed that making the switch from a dedicated mobile site to a responsive design had led to a rankings boost for one of his sites. However, when I looked at that site itself, it was clear that the site had previously been penalized, meaning that the boost could well have been the result of a manual penalty being lifted. Whether this was due to the switch to responsive, a more user-friendly redesign in general, or a reconsideration request in conjunction with the new site launch is unclear.

In fact, because there are more m dot sites out there in general, there are more successful m dot sites in search results today than there are responsive sites.

Look, there’s a risk of being eaten by a Sharknado – but since I have never seen one in person, I’m going to assume that risk is low.

The Google Penalization Myth

“All of Google’s recent rankings demotions were related to mobile subdomains,” they say.

I say…

Not all of them, actually. In fact, if you read Google’s list of common mistakes in configuring mobile sites, you’ll see that several of them apply to any kind of mobile setup. In fact, one of the things they include is poor page speed — and responsive sites are notoriously slow compared to their non-responsive counterparts.

Even so, the fact that most of Google’s recent ranking demotions were related to issues with mobile subdomains merely reflects the fact that the great majority of mobile sites out there are hosted on mobile subdomains. When Google posted these common errors originally, they posted them as the most common smartphone configuration errors.

Because mobile subdomains are the most common mobile configuration, it stands to reason that Google would see more errors from mobile subdomains than from responsive Web design. If responsive websites were more common, we would probably see Google addressing things like a lack of relevant keywords, incompatibility with an international audience, and lack of feature-based innovation as common errors. As it is, they focus primarily on common errors on sites that were built with mobile subdomains.

The “Responsive Is The Future” Myth

“Separate mobile websites are a relic of the past,” they say.

I say…

They said the same thing about static websites when Flash was in vogue. If you want to know how that turned out, try visiting a Flash-heavy website on your iPhone.

If you’ve been in SEO for a while, you know enough to be skeptical when designers and developers are trying to predict the future of the Web. Many of them chase the latest trends without considering the user. Since we rely on people to visit and use our websites, this strategy is not sustainable.

If designers and developers could predict the future, they wouldn’t be working as designers and developers, but would likely be in Vegas letting it all ride.

Designers who have been cheerleaders for responsive design as the future of the Web have pointed to Google Glass as evidence of the need to separate content from presentation. Yet mobile sites look best on Google Glass. Where’s the responsive revolution?

Finally, it’s hard to say that responsive design is the future of the Web when it fails so many users in the present day. How can something be the future of anything if it doesn’t work all that well today?

Final Thoughts

No, I’m not anti-responsive Web design. In fact, I believe responsive Web design can be extremely user friendly if you do it right and it’s appropriate for your audience.

Unfortunately, many do not consider the audience or do it right. All too often, it’s just the solution for site owners who are more concerned with efficiency than user experience. That doesn’t make it a bad solution, per se, but it’s often not the best one for the user or the business.

As Google’s analytics and customer experience guru Avinash Kaushik recently said, “Non-mobile friendly websites suck. Desktop sites with responsive design for mobile devices just suck less.” He continued:

Avinash on M Dots

Not everyone at Google hates m dot sites. Officially, they support them as they support responsive Web design and dynamic serving. What they hate is any site that doesn’t satisfy the user, including some responsive sites.

Keep this in mind and your mobile SEO will soar — m dot or not.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Mobile Marketing | Google: Mobile | Mobile Marketing Column

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About The Author: is the SEO Director at Vivid Seats, is an SEO veteran with more than 14 years experience both agency and in-house, and is a thought leader in permission marketing as a columnist and a frequent speaker on SEO and mobile marketing.



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  • Joe

    I disagree, respectfully of course. You addressed Flash as a big trend that
    everyone followed and we see where that went now, but that was pre-Google, or
    in its infantile stages when Yahoo still had a decent market share. That was
    also when you could stuff your page with your keyword over and over and not get
    hit. Websites weren’t jockeying for position then. Another trend that as huge
    was CSS over tables and CSS is not going anywhere for a while.

    Another issue is with redirects, a problem Google took on directly. http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com/2013/06/changes-in-rankings-of-smartphone_11.html
    How can you avoid faulty redirects? Simple, don’t redirect and have your mobile
    site serve on the same domain. Further, while responsive may be slow, but m.dot
    is much slower. A site needs to go through steps on the back end, DNS lookup,
    TCP Connect, Send/Receive Request, and server processing. A typical smartphone
    latency is about 300 ms so these the three requests required here would take
    about .9 seconds to load any code. Now add in the m.dot which redirect
    everything and makes you do those three steps twice and you are looking at 1.8s
    just for code to begin rendering. Behind a secure socket layer? That’s one
    additional round trip bringing your load time to 2.1s for code to render.

    While I agree in some aspects, we can’t fault responsive design. In the end, just
    like most problems, it comes down to a technology bottleneck. Cell service is
    spotty and slow, and phones, while quick, lack the capability as of today to
    effectively load sites. Responsive, in my opinion, is the future and cannot be
    compared to flash.

  • markmic

    I both agree and disagree with your thoughts regarding mobile sites. Google has made it clear in every meeting I have been in with their reps that they want us to focus on responsive and/or adaptive websites. Yes, they prefer ‘m.’ websites at the moment over ‘desktop’ sites for mobile users because user experience is primary, however going forward, all other things considered, our company will focus on responsive as our web template of choice because we have been told this is what the Google gods prefer. From their lips to our server.

  • http://www.send2press.com/ Christopher Simmons

    Great job getting in a #sharknado reference :-) Nice to see another perspective on m. domains, too; we chose to move to responsive vs adding a mobile site (delayed messing with Page Speed right now …). From all of this I still feel good we went with a responsive makeover vs adding a m.ourdom.xyz … if nothing else it ‘s going to be MUCH easier to manage long-term with our tiny staff

  • http://www.send2press.com/ Christopher Simmons

    and I thought I was the only one calling them “google gods” lately ..

  • http://www.brysonmeunier.com/ Bryson Meunier

    Joe, thanks for your comments. Regarding Flash, your experience doesn’t jive with mine, as Flash development hadn’t really decreased among agency clients until around the time that Steve Jobs released his thoughts on Flash in April of 2010. And in some industries (e.g. paradoxically the restaurant industry where mobile access is most needed), Flash sites are unfortunately still the norm. This phenomenon is definitely not pre-Google. But the point is, if you want your website to be accessible and competitive, it’s best not to do things to alienate users, and as popular as it is, responsive web design, in spite of being preferred by Google, can seriously alienate and confuse users (see http://searchengineland.com/how-common-are-seo-problems-with-responsive-web-design-152672).

    I also disagree that mobile subdomains are generally slower than responsive sites. Either one can be made fast, but as I said in an earlier column, performance experts like Akamai’s Guy Podjarny have gone on record as saying that in general the average responsive site is slower than the average m dot site: http://www.guypo.com/technical/responsive-web-design-is-bad-for-performance-there-i-said-it/

    Again, I’m not anti-responsive design. I just think people like you have too much faith in its ability to be the way of the future when users are having a lot of problems with it in the present. And if responsive design is not right for the users, Google doesn’t recommend it.

    Time will tell whether responsive web design will have the same shelf life as Flash, but the fact that they’re both preferred by many designers in spite of the problems they cause for the user leads me to believe they have more in common than you know.

    Again, I appreciate your comments and thank you for making responsive websites that are actually responsive to a user’s needs. That is unfortunately not all that common.

  • http://www.brysonmeunier.com/ Bryson Meunier

    Thanks for your comments. No idea what your business is, but responsive makes a lot of sense for some sites (i.e. news, blogs) and not for others. If Google reps know that your business is in the former category, of course they’re going to tell you to steer that way in meetings. It’s also better for them because it uses fewer resources. But it doesn’t negate the fact that responsive sites are not naturally optimized for mobile search traffic, as many people seem to believe. The fact remains that if responsive web sites don’t provide the best user experience, Google doesn’t prefer them: “If responsive design is not the best option to serve your users, Google supports having your content being served using different HTML. The different HTML can be on the same URL or on different URLs, and Googlebot can handle both setups appropriately if you follow our recommendations.” It would be best for your business (and for Google) if you figured out what’s best for your users before you put up a site that they can’t use.

  • http://www.brysonmeunier.com/ Bryson Meunier

    Hi Christopher. Thanks for your comments! No doubt efficiency is important, but it’s not optimization. You should also consider that the right content management system will allow you to update content across platforms, erasing the need to update two different websites.

    Without knowing your business, I can’t know whether responsive is right for it and your users, but if you’re confident that you’ve made the right choice that’s great. Unfortunately I see many people making the wrong choice and alienating users with RWD, but I’m glad you’re not in that category.

  • markmic

    I do agree that user experience is the trump card and maybe in time responsive can be done in a way that UX gets maximized. Even though I use the word responsive, we actually went with a design that is more ‘adaptive’ than ‘responsive’, in that the pages load for mobile devices one way and tablets and desktop another. It can be tricky with different devices as what looks good on iphone may not look so nice of an android. We are not going to roll it out for another two weeks as we are testing ad CTR’s at the moment, so we may even have the mini-tablet and even the tablet version mirror the phone version. I am going to forward your article and comments to our developer for their thoughts. Thanks for the conversation.

  • markmic

    Maybe that’s why google reps are telling developers to go with responsive, because they cannot guarantee they can serve up the ‘m.domain’ version. And great question… whatever happened to the ‘.mobi’ domain idea. Did they just die an early death as the technology surpassed the concept?

  • http://www.send2press.com/ Christopher Simmons

    Hi, Bryson; fyi, I’ve been doing webdev since 3/95, ecom since 1/96 (including for Oprah and No Fear); custom CMS since 2002 and some sites with WP since 12/04. So, not a noob ;-) One of the reasons I chose to go with “one for all” vs the multi-format approach, was a personal bias for using an iPad at night while watching TV the past 3 years and being irritated to get the “low rent” mobile version of a site, when I wanted the “full strength” version (car sites, Google search, etc.). Obviously those sites could have programmed better, but I’m still in favor or the “real site” vs a sometimes watered down mobile one, but then I don’t surf on my phone unless an emergency, and our main sites are B2C/B2B where we don’t offer coupons or directions to our company or that kind of thing. I think both approaches work, but maybe personal bias comes in somewhere, too. In our case, we did ask clients if they had an opinion, and most didn’t even understand the question … (‘what’s an ‘m’ domain?’) … we also chose not to do a mobile “app” — but that’s another story ;-)

  • localleadscoach

    I’m so tired of this argument. Why are people so fixed on what Google
    wants? We deliver what the users want, it’s the users who pay us not
    Google. If you rely on Google to dictate your business your a fool. If
    you reply on just Google for the majority of your website traffic, your a
    fool. Done with my rant….keep up the great work Bryson! You have more
    patience than me :)

  • StevenVargas

    Agreed. Listen to google but do whats best for your business or clients.

  • http://www.brysonmeunier.com/ Bryson Meunier

    Thanks, Martin! Yes, it’s unfortunate that more people don’t do what’s best for their business and their users, as that’s what will help them succeed in Google. In this case, though Google may prefer responsive web design, they really leave it up to the webmaster to decide whether it is best for the users, and sometimes it’s not. It’s great that Google has an opinion on this, but if their preference hurts users it’s not going to help anyone. This includes Google, who really needs to get mobile right in order to survive as a company.

  • http://www.brysonmeunier.com/ Bryson Meunier

    M dot sites aren’t synonymous with limited features. You can build a site on a separate subdomain that has all of the features that the desktop site has. The argument that m dot equals stripped down content is a false dichotomy that responsive advocates use to further their cause. In fact, if you look at Moovweb’s clientele (Macy’s, Bloomingdales, Sports Authority, etc.) their clients have One Web content on a mobile subdomain, but the content is altered so as not to present content that is intended specifically for desktop users (e.g. printable coupons, QR codes, printable maps, etc.). So-called responsive sites, even those that are award-winning, must present the same content to all users, which doesn’t present a good user experience in many cases (http://searchengineland.com/how-common-are-seo-problems-with-responsive-web-design-152672). I’m guessing when you say you want access to all features on a desktop site you mean only those features you can actually use, but responsive sites can’t make the distinction. Mobile subdomains can, and can provide a better, more relevant user experience when used correctly.

 

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