Mobile URLs vs. Single URLs: Making The Right Decision For Your Company

The Bing statement about mobile SEO last month, which followed Google’s announcement about the new smartphone crawler in December, has sparked some discussion, and given mobile SEO some time in the spotlight.

The debate has been interesting, but all of it seems to focus a bit too much on the wrong question. The search engines all emphatically instruct webmasters not to make decisions purely on the SEO implications, but to also consider the user experience.

While I always take this suggestion with a very large and suspicious grain of salt, I do think it is important to consider the users who access the site….as well as the marketing managers who have to promote the mobile content and the developers who maintain the site, (and who will readily tell you that they almost always get the short end of the stick, whether you are talking about mobile design and development, or just about anything else … poor misunderstood souls!).

So let’s discuss the question of mobile site structure from the perspective of an SEO, but also give these other groups a bit more attention.

We can’t forget to consider how users, marketing managers and site development/maintenance teams will be effected by the decision to keep all content on one URL using Responsive Design (the most common way to do it) or the decision to break the content out and have separate mobile pages on a mobile subdomain or subdirectory.

What Do SEOs Want?

First, we’ll discuss the SEO, since it is obviously very important. In the SEO world, we are commonly asked to look at situations are respond with “ideal” solutions that are frequently unachievable without also adding in “ideal” budgets, resources and timelines.

This happens even more commonly in mobile, because of the added complexity in mobile SEO, which pushes the ideal much further away from the “possible.”

There is a lot of debate on this topic, and that is because there is not one perfect answer. The best option will depend on what you already have in place, and what your assets and limitations are for the mobile SEO effort. In my experience and best estimation, most SEOs will have the following thoughts regarding the question of mobile site architecture:

SEOs

One URL Solution
They Like: They Don’t Like:
  • Not having to build and SEO new pages for mobile
  • Not having to rely on the new smartphone bot
  • Not risking over-indexing or under-indexing on a new subdomain or subdirectory
  • Being able to leverage existing rankings, history, links and SEO efforts on more devices
  • Scalable solutions that are easy to sell and discuss with other teams
  • Pages will reliably work on all devices when linked in social media
  • That Bing has endorsed the one-URL strategy
  • Slow, heavy pages that may cause a high bounce rate that could affect mobile and desktop rankings as well as PPC Quality Score
  • Not being able to target mobile-specific keywords as well with pages that work on desktop AND mobile
  • Load time issues associated with having one set of code that serves multiple devices well
  • Creative limitations of Responsive Design that could hurt bounce rate and conversion
  • Difficulty associated with tracking and addressing different use-cases and conversion opportunities
 
Mobile-Specific Urls
They Like: They Don’t Like:
  • The Google smartphone bot understands and indexes mobile redirects which minimizes the server load and load time of mobile pages -– a tacit endorsement of this strategy
  • Faster load time for mobile users and mobile bots
  • Mobile keyword targeting and use-cases to decrease bounce rate
  • Easier to track and attribute mobile traffic and mobile campaigns
  • Social media links that redirect appropriately based on the device
  • Difficulty working with mobile platforms, mobilization engines or just new pages
  • Complexity of user-agent detection and redirection -– especially if not all pages are mobilized
  • Risk of indexation problems with new mobile crawlers, redirect rules and more indexes
  • Different rankings on different devices, in different locations and with different personalization settings

What Do Users Want?

While it might be easy to argue that users would prefer multiple designs, suited for whatever device they happen to be on, it is almost impossible to claim that users would prefer multiple URLs, and keep a straight face.

Except for the home page, users are mostly unaware of the file structure or URL formatting of a site, either on mobile or traditional viewing. But they are easily confused and you want to make their lives as easy as possible.

Even the most savvy person in the room could have trouble determining if they should use the “m.” version of a site or the desktop version of a site when they are on a tablet, and that is because there are no rules or standards for this yet. Every company is doing it differently, and that won’t change for a while.

The best option for your users is for you to sort it out on their behalf, so that they never have to think about what URL to use and when. Doing everything on one URL eliminates this question altogether, but if you can’t do that or you need very different design layouts on the pages, user-agent detection and redirection from your desktop site to the mobile and tablet versions of each page is the best answer.

User-agent detection and redirection schemes may be the best for your users because they can be based on screen size of the device, the mobile browser or the specific device user-agent. You can have different pages pulled based on any combination of those things. It can get quite complicated, but there is a handy mobile redirection script generator tool that can help you with writing the necessary code if you need it. In my experience, users have the following opinions on this topic:

Users

One URL Solution
They Like: They Don’t Like:
  • URLs that they can copy and send to other devices and always work
  • Not wondering if they should search for “mobile” or type in an “m.”
  • Not learning a new site design or navigation
  • Desktop content that doesn’t work on touch screen, like hovers or Flash
  • Slow download speed on older phones or slower networks
 
Mobile-Specific URLs
They Like: They Don’t Like:
  • Experience that is tailored to the device they are on
  • Marketing and messaging that is related to the device that they are on
  • Learning a new page layout or navigational scheme
  • Pages that they want not being available on mobile

What Do Marketing Managers Want?

Remember that when you are working with marketing directors or brand managers, they care about more than just the website — they care about offline marketing and email, PPC, banners, partnerships and apps.

They are trying to keep lots of groups happy and coordinated. The question about how to manage and maintain the mobile site structure impacts many other marketing initiatives including apps, SMS, QR codes, print & outdoor marketing, and online advertising.

Marketing managers want mobile content that is reliable and easy to promote in a variety of different ways. They may lean towards a one-URL system, simply because it makes it easier for them to know that they are always promoting the correct URL, and not have to use different URLs for mobile and desktop, or possibly different URLs for tablet and mobile.

On the other hand, they may prefer mobile-specific URLs, so that the landing page experience is more tailored for the handset of the user, so that they can promote OS-specific app downloads or so that they can easily track mobile and desktop traffic to the site separately.

This is what you will be told if you discuss mobile site structure with a group of marketing managers:

Marketing Managers

One URL Solution
They Like: They Don’t Like:
  • Being able to copy a URL from their desktop and knowing it should work on tablets and mobile phones too
  • Fast development timelines and a unified look and feel on all devices
  • Slow QA & Errors that are hard to predict and replicate
  • Limitations on design changes across different devices
  • Slow load time
 
Mobile-Specific URLs
They Like: They Don’t Like:
  • Device or OS-specific landing pages that can promote apps and other downloads properly
  • Easily tracking performance for mobile vs. desktop
  • Flexibility to make mobile-specific and tablet-specific experiences that are not tied to the design of the desktop site.
  • Waiting for templates to be developed and deployed multiple times
  • Being confused about when it is appropriate to promote specific versions of a page

 

What Do Developers Want?

Developers are a hard group to please, and they can have a variety of objections to the numerous SEO and mobile requests we put in front of them. Their basic goal is to keep the site up, functioning and preforming at its peak with minimal fire drills and emergencies in the middle of the night.

Some would probably prefer one URL site architecture, especially if they are strong in HTML5, CSS3, jQuery and other Responsive Design tricks that allow them to show off their skills. Others might prefer to work with redirects on the server, and let the designers go nuts designing loads of different templates for every device imaginable.

Their opinions will be varied, but one thing that is certain is that developers are under even more pressure than everyone else. They are expected to understand the needs of all the different groups and then actually build pages to meet those needs and expectations, whether they are reasonable or not.

Here is what you will usually learn if you discuss this question with a team of developers:

Developers

One URL Solution
They Like: They Don’t Like:
  • Being able to show off and try out new coding techniques in Responsive Design
  • Not having to re-build a page or page templates every time there is a new device or screen size
  • Not having to assist with separate SEO processes for new pages
  • Not maintaining and remembering new URL structure or separate tracking
  • Testing their designs on lots of different devices to make sure that everything works as planned
  • Not being able to replicate mobile errors  reliably on their computers
 
Mobile-Specific URLs
They Like: They Don’t Like:
  • Knowing how and when a page is expected to work and render
  • Being able to test pages just on a small set of devices that they will need to serve
  • Feeling like they will always be building out a new template for a new device and will never be done
  • They will have to link the multiple variations of a page for users and on the server with user-agent detection and redirection
  • User-agent detection and re-direction or mobilization engines can drastically increase server load

 Conclusion

So just like any good SEO question, the answer on this one is “it depends.” The decision to use a one-URL strategy to reach your mobile audience or to build mobile-specific pages on mobile-specific URLs really does depend, not only on the type of content and experience that you want to create, but also on who is really deeply involved in the decision making and planning process.

Everyone will likely have slightly different opinions and experiences, but it will help to remember where they are coming from, what their goals and KPIs are, and then you will hopefully be able to derive a strategy that will please at least some of the people, some of the time.

 

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

Related Topics: Channel: Search Marketing | Features & Analysis | Mobile Marketing | Search Marketing

Sponsored


About The Author: is the CEO and Founder of MobileMoxie, LLC, a mobile marketing consultancy and host of the most cutting-edge online mobile marketing toolset available today. Cindy is the author of Mobile Marketing: Finding Your Customers No Matter Where They Are, published by Que Publishing. Cindy is an active member of the search community and has been published in Website Magazine, Advertising & Marketing Review, Search Engine Land, Search Engine Strategies Magazine, and quoted by many respected publications including PC World, Internet Retailer, TechWorld, Direct Magazine and Search Marketing Standard.

Connect with the author via: Email



Marketing Day:

Get the top marketing stories daily!  

Share

Other ways to share:
 

Read before commenting! We welcome constructive comments and allow any that meet our common sense criteria. This means being respectful and polite to others. It means providing helpful information that contributes to a story or discussion. It means leaving links only that substantially add further to a discussion. Comments using foul language, being disrespectful to others or otherwise violating what we believe are common sense standards of discussion will be deleted. You can read more about our comments policy here.
  • Pat Grady

    mob | www

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=743361608 Jesse Heap

    Cindy,

    Thanks for the thorough article discussing the debate around a single URL vs a separate MOBILE url.

    The one critique I would have is the coupling a single url vs mobile url debate with architectural decisions.

    They are really independent decisions.  

    For example, I could create a mobile website that leverages the same URL as my desktop site and avoid many of the issues you point out in your “Don’t Like” section.  For example, a single URL solution could be themed with mobile optimized code to avoid “slow, heavy pages”.  In addition, content could even be slimmed down where necessary in a single URL solution.

    A potentially better way to think about it is to break down a site into three components:

    1. Theme/Template
    2. Code/Libraries
    3. Content

    Most CMS’s like wordpress allow you the flexibility to create different themes for mobile vs desktop or use a single responsive theme for all platforms.  This for the most part is independent of the URL structure you end up choosing.   (In other words I could deploy a different theme for mobile on the same URL or on a different URL)

    In addition wordpress allows you to re-use code where necessary across mobile and desktop while also allowing you to create mobile or desktop specific code.  All this is can be independent of the URL.

    Lastly, in theory wordpress could be used to serve up different content depending on the platform.  However in practice this requires some creative coding as it’s not supported out of box.  Karen has a great article about this issue:

    http://www.netmagazine.com/opinions/separate-mobile-website-no-forking-way

    So net net, I think we should be careful about tieing architecture decisions to the single vs multiple URL debate.  In the end, I’m a strong proponent for a single URL and for me the big reason for that is the one you already mentioned about being able to leverage the existing authority the desktop URL has already presumably already built up.  In addition, the complexity of redirects you mention is also a good reason to think about avoiding a separate mobile URL solution.

    Thanks,

    Jesse Heap

  • http://www.intoto.dk Thomas Zacchi

    I totally agree
    with you Jesse.

    I also think that a single URL is the answer – I hate having someone tweeting a
    link from their mobile only for me to open the link on my laptop to be
    presented with a mobile site. In the end I also think that a single URL will
    benefit SEO – kind of reminds me of the early blog subdomain/directory discussions.

  • http://www.reachsms.com.au/ William Clarke

    Really informative post !!!!. Cindy i think that url selection also depends on the goal of a company which it wants to achieve. If it is being concentrate more on sales then more pages will help it a lot or if it is going to share knowledge then a single url could be a perfect solution for it.

Get Our News, Everywhere!

Daily Email:

Follow Marketing Land on Twitter @marketingland Like Marketing Land on Facebook Follow Marketing Land on Google+ Subscribe to Our Feed! Join our LinkedIn Group Check out our Tumblr! See us on Pinterest

 
 

Click to watch SMX conference video

Join us at one of our SMX or MarTech events:

United States

Europe

Australia & China

Learn more about: SMX | MarTech


Free Daily Marketing News!

Marketing Day is a once-per-day newsletter update - sign up below and get the news delivered to you!