Mobile Subdomain vs Responsive Web Design and SEO

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Updated May 1st, 2015: Is your site mobile ready? Google’s latest algorithm update rolled out on April 21st targeting business whose websites we’re not mobile friendly. If you haven’t updated your site, you could be losing tons of traffic from mobile search. You can read more about Google’s update here. If you’re not sure if your site is mobile-friendly you can use Google’s handy Mobile-Friendly Test. If you need help getting your site updated and mobile ready let us know, we can help!

One of my many pet peeves as a developer, has to do with the separation of look and feel after viewing a website on both desktop and mobile. After a few dozen visits to a site on a desktop, I have clear idea about what to expect in regards to a site’s look and functionality. Then one day I’m waiting at the dentist, so I decide to check out the website on my phone. The browser loads and to my surprise the site looks completely different than I expected. On the phone I expected it to look relatively similar to the desktop version, so why is it so different?

Why Does the Mobile Site Look So Different?

This is because there’s a 99.9% chance that it really IS a different site. The site is usually located “m.domain.com (though it can be anything, such as “mobile.domain.com” or “www.domain.com/mobile/”) instead of “www.domain.com” and you can see it’s address in the omnibox.mobile-websiteNote that though websites employing Responsive Web Design can in theory have a completely different aesthetic than the desktop site, and it’s not a requirement that the “m” site look completely different than “www.” However, RWD (responsive web design) sites typically don’t show a large change of aesthetic between screen sizes. It’s just more common with “m” subdomains because they are truly different websites.

What’s So Good About Responsive Web Design?

So when would a company want to use a “m” subdomain? First let’s talk about why you want a RWD website. RWD simply means that you develop websites to display nicely on all devices regardless of screen size. This allows for a continuity between devices, while maintaining consistency between link navigation and style. For us here at ISM, SEO is the most important criteria we consider in making decisions, and responsive web design and SEO seem to go hand in hand. Google also prefers RWD over a “m” web design because it generally provides a more coherent user experience and helps avoid duplicate content issues because of search engines having to crawl 2 different codebases. Google prefers that a site share a single domain and html, and even recommends it to be a web standard. Consistency of look has indirect benefits as well, such as keeping users on your site longer and making it more likely for them to take action, and makes generally makes it easier to share content because of one dedicated link.

Why Would I Want a “m” Subdomain?

So why is this not the case 100% of the time? Why go through the trouble of building a brand new website just for mobile users? Well, the arguments for a “m” site seem to revolve around speed.  It’s true that a website with tailor fit Javascript, CSS, and images, can result in a website that’s fast and streamlined because nothing but what’s essential has been introduced. Another argument is that if you run an old website, especially if it has a large legacy codebase, it can be difficult and expensive to rebuild the code just so it works on mobile devices.

So What Should I Do?

I believe the problem however, can be solved in a trade-off for most websites. Though the argument of legacy code is a tough problem to tackle, requiring more than just development decisions, there are good solutions to help increase mobile speed. Unless you have to develop specifically for older browsers,the push toward a more coherent user experience and a consolidation of resources is obviously a better solution. And again, SEO is an argument that sometimes gets left out among us developer types, but it all goes back to the idea that if no one can find your website, what does it matter?

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