There are a number of strategies for delivering mobile content to users. According to Google, starting April 21, 2015, your site is either optimized for mobile or it’s not. There’s no in-between. And the penalty you can expect for not being mobile friendly is dire: reduced search engine rankings on mobile devices, which mean less traffic to your site plain and simple.
Mobile Friendly Methods
Google defines three methods for deliverying mobile friendly content:
1. Responsive Web Design: Responsive web design (RWD) is a setup where the server always sends the same HTML code to all devices and CSS is used to alter the rendering of the page on the device.
2. Dynamic Serving: Dynamic serving is a setup where the server responds with different HTML (and CSS) on the same URL depending on the user agent requesting the page.
3. Separate URLs: In this configuration, each desktop URL has an equivalent different URL serving mobile-optimized content. A common setup would be pages on www.example.com serving desktop users with corresponding pages served on m.example.com for mobile users.
Given these three methods, which ones would make sense for you?
We Discount Dynamic Serving (2)
We are going to start by discounting Google’s version two: Dynamic Serving content based upon user agent. We have a basic quibble with this idea: it prevents caching of content at content delivery networks as CDN’s will rarely cache by user agent. For most applications, we think this is a red line that should not be crossed. Second, it limits the ability to switch between versions. How often have you gone to a mobile site on your mobile device, but decided to switch to the full version since the mobile version was not providing the information that you were looking for? A site could drop a cookie and then allow the customer to change the value of that cookie. In other words, it would require more than just the user-agent as defined by Google. We are certain that there are web sites out there that can defend their use of this method, we just cannot think of any. If you know of such a web site and the reasoning behind it, please comment below or contact us. We would really appreciate hearing from you.
Responsive or Separate URLs
So that leaves the question: should you use Responsive or Separate URLs? We look at Responsive as being the base line for any new web site. It should lay out well on a desktop, a tablet and mobile phone. Given the tools available, such as,Twitter Bootstrap, Foundation, Skeleton, etc.; we feel that building a responsive web site is a just a baseline task. In other words, the cost to build a web site responsive is not materially greater than the cost of a non-responsive website; so all of our web sites will be responsive.
Does this mean that we prefer Responsive over a Separate Domain? No. We consider the separate domain to be an option to be used in conjunction with responsive. In fact, this site uses both responsive and a separate domain. This can easily be seen by using a desktop, visiting the home and then switching to the mobile site. The user will see that the mobile site contains fewer images, smaller images and less content overall. A mobile device user can visit the home page, switch to the full site and the content should render appropriately.
The decision to use a separate domain for mobile is fairly simple: does your site include a significant amount of content that could be heavy for mobile devices and would cost of maintaining separate content be more than offset by the perceived value to the customer? If our clients are not sure about this question, we recommend that they begin by building out their responsive only site initially. If they determine it would be a value for their user and they have the resources to create the alternative content, then they can add the mobile focused domain at that time.