I have spent some time analyzing best practices for developing a mobile website. Since search is a key success factor for our ecommerce, my mission was to compare alternatives according to their SEO impact. My recommendation is: Build as future safe as possible (C), and take into account the fact that the technology curve probably will have taken an unexpected turn by the time your mobile site is ready. I would also suggest that you run the mobile version on the exact same URL as your desktop site.

Version A) Normal desktop website

Assuming you run your business already on www, your normal website should already be adapted for normal desktop users, and be search engine optimized for the sake of the visitor and the generic Googlebot.

Version B) Mobile version for traditional phones

”Traditional phones” is a generic term to specify phones using the WAP/WML/iMode protocols to surf the web. A dedicated mobile version of your site might be the right choice for you, it depends on your business and usability needs.

  • Google will treat your mobile version differently, crawling it with the separate Googlebot-Mobile and create special search results for these users.
  • Google will try to avoid showing traditional mobile content in normal search results.
  • To avoid duplicate content on a mobile version of your site (regardless if it is on a subdomain or not) you will have to specify to Google which page out of the two that is the ”most useful”  – i e which one Google should index and prioritize in normal search results.
  • If a rel=canonical tag or the apropriate 301 redirects aren’t added for the mobile site, it will be indexed on its own and could be punished for duplicate content by Google and potentially ”outrank” your desktop content.

But in my opinion, mobile screens are nothing more than smaller computer screens. The differences that cause mobile limitations, such as today’s fat finger problem, will be small and inferior issues in one year, given the speed with which phone technology is evolving.

Remember when we collectively decided to stop support old browsers like IE6? The time has come to do the same with mobile phones. /

C) Smartphone version

This would be the same as your desktop version of the site but optimized for smartphone viewing. What you potentially would lose with this option is the incentive to create a really minimalistic purchase flow for mobile visitors as well as specific features, mobile adapted offers and landing pages.

  • Google appears to be abandoning its previous position that smartphones should be directed to desktop websites.
  • They recently announced that Googlebot-Mobile now crawls with a smartphone user-agent. If the crawler discovers pages that you’ve optimized for smartphones, those will be prioritized/highlighted in Google Search results on smartphones.
  • This means that you have all the greater reason to adapt look&feel and serve a special style sheet to smartphones.
  • For tracking, this alternative will not become a separate report suite in Sitecatalyst/Google Analytics, but a part of the overall traffic to the site.

How to adapt content based on user-agent

You can adapt your website content based on the type of mobile device,  either making a web page adapt to the width of the screen viewing it using CSS ”responsive design”, OR use device detection to serve up a separate set of templates if the visitor is using a mobile. (Thanks Magnus Hultberg for input!)

At Freebookings.com for example, they use both. Responsive design to adapt the full website to widths ranging from very wide down to iPad portrait, and for smaller screens they do device detection and serve up a completely different template, removing a lot of information and changing the interface.

Choosing URL for your mobile version

  • If you create a traditional mobile version, neither Googlebot not Googlebot-Mobile will care what their URL structure is as long as they return exactly what a user sees.
  • If a mobile version is run on a subdomain like m.yoursite.com, Googlebot-Mobile will be able to index it if you use use a 301 redirect to point both the user and the Mobilebot to the mobile URL.
  • If you host our mobile website on a subdomain it will be annoying when visitors share a link while on their iPhone, only to find that when it is viewed on desktop it serves up the stripped down version. This means missed link control and business opportunity.
  • A benefit of running the mobile version on the exact same URL is that you only have to optimize one site. All of the SEO effort you put into your desktop version will be automatically applicable to mobile since they’re both, in fact, the same site.
  • For analytics, a mobile sub domain will result in a report suite that is separate from your normal desktop reports.

If  you want to continue reading about mobile optimization, I can recommend the following articles:

  1. http://support.google.com/webmasters/bin/answer.py?hl=sv&answer=139394
  2. https://profiles.google.com/113006028898915385825/buzz/38v3DayB75g
  3. http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com/2011/02/making-websites-mobile-friendly.html
  4. http://searchengineland.com/seven-mobile-seo-myths-exposed-103470
  5. http://www.searchenginejournal.com/mobile-seo-is-a-myth/35012/
  6. http://www.seroundtable.com/google-mobile-seo-12995.html
  7. http://www.searchenginejournal.com/mobile-seo-is-a-myth/35012/
  8. http://mashable.com/2011/12/19/mobile-website-optimization/
  9. http://mediaqueri.es/tag/responsive-web-design/