Website visits from cellphones and tablets continue to outpace visits from desktops. This trend will continue for the foreseeable future. For small businesses, dealing with this change in audience behavior can be tricky. A mistake here could easily derail your company’s internet marketing strategy and make ranking for appropriate search terms much more difficult.
Does My Small Business Need a Separate Mobile Website?
The answer to that question is usually pretty simple, but before we get there we’ll need to clarify a few things about mobile websites. In the early days of the mobile web, phone browsers were pretty limited. Instead of overwhelming under-powered browsers with full websites that were difficult to read and hard to display, website designers created separate websites like m.example.com mobile.example.com example.com/mobile=1 This solved many problems and really was the best way to resolve the issues users were experiencing. However, with the advent of more powerful phones, smart phones, and specifically the iPhone, there was no longer a need for websites that were designed only for mobile phones. Browsing large websites on a tiny phone still wasn’t a pleasant experience, so and many sites continued having separate mobile-only sites.
Does Having a Separate Mobile Website Create Problems?
Yes, having a mobile-only website can lead to big problems. The biggest of these is how a website handles requests for the same page that come from phones and desktops. In the best-case scenario, there is a program management layer that looks at all incoming requests, determines whether it’s a desktop or mobile user accessing the site, and then serves out the correct version. For example m.example.com/some-page/ or example.com/some-page/ Unless your developer was really on the ball, this invariably led to problems. For example, many sites only checked when you came to the main site. If a mobile user emailed a link to a desktop user, the desktop user got the mobile site. While this worked, it did not provide a positive user experience. And if a desktop user emailed a link to a mobile user for a page other than the homepage, the detection script redirected them – not to the mobile version of that page – but to the mobile version of the home page. That was a horribly frustrating experience for everyone involved. Another problem created by having a separate mobile site was how search engines handled the content. In the early days, search engines didn’t have mobile crawlers, and had a hard time detecting, crawling and indexing the content. Secondly, if there were pages that existed solely for desktop users, search engines had difficulty figuring out what to do when mobile users searched for pages that didn’t exist on the mobile site. The third problem for separate mobile websites relates to links and social voting. In a search engine, links to pages are used to determine which site ranks first. So if there are more links pointing to the desktop version of a site, it will rank well, however, if there aren’t many links pointing to the mobile site then it won’t show up in search results. For example, if users share standard links on Facebook more than they share mobile links, then Facebook will show the desktop version of the site more often. Search engines function the same way. In short, having a mobile version may solve some problems but it creates many others.
Does My Business Need a Responsive Web Design?
A responsive web design (RWD) is one that “responds” to whatever operating system the user has, serving the most appropriate version. This allows both a desktop user and a mobile user to visit example.com/some-page/ and receive the same content – formatted slightly differently for each device. Using a responsive website design solves almost all of those problems we spoke about earlier. While slightly more difficult to maintain, taking more time and money to develop, in almost every situation the additional cost is well worth it. Responsive Web Design makes for happy users and happy search engines.
Do Search Engines Like Responsive Designs for Small Businesses?
In most cases the answer is yes, search engines do like responsive designs, but there are a few things to be aware of. Most modern search engines can tell what part of your site is template driven (header, sidebars, navigation) and which is the real content of the page. When you serve the responsive version of your site you don’t want to change the content, you only want to change/omit parts of the template – the only exception would be changing the size of the images. If search engines detect different content being served to mobile users than desktop users, this would fall into a bad practice that is known as “cloaking”. Depending on the severity of the cloaking, search engines may penalize or even ban your site. Be sure whoever is creating your responsive design isn’t creating a cloaking situation.
Does My Business Need a Mobile Web App?
This falls into one of those “it depends” situations. If you anticipate many users will visit your website using their phones or tablets, then having a mobile app is something you might want to consider. If less than 20% of the people who visit your site are doing so from mobile phones, it probably doesn’t make sense to have a mobile app. One thing you want to avoid is requiring a mobile user to download your app. Lots of site owners make this mistake after they have just spent a lot of money developing a web app. You don’t want to force people to use an app to interact with you, it should always be an option. Forcing people to use an app leads to a lot of angry users.
How Do I Fix My Separate Mobile Website Problem?
If you happen to have a separate mobile website and want to fix that problem, begin by getting your responsive design up and running. Once that’s done, you want set up redirects from all your separate mobile web pages to your responsive web pages. Many people make the mistake of redirecting everyone to the homepage or not setting up any redirects at all, again this leads to a lot of unhappy and angry website visitors. This type of migration is pretty complicated to actually put in place and there are lots of ways to get it wrong, so it’s not something you should try on your own or just “let Google figure it out”.
So to wrap things up, if you don’t have a separate mobile website, please don’t create one! It may be faster and easier, but it creates a lot more problems down the road. If you do have one, plan on switching to a responsive design and mapping the pages over to the new locations. If you don’t have a mobile-friendly website, look into making your design responsive, it may cost you more, but it will make both your customers and the search engines happy. If you have a lot of mobile users you might want to look into creating a dedicated mobile app, just don’t force it on people – let them decide how they choose to interact with you.