How to choose a URL for your mobile website

I’ve been writing a lot about mobile stuff recently - I think it’s just been on my mind a lot. With revelations like 50x more iPhone search volume than from any other handset, however, I think we might be hearing more about mobile search from everyone in our industry.

At least it provides a little signal in among the noise about The Sunday Times on the blog recently!

A search marketer’s take on m. versus .mobi

Much has already been written on the m. versus .mobi debate including interesting stuff from the perspective of a domainer.

For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, the discussion is around the best way of differentiating mobile internet content. On the one hand, ICANN has released the .mobi top-level extension (e.g. amazon.mobi etc.). On the other hand, there is a growing adoption of m. sub-domains - m.example.com e.g. m.facebook.com m.bloglines.com (and we are seeing a lot more iphone sub-domains which are designed for a smaller screen but include a lot more interactivity than regular mobile content - I suspect this will be a short-lived phenomenon with the iPhone coping perfectly well with the regular web - and falling back on the mobile web if needed).

There is a third viewpoint in this debate which is worth bringing up which is that the mobile web shouldn’t be anything different to the regular web. Exponents of this view think that the answer is technology that makes the experience better on a mobile device (typically small screen, fiddly input). Couple this with the big, bad world of the www and you have a recipe for fun. I’m not going to address this part of the argument in depth in this post - that’s for another day (in brief, my view is that there are certain tasks which are particularly well-suited to mobile and for which you want a site optimised for that experience, though I agree that technology will bridge this gap to a large degree I don’t think everyone wants an iPhone in their pocket - many will want a micro-handset that lets them get online just enough to check train times etc.).

Incidentally, whenever you are reading about mobile internet (whether on our blog or elsewhere), the mobile emulator at mtld.mobi enables you to replicate the mobile experience inside your regular browser - handy both for checking your own sites and researching the marketplace.

Pros of .mobi versus m.

The benefits of .mobi as I see them (with a particularly SEO hat on) are:

  • A .mobi domain has to be a strong indicator of relevance for a mobile search. I am going to write more about mobile search ranking factors soon, but this has to be a good one
  • They look good in mobile search results - whenever you do a search from your handset and see a .mobi, you immediately know they have a site designed for you (unfortunately, sometimes, the .mobi is all you need to rank in Google mobile at the moment which was a bit of a disappointment when I went to train-times.mobi as, at the time of writing, it ranks in Google mobile, but doesn’t actually offer any train times!)
  • Domain prices in the secondary market are cheaper than .com and .co.uk at the moment (and there are a lot of decent ones left on the primary market)

Cons of .mobi versus m.

It’s not all smelling of roses for the .mobi, though, here are the cons as I see them:

  • It’s a new domain and is going to get none of the domain-weight of your main domain(s) whereas sub-domains (handled well, sometimes) gain some of the trust of the main domain (it remains to be seen how important this is for mobile search)
  • It’s a stupid extension to type on a small keyboard - particularly a non-qwerty numerical keypad where m and o share a key. Why on earth didn’t they pick .m?
  • It’s not .com or country-code tld (e.g. .co.uk) which still means you have an uphill branding struggle (see .biz, .eu, .travel (who thought that was a good idea?) etc.)
  • It’s possible to share first party cookies with the main site if your mobile site is on a sub-domain - this is useful for enabling people to navigate between the mobile and regular sites while staying signed-in (particularly likely on high-spec devices like the iPhone)
  • The brand stays stronger with a sub-domain - it is easier to reap the rewards of all your regular advertising if people remember your primary domain and know they just have to put ‘m.’ on the beginning to get the mobile version
  • You only get one for the whole world! This isn’t a problem (assuming you can get hold of your branded domain name) if you only operate in one country, but if you operate worldwide, it’s quite restricting - many big sites use their tld to distinguish content for different countries (amazon.co.uk is a different site to amazon.com which is a different site to amazon.fr etc.) whereas there is only one .mobi for each domain (e.g. amazon.mobi) whereas m.example.com, m.example.co.uk, m.example.fr would work fine to distinguish mobile versions for different countries

To expand a little on that last point, you can auto-detect surfers’ countries very reliably when they are browing by mobile, and you can then auto-serve them different content based on their location. This is technically cloaking, but anyway is unlikely to achieve the desired result since the search engines don’t crawl from every country looking for the different forms of your content.

So what is the right answer?

My view is that you should have both (assuming you can get your hands on the .mobi) and then the best practice depends on your situation:

  • Established multi-national company with nothing executed for mobile yet: use m.primarydomain.tld in each country you serve. Have example.mobi conditionally redirect to the appropriate m.example.tld based on surfer’s country
  • Established single country company: as above (based on the strength of your existing domain) but with .mobi simply redirecting to m.yourdomain.tld
  • Start-up (non-mobile specific): concentrate on building your main domain and use m. for mobile (with .mobi redirecting to it) (unless .mobi works so well in mobile SEO that you just have to have it - we’re all waiting for mobile ranking factors - I’ll try to get that started soon!).
  • Start-up (mobile specific): consider .mobi for branding purposes - otherwise the same as for any other start-up

That is not to say you should necessarily move to this configuration if you have started down another route. Care needs to be taken whenever you move content around between domains and sub-domains. Use your judgment and care. Your mileage may vary. Etc.

Will Critchlow

Will Critchlow

Will founded Distilled with Duncan in 2005. Since then, he has consulted with some of the world’s largest organisations and most famous websites, spoken at most major industry events and regularly appeared in local and national press. Will is part...   read more

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4 Comments

  1. Hey Will, great stuff this - we were discussing this on friday as although i dont see 2008 as the "year of the mobile" i think its the time when people need to take the high ground as 2009 surely will be the mobile year! (see the comments on seomoz)
    All the best!

    reply >
  2. Hey Rob. Thanks for stopping by. I think I agree that it might all be worthwhile in 2009! Best get organised for it now though...

    reply >
  3. Anthony Haniff

    Hi Will, lovely post. Wasn't even goping to consider .mobi Did you managed to do an updated version of this post? Anthony

    reply >

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