Choosing the Right Mobile Site Platform

A few months ago, I wrote a post on SEOmoz about responsive web design, and how good it can be for SEO. A fellow Distiller, Bridget Randolph, followed up with a post about how to optimize a separate mobile site. Both got a lot of attention: we’re getting to the point now where having a well-optimized mobile site is becoming a necessity rather than an option. The question is, which format is right for YOUR site?

To help you choose the best format for your site, Bridget and I decided to put together a best practice guide to Building Your Mobile Friendly Site, which we’ve just launched today. It discusses important points about design, development, search engine optimization, and web analytics for both separate and responsive sites. The first step, though, is choosing which type of site you’re going to build.

As I mentioned above, there are two standard options for your mobile site: responsive design or a separate site. A responsive site uses the same HTML for both the mobile version and the desktop version, but the CSS uses media queries to find the browser width and changes accordingly. A separate mobile site is just that - completely separate.

There are benefits to both, so it can be difficult to decide whether you want to build a separate site or modify your current site to be responsive. We put together a flow chart to help guide you (click here for a mobile-friendly version):

Responsive vs Separate Mobile Site Decision Tree

The basic logic is this:

  • If you don’t have a lot of resources, find a content management system that automatically builds your site to be responsive. Just make sure to check the pages you upload with multiple browser widths - you don’t know exactly what CSS rules they implemented!
  • If you do have enough resources to build a new site, and you want your mobile visitors to have a different experience than desktop visitors, build a separate mobile site, with different pages and content. You’ll probably want to include a link at the top to the desktop version of the site, though, and keep track of how many visitors choose to browse that site rather than your mobile version. You may be surprised at how many visitors want to see the same thing they see on their PCs.
  • If you have enough resources and would like to deliver the same experience, the choice is down to how much you want to modify the mobile version of the site. If you would like to optimize your mobile site very specifically for mobile search, you should build a separate mobile site, since you can customize it separately. But first check to see if mobile searchers are significantly different than your PC searchers: if mobile searchers just have fewer long tail searches than desktop searchers, you really don’t have to change keyword targeting.
  • Which brings us to the last option: if you have the time and resources to build a separate mobile site, but want to deliver the same experience and content to visitors, build a responsive site!
The rest is really up to you: if we could, we’d love to build an ultimate guide that gives you step-by-step instructions for building a mobile site, but sites need a lot more customization than that. Instead, we’ve put together a best practice guide, that walks you through the design process, lets you know about the best technologies to use, and covers search engine optimization basics for both responsive and separate mobile sites:


Since we don’t have comments on the actual guide, let us know what you think in the comments below!

Kristina Kledzik

Kristina Kledzik

Kristina joined Distilled as an SEO after working as an SEO/SEM/Web Analytics Specialist for the University of Washington. Kristinah264 // Kristina always knew she wanted to work with computers, but avoided computer science classes in college...   read more

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  1. Thx Bridget Randolph and Kristina Kledzik for this very complete guide, easy reading and will also be understandable for users who know less of design, seo and usability.


    reply >
    • Bridget Randolph

      Thanks Emile, for the kind comments! Glad you found it useful. :)

  2. The best guide that I have read up to date with regards to mobile optimization has to be Aleyda Solis' mozinar on mobile optimization best practices - Am in the process of reading this one too :)

    reply >
    • Bridget Randolph

      Hi Collin, thanks for the comment!

      Aleyda's done some fantastic work on mobile SEO and analytics. We included a link to her Mobile Site Audit post in the guide, but the mozinar you mentioned was great as well. :)

  3. Which wordpress plugin do you recommend to optimize a site for mobile?

    reply >
    • Bridget Randolph

      Hi Tamanna, I'd say it depends on your Wordpress setup.

      For a standard Wordpress site, particularly a blog, I'd probably recommend finding a responsive theme (we list some of our favorites in the guide).

      With a responsive site, you don't need to do extra optimization for mobile, because the same HTML is being displayed, the visual display is simply rearranged. So you can just stick with what you would do anyway for your desktop site.

      If you're looking for a good general SEO plugin for Wordpress, the one I personally use is Yoast's Wordpress SEO plugin.

      I hope that helps!

    • Thank you Bridget. We are also using Yoast WP SEO plugin in our blog.

  4. Steve Mapes

    It's always good to see more articles covering mobile and that is a great flow chart you have there, but I can't help but think that there are two boxes missing in-between "convert the same way" and "What do YOUR VISITORS want to do on your mobile site?". Those are:

    1."What rules / regulations do the MNOs have within your verticals?"
    2. "How does the Mobile Regulators want your customers to convert within your target country(s)?"

    Both of these can heavily influence the user-flow you need to implement on your site which may not be possible on a responsive site.

    I'd put it after you decide how you want your users to convert, as most of the time these rules will only apply when you are trying to use other forms of conversions (MO, pSMS, Mobile Payments, WAP-Billing etc), however depending on the vertical within which a business operators, you be required to implement the same user-flows or, in some cases, may not be able to make a sale if the MNO has banned such activities.

    The most common verticals would be gambling and adult, however it can also apply to mainstream business if you are offer mobile subscriptions or mobile applications / games.

    reply >
    • Bridget Randolph

      Hi Steve,

      Thanks, glad you liked it! And thank you for your comments. That's an interesting point about MNOs and mobile regulators, particularly thinking about it on an international level.

      What we were trying to do with this particular project was to keep the process fairly simple, since the flow which we've outlined should apply to the majority of websites.

      But you're absolutely right in pointing out that for individual websites wishing to use mobile-specific features, especially around mobile payment, it is going to be important to think about how best to integrate those features into your mobile site approach.

  5. My biggest pet peeve with separate mobile sites is when they:

    Don't include all the same info as the main non-mobile site
    Don't include a link to view the non-mobile site, forcing you to view the mobile-only site.

    Most modern smart phones are very capable at navigating and displaying full sites. Double tab to zoom smartly on a iPhone, bam, resized without losing any context!

    reply >
  6. You are missing dynamic serving which is often a better Mobile SEO option than RWD or a separate instance.

    reply >
    • Kristina Kledzik

      We discuss this more in our guide, but we don't see dynamically served sites as different from separate sites. Separate sites have separate HTML, CSS, etc; then you have the choice to place that on a separate URL or serve different content dynamically. Search engines are smart enough to realize that is the mobile version of, so how you serve the content is really your choice (provided you don't want completely different pages on your mobile site).

      Part of the reason we made this distinction is because you can serve content on responsive sites separately as well. Responsive sites use the same HTML, but your server can send differently sized images based on the device requesting the webpage. Thus: dynamic serving for responsive sites as well.

  7. Right. Having your mobile site optimized is a must these days as more and more people have relied on their mobile gadgets more often than they do before. I like the infographic as it simply explained the “how-to” process. Nice!

    By the way Kristina, I've read your article on the IM social networking site, :)

    reply >

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