The online marketing environment has changed dramatically over the past few years.  It’s not just about your web site, it also includes social media.  It’s not just about textual content; it’s also about communicating through images and video.

And it’s not just people sitting at their desk and doing a search on their computer for information and services, but they are sitting on their patio looking for information on their tablets, or on their couch browsing information on their smart TV’s, or looking up information on the run . . . literally . . . through their smart phones.

To be competitive, your web site has to accommodate the browsing habits of your target market.  For small businesses that don’t have an IT team solely dedicated to developing a site and internet applications, the question is how to best do that most efficiently in a cost effective manner.

Three Options for Mobile Sites

There are three main options to providing a mobile friendly site for visitors.

Mobile Only Site:

The first option is to have a completely separate web site for mobile visitors.  When a browser comes to your regular site, there is a directive included in the theme that identifies the “user-agent” or device that is accessing the site.  If it is a mobile device, the visitor is automatically sent to the mobile version of the site.

The mobile site was most frequently hosted on a subdomain of the site.  For example, if I was using this method for this site (which I’m not,) it would be at

At that address would be a site completely targeted towards the mobile visitor, the theme, the content, all optimized for mobile.

There are companies that completely focus on providing “mobile sites” for businesses who don’t have one for a monthly fee.  Except for the additional monthly cost, this is actually the fastest and easiest way to get a mobile site for your business.

At one time, this was the recommended way by Google to accommodate mobile visitors.1 At least it was one of the recommended ways recommended by Google.2 Different people in different areas of Google had varying recommendations, but as the separate subdomain was recommended by Matt Cutts, who is the main spokesperson for Google search, it was the recommendation most people followed.34

Beyond the user experience, the other consideration was that Google implemented a separate user-agent, or search bot, in December 2011 specifically targeted to crawl mobile optimized content. Someone doing a search on a desktop and one doing a smartphone could come up with completely different search results.5

It’s not just site content and links, yes; your site theme can affect your rankings in search.

It wasn’t until June 2012 that Google came out with one consistent recommendation on how to implement a mobile strategy.  The “best practice” recommendation was not a separate mobile site, which was the path most early adopters had taken at this point.  But more on that later.678

Cons of a Mobile Only Site

Setting aside search and what Google likes for mobile, the biggest downside of this method is that the browser detection doesn’t always work.   There can be mobile devices that aren’t recognized that are still served the desktop site, which defeats the whole purpose.

The other issue is the majority of the time a phone-sized theme is served regardless of the browser size of the device that is accessing it.

For example, the screenshot below is of the Painting with a Twist site that uses browser detection to determine which site to send a visitor to: the mobile site or the regular version.  It works, but since I accessed the site with a tablet, a lot of screen space is wasted.

Painting with a Twist mobile display on a tablet

Mobile Only Template

In database driven sites, those running on some time of content management system, the theme (the way the site looks) is separate from logic (how the site works) and the content (what the site says.)

With the template oriented method, the site logic will switch the theme used to serve the content depending on how the user accesses the site.

Different platforms accomplish this differently.  In Joomla, the extensions sh404SEF has a built in feature allowing you to choose a mobile friendly template.  For WordPress, there are multiple plugins, both paid and free, that will switch themes.

Pros of Template Switching

The pros of this method are that unlike the mobile only method, there is only one site to manage and one version of the content.

Since the theme is optimized for mobile viewing and only mobile viewing, it can be designed to load faster and fine-tuned for a mobile experience.

Cons of Template Switching

Like the mobile only option above, sometimes the browser detection doesn’t work properly and the visitor isn’t switched to the mobile version when it should.  Also, while most of the template switching plugins display very well for phones, depending on the plugin the view for other devices such as tablets may not display as well.

Responsive Design for Mobile Devices

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, mobile means more than just phones.  A responsive web site design is on that change the display depending on the size of the viewport accessing it.

It is about the size of the screen, not the device accessing it.

This has become the most widely accepted standard for mobile and nondesktop device design over the past two years and the method Google recommended in their June 2012 statement.

There are people who disagree and holdouts for both other options, but particularly for the small business owner, I think this is the best solution, both in terms of implementing it as well as maintaining it.  All of the sites we have designed since 2013 have used a responsive theme.

Cons of Responsive Design

The main criticism of responsive design is that the load time and files necessary are much larger than a theme that is solely dedicated to mobile.

This is true.  There will be tradeoffs in whichever method you choose.

Have you migrated your site to one that accommodates mobile?  If so, which option did you choose?

Need a site that is mobile friendly?  Contact Us.

References Cited
  1. Bryson Meunier. Google’s Matt Cutts Recommends Mobile URLs. Mobile SEO Insights. 19-1-2013.  Accessed 12-8-2014. []
  2. Bryson Meunier. Do You Know Google’s Official Stance on Mobile Search. Search Engine Land. 14-11-2011. Accessed 12-8-2014. []
  3. Barry Schwartz. Google: Use Single URL Without Redirect for Serving Smart Phone Content. Search Engine Roundtable. 6-6-2011. Accessed 12-8-2014. []
  4. Pierre Far. Making Websites Mobile Friendly. Google Webmaster Central Blog. 22-2-2011.  Accessed 12-8-2014. []
  5. Matt McGee. Googlebot Identifies Smartphone Content with New User-Agent. Search Engine Land. 15-12-2011.  Accessed 12-8-2014. []
  6. Pierre Far. Recommendations for Building Smartphone-Optimized Websites. Google Webmaster Central Blog. 6-6-2012.  Accessed 12-8-2014. []
  7. Barry Schwartz. Google Finally Takes a Clear Stance on Mobile SEO Practices. Search Engine Land. 6-6-2012. Accessed 12-8-2014. []
  8. Chee Chun Foo. International:  Google Announces Official Guidelines for Mobile SEO. Bruce Clay, Inc. 20-6-2012. Accessed 12-8-2014. []