At Signal Hill, we are always thinking about mobile. A recent project got me thinking a lot about one thing in particular, and that is the mobile url.
The process typically works by using some server-side code to first detect a mobile browser, then forward the user’s request to a mobile version of the site. Some popular subdomains include “m.website.com” and “mobile.website.com.”
This method has a couple of positives going for it, primarily that a user is shown visually that they are at a mobile version of the site via the url. From a development perspective, it could also allow for more targeted browsing experiences, for example having subdomains for smartphones as well as feature phones.
The thing that I hadn’t thought of prior to this was that because smart phones today are capable of receiving desktop grade HTML, we are essentially allowing two different urls to point to the exact same content. What this means is that each page will get ranked and indexed separately, leading to the possibility of your mobile url showing up in search results over your desktop url (example).
This issue gets complicated even further when we start adding social sharing functionality to the mix. The default behavior of the majority of share buttons is to grab the current url, which for mobile users would be the mobile version. Sharing a mobile url that could potentially get passed around and re-posted would be bad both for SEO and marketing.
To address the first issue, Google recommends the use of “rel=canonical” on your “desktop” url. To address the second issue, share buttons will have to be customized to omit the mobile portion of the url. These solutions would fix the problems, but not solve the issue of two (or more) urls for a single piece of content.
In a Q and A with John Mueller of Google, these issues all got brought up. In addition to the solutions I just mentioned, he recommends another method, serving a mobile stylesheet to mobile users at the same url. No redirects, no subdomains.
The solution seems simple at first, but the elegance of it only struck me after I considered the potential pitfalls of a mobile url. To be clear, mobile urls are a product of a time when phones had to be served a completely different standard of HTML just to understand the web. Todays smartphones are capable of understanding virtually anything a desktop browser can, just in a smaller screen.
And that’s what I think about mobile urls. At least that’s what I think for now…