Smartphones and tablets have truly changed the way we consume content. And it’s not just handheld devices, but even normal laptops and computers come in such a bewildering array of sizes, that it might seem impossible to optimize for all of them.
But there’s no turning back the clock. 2018 was the year when mobile usage finally outstripped desktop views for a lot of content on the web, and that number is only set to increase. So many people develop their websites on a desktop, that they develop tunnel vision and forget to create sites for people who use them the most!
So far, there have been two major methods of catering to mobile users:
- Creating a separate “mobile theme” and accessing it either via a subdomain like “m.example.com”, or by serving a completely new page altogether
- Creating a responsive theme that displays well on all types of screens
But a recent post by John Mueller leads us to believe that the second option – responsive themes – is the way forward. And for good reason.
The Login Behind Separate Mobile and Desktop Sites
I recently had a friend who wanted to migrate her business website to a new host. Now her site was old – it hadn’t been changed in a very long time. As a result, it was neither optimized in general, nor was it optimized for mobile phones.
Currently when someone visited her site, the page would just scroll horizontally. Not at all what you would expect from a site these days.
Since she was about to get married, I decided to give this to her as a wedding present and moved her entire website to the new host, installed some useful plugins, sped things up a bit. But what to do about her mobile problem? I wasn’t sure that she would like me to change it altogether, so I needed a solution that I could “add on” without disturbing anything too much.
One of the easiest ways to do this was to use the Jetpack plugin and enable the “Jetpack Mobile Theme” as shown here:
This will simply create a separate theme for mobile users and display it to those using an appropriate device. So that solution worked in her specific case because we weren’t ready to reword the entire site. Separate mobile themes are great for such situations where you need a quick and easy solution.
But they’re not ideal.
John Mueller’s Thoughts on the Subject
John Mueller’s formal title is “Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google”, but he’s so much more than that. He’s more like the public face of Google’s SEO team. Google is traditionally extremely secretive about its internal processes. In fact, sometimes they can be downright deceptive.
But Mueller is as close as we’re going to get to the “Word of God” when it comes to SEO related matters. As an aside, I find it amusing that his official website doesn’t use SSL 😛
On a recent Reddit thread this month asking about how to deal with mobile sites and AMP, this is what he had to say:
“With mobile first indexing, I’d recommend integrating the mobile version just as well as you would the desktop version. That means adding the alternate-amphtml link to the mobile version (pointing at the amp version), and including a reference to the mobile version from the amp version. That said, at some point all of these sites with separate mobile URLs should just move to a responsive design anyway, which makes all of this moot. (Separate mobile URLs makes everything much harder than it needs to be)”
The moral of the story is that we should all be using responsive site designs instead of separate mobile themes, or subdomains for smartphones and tablets. The main benefit is that it’s much easier to maintain and index. Fewer complications, cross-references, and canonical tag complications.
While you can still make it work, it’s clear that responsive sites are the future. With just one codebase to maintain, it makes everything easier. So if you have clients with sites that are stuck in another era, a “mobile only” theme might make sense in the short term. But long-term, you should be trying to move them to a responsive model.
I’m a NameHero team member, and an expert on WordPress and web hosting. I’ve been in this industry since 2008. I’ve also developed apps on Android and have written extensive tutorials on managing Linux servers. You can contact me on my website WP-Tweaks.com!