WordPress responsive design, mobile sites and SEO

With more and more people using mobile devices to access the internet, more and more WordPress website owners are ensuring their site is optimised for mobiles. To achieve this, you need to decide between two main options:

  1. A separate WordPress mobile site, which runs in parallel to your main website
  2. WordPress responsive design, in which a single website automatically adjusts its layout and scales up and down on different screen sizes

There are lots of things to consider to help you make this decision. But one thing most people don’t realise is that SEO (search engine optimisation) is also a factor.

Mobile WordPress sites and SEO

Although it makes sense to have a separate WordPress mobile site, there are some downsides. These come from the fact that a mobile site and the main site use different HTML – either by serving different HTML from the same URL, or on multiple URL’s (e.g. www.example.com and m.example.com). This is known as ‘device-specific HTML’. The website automatically detects what sort of device each visitor is using and uses this information to decide which HTML to serve.

Many mobile WordPress sites are effectively on a different URL/website address from the main website.

This means that the website traffic is being split.

Splitting your website traffic:

  1. Can make it harder for your website visitors to interact with, share and link to your content
  2. Makes it harder for search engine to know how to index your content
  3. Prevents search engines from crawling your content as efficiently

This isn’t a problem for WordPress responsive websites because they use CSS to set the layout for each device, so the HTML for each page is always the same.

So is WordPress responsive design better for SEO?

Probably, yes. Google strongly recommends using responsive design where possible as this is the best option for SEO.

However, there are lots of reasons why some WordPress website owners aren’t ready for a mobile- responsive design:

  • You may not be able to afford it – and responsive design is generally more expensive due to the extra work involved. It usually means creating lots of different layouts rather than just two – although you can create a responsive design with just two layouts.
  • You may already have a website you’re happy with. It’s not particularly cost-effective to add responsive design to a WordPress website retrospectively, as it hasn’t been coded with this in mind. If you’re planning to redesign your whole website at some point then it may not be worth making the existing design responsive right now.

I’d always recommend choosing a WordPress responsive design if you are getting a new website. Or if you have an existing site that you’re otherwise happy with, consider a separate mobile site until it’s time for a completely new website.

Whatever type of WordPress mobile site you choose, there are ways to avoid the SEO impact.

Creating an SEO-friendly WordPress mobile site

In June 2012, Google released guidance on how to help their searchbots to understand mobile sites.

In a nutshell, Google confirmed that there’s nothing wrong with device-specific HTML. You just need to tell the search engines how it works.

There are two ways to do this:

  • If your website uses the same URL for your mobile layout(s), use the HTTP Vary Header to tell searchbots how to crawl the site. This also tells caching servers and search engine algorithms to expect different content in different circumstances.
  • If your website uses different a URL for your WordPress mobile site, annotate the device-specific HTML to describe the relationship between the desktop and mobile content. Use a rel=alternative on the full-size version and a canonical URL on the mobile version. This will tell the search engines how your content is structured, maximising your site’s search engine position.

If this is a bit too technical, ask your WordPress web designer to implement Google’s guidance.  Alternatively, build your WordPress mobile site using Dudamobile – this is the best tool we’ve found for creating a professional WordPress mobile site and they do all the technical stuff for you!