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Jakob Nielsen's worst advice yet

I'm posting this as a public service announcement in case anyone has encountered this Nielsen post, and is under the mistaken impression he knows what he's talking about.

Aside from saying that Nielsen doesn't explore any alternatives, I won't go into details. Close that window, and check out these posts - they have slightly different perspectives on the issue, but - both for usability and SEO - will provide you with a vastly better information and perspectives than Nielsen.

From +Bryson Meunier:

From +Rudolf Ruud Hein:
Good mobile user experience requires a different design than what's needed to satisfy desktop users. Two designs, two sites, and cross-linking to make it all work.
David Amerland's profile photoKeith Greene's profile photoJohn Britsios (Webnauts)'s profile photoAaron Bradley's profile photo
He has been "out there somewhere" for some time. He gets it wrong as many times as he gets it right.
Only because I couldn't rant about this as much as I wanted to on twitter...

From the opening paragraph:
"Build a separate mobile-optimized site (or mobile site) if you can afford it." and "A mobile app might be even better — at least for now."

Why do people have it in their heads that a mobile app is a viable option for a company?! People need to ask themselves some questions:
a) Do we have a desktop application, like say, Word or Excel?
i) if yes, is that application useful to port to mobile devices?
b) Does my company offer a service that would be useful for users to access content in short, fast intervals, like twitter or facebook?

If you can answer yes any of those questions, then by all means, spend the considerable development hours to build an application. If not, then here's free tip to save yourself some time and money:

<meta name="viewport" content="width=device-width">

Then add some CSS. ITS MAGIKALZ!

Someone needs to keep the App Stores of the world free from crappy real estate agent apps, todo list apps, and other useless digital vomit..

Okay, sorry... I feel better now.
Yes, you're right. I need to calm down and relax, otherwise I'll never finish working this new Fart App for
Aaron, can you summarize what your fundamental disagreement is with Nielson? I certainly see some distinctions between these approaches, but I'm curious as to what really bugs you in what he's saying.
His basic instruction is to "[b]uild a separate mobile-optimized site," and contextually it's clear he means under a separate URL (other than that there would be no ability to "link from your full site to your mobile site").

The other option, he says laconically, is that a "mobile app might be even better."

So he omits the most sensible option (certainly from an SEO perspective, and probably a cost perspective as well): build ONE version of your site and serve ONE URL to all your visitors for any given unique page, but render the page differently for mobile vs. desktop users. This is variously called "skinning" or a "web app," and relies chiefly on CSS to provide the best experience to users for their environment. (Visit on an iPhone, if you have one, to see what I mean).

Another alternative, especially for sites that are being built from the ground up, is responsive design - really a variation on the "skinning" theme that relies on HTML5 (and, again, CSS) to deliver the SAME url to all users, but to customize the experience for different devices.

And this statement:
Sadly, many search engines still don't rank mobile sites high enough for mobile users, so people are often (mis)guided to full sites instead of the mobile ones, which offer a vastly superior user experience.
...reveals his lack of understanding of canonicalization. If you follow his advice your mobile site will indeed rank more poorly, exactly because you've constructed a SEPARATE site for mobile. Your "desktop" site will indeed outrank it, because you've duplicated your content and split your link popularity. The solution isn't his inane linking instructions (even if you did have separate sites, this is far better handled through user agent detection and redirection), but not building a separate site.

Hope this clarifies my objections.
Couldn't agree with +Aaron Bradley more. The idea of building a "separate" site for mobile devices just fuels the notion that the web should be divided between desktop and mobile. Enviably, this will create a horrific mess for users trying to access data. This was the idea behind the .mobi TLD in 2007, and we can see how that's worked out in 2012...

I live in fear of seeing "Site best viewed on Opera Mini" taglines suddenly showing up in the wild.
Sorry, Aaron, but I don't agree with you on this one. Appreciate that you shared my hybrid approach that I think answers all of Nielsen's objections from a user experience standpoint, while not creating duplicate mobile URLs for those SEOs who are (I think unnecessarily) concerned about splitting link equity with mobile URLs. And while I understand Nielsen's recommendation to build an app from a user experience standpoint from a marketing standpoint it makes a lot more sense to build a highly usable and findable mobile web app, as apps have limited reach and return on investment. However, as I explained in Marketing Land, responsive web design was never meant to replace mobile web sites: Saying that separate mobile user experiences is somehow archaic, while a very popular notion these days due to a number of non-SEO factors, is something that even the originators of responsive web design don't subscribe to. In many cases there's a benefit to the user to house content that addresses their specific context on a mobile URL. I've addressed this issue quite a bit in Search Engine Land, whether talking about how companies in the insurance vertical are missing out on accident and towing-related queries by not having a dedicated mobile site with different content than the desktop site (, or how retail clients are missing out on highly qualified local traffic by not providing a dedicated mobile user experience ( If you haven't read them, I'd recommend it, as it really gets to the key issue in mobile SEO that responsive web design can't (and was never meant to) address: that mobile searchers often require different content than desktop or tablet searchers, and if you're not accounting for that these searchers might find someone, possibly a competitor, who does.

As for the findability of mobile URLs, I responded in your other post to this, but basically like many SEOs you're failing to account for December's Old Possum/Skip redirect update (, which shows mobile URLs for mobile searchers and desktop URLs for desktop searchers, giving mobile URLs the ability to rank better for certain mobile queries than desktop URLs. Again, I favor responsive web design for duplicate URLs as part of a mobile optimized user experience that includes mobile URLs; but if a company must use mobile URLs canonicalization is not going to prevent their mobile URLs from ranking. How else would you explain mobile URLs ranking in Google search without link equity?

Again, I appreciate the discussion but I do think you're off base here. You and I share a healthy skepticism for popular SEO best practices, so I wish you'd have the same skepticism for this unfortunate trend in mobile SEO, given all the data against it.
Again, your responses always appreciated +Bryson Meunier.

For this I'll largely refer you to my other just-posted response to you, which I think will add some color to my Nielsen critique.

I'll just say that unlike Nielsen your points are argued and nuanced. In some ways my biggest beef with the Nielsen is that his advice is wholly prescriptive, and he seems unaware of alternatives to a strictly mobile site.

As I said in that other response, there are absolutely situations where separate URLs are appropriate (and you've had a role in opening my eyes to these), but there's other considerations in the mix. Nielsen's outlook is limited to two things: a separate mobile website, or an app - period.

I hope I maintain that skepticism too - thanks for the reminder! I think in general we share the same approach:
(You can skip to the end for the summary:)
+Bryson Meunier Thanks! Curiously enough, right before I got back to my desk and saw this notification of your comment, I was coming from a meeting which basically concluded with the words "responsive design."
When I began studying usability back in the year 2000, Jakob Nielsen was my guru. This post of Jakob Nielsen tells me that he lost the track entirely. Very disappointing, but no one is perfect.
+John Britsios Thank you for sharing the link. Yes, he does sound like he is on the defensive. Back in 2000 he was the firebrand leading the way, sounds like he has totally got out of his depth.
Tried to read the comments to Nielson's defense, but ironically, .net magazine doesn't show the comments to mobile users. I guess mobile users don't make comments on articles and blogs.

Oh well...

Sent from my iPhone
Hey +John Britsios. That he lists "three different ways of implementing different user interfaces for different devices" certainly mitigates my main criticism of the original piece - namely that he fails to acknowledge alternatives the propagation of content for different devices under different URLs. I find his discussion of responsive design somewhat lacking, however, as I think it too narrowly defines it as an implementation issue.
UPDATE (cc: +Bryson Meunier)

+Bruce Lawson has also weighed in on the Nielsen article. His arguments are often different than mine, and he speaks with far greater authority than I can, but at the end of the day we're both advocates of a single site in most circumstances.

Why We Shouldn’t Make Separate Mobile Websites

I love this bit from his post:
I believe that special mobile websites is like sticking plaster over the problem; we generally shouldn’t have separate mobile websites, anymore than we should have separate screen reader websites. The reason many “full websites” are unusable on mobile phones is because many full websites are unusable on any device.
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