The Dangers of Having Multiple Website Versions

With the proliferation of smart phones of varying screen sizes, flash compatibility, and most recently apple tv and google tv, many website owners are choosing to solve this problem with multiple sites and domains. While this solution can work, there are plenty of ways it can go wrong. In this post I’ll try to help you understand why this is usually not the best choice.

First, let’s make sure we are talking about the same issue. When I talk about creating multiple websites I mean having example.com for desktops, having m.example.com for mobile users, and example.tv for tv-based browsers like apple tv and google tv. Additionally, you could also have separate domains, sub domains, or folders for flash/non-flash content. The first problem is this creates a huge maintenance point. Unless you have the staff and budget, maintaining multiple versions of the same website is going to consume a larger and larger amount of resources. The more pages you have, the more versions you will have to maintain, and it will grow exponentially.

In my experience using multiple websites to solve platform specific content formatting issues is seldom the best choice and leads to bigger problems down the road…

Another negative aspect is buildup of links. If you have multiple versions, all of those versions will start to build link equity, both internal link equity and external link equity. You could try and do some redirection but, unless you handle redirection is perfectly, it inevitably leads to link trust/equity being divided across multiple resources and lower overall rankings. In my experience you are much better off using one domain with one URL implementation, no matter what/where/how the end user is viewing your content.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t change your content based on what the user is using to view your content or where they came from (see changing your content based on traffic intent). What I am saying is keep the domain/URL consistent and change the presentation via server side code and style sheets. This is also what Google recommends in their google tv implementation guide . The one place I will caution using Google’s advice is with 302 redirects. IMHO Google has a sketchy history handling 302′s, and I would steer clear of that issue entirely.

In addition to maintenance and link equity, you need to think about the user experience. If people are sharing your URL and it crosses platforms, like desktop to mobile, desktop to tv, tv to mobile, or mobile to tv, there is the potential for things to go wrong. Unless you redirect based on browser platform, you will run the risk of serving content that’s formatted incorrectly and might not be readable/usable. Want a real life scenario? Let’s say I’m reading Facebook on my iphone and click a link that one of my friends posted. If they posted a link to the TV version and I try to view it on my mobile phone, it’s not going to work.

In my experience using multiple websites to solve platform specific content formatting issues is seldom the best choice and leads to bigger problems down the road.

What are the takeaways from this post:

  • Use a single domain to serve all of your content
  • Use a single URL on that domain to serve content, for every platform and user agent
  • Use style sheets or server side scripting to serve content optimized or properly formatted for different platforms
  • Use country specific tld’s or subdomains only for different countries or languages

The one instance where I feel it’s advisable to use multiple domains or subdomains is country level tld’s or for different languages. If you own example.com and have a French version I would use example.fr, example.com/fr/ or fr.example.com to serve content, especially if you are trying to capture traffic from French language searches and search engines like google.fr.

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