Choosing Responsive Over Separate Mobile Sites and Apps

By now, everyone knows that optimizing for mobile users is necessary. In November 2013, PR firm Walker Sands released a study showing that mobile traffic made up 28% of all web traffic—an increase of 67% from Q3 2012—and that number is only going to continue growing. With mobile optimization now a top priority for many companies, the only question that really remains is how to do it. The truth is, there are many ways to “optimize for mobile users.” You can build a responsive website, create a separate mobile site, or invest in a mobile app.

For most designers and developers out there, responsive design is the clear winner. Why, then, as a site owner, should you choose responsive over a separate mobile site or an app?

Responsive Design

We’ve written about responsive on our site before, but in short, a responsive site is a single website that automatically adapts to the screen size of the user’s device through a series of CSS media queries. That means that every user, regardless of the device they’re on, will get the same content and experience.

A well-designed responsive website offers several benefits:

  • There’s no need to download anything – the content is readily available whenever it’s needed, and it can be accessed on any device with an Internet connection.
  • They are easily updated through your content management system (CMS).
  • There’s no need to worry about how the content will appear for different users. Your designers and developers will take care of that during your website build, and they’ll make sure that everything looks great for everyone.
  • They’re good for SEO. With a responsive site, you can implement a single SEO strategy. You’ll also avoid any potential duplicate content issues and improve usability by making your content easily accessible to everyone. Also, Google loves it.

There are a few concerns with responsive design, primarily large pages and load time. Skilled developers are aware of these issues and optimize for them, so if your site is put together well, you shouldn’t run into any problems.

Separate Mobile Sites

There are a couple of different ways you can approach a separate mobile site. If the pages on your desktop and mobile sites match exactly, you can use the same URL as your desktop site and dynamically serve the mobile content to mobile visitors through user-agent detection. Basically, your developers add snippets to your site’s code to ensure that mobile visitors are served the correct version of your site.

If the pages differ greatly, you could also use different URLs. If you go this route, your developer will need to implement user agent detection, then use redirects to guide visitors to the appropriate mobile URL.

Separate mobile sites can come in handy if you have drastically different goals and conversions in mind for your mobile visitors. However, it’s important to note that things can get a little hairy:

  • Separate mobile sites require additional set-up and technical work in order to function correctly. Your developers will need to place all the right snippets of code in all the right places, or you’ll open up the door for unintentional errors, including faulty redirects.
  • Site updates will take more time because they’ll have to be made on both the desktop and mobile sites.
  • You’ll need a separate SEO strategy for your mobile site.
  • You should take extra care not to deprive mobile visitors from valuable content by eliminating pages or drastically reducing the amount of content on your mobile site. Many people believe that mobile users only want the “essential” information, but this isn’t the case. Today, people frequently use mobile devices the same way they use desktop computers. They’re not just using that smartphone or tablet to search for driving directions.

In short, a separate mobile site is more work and probably isn’t worth the effort unless you have a really good reason for it.

Mobile Apps

Generally speaking, mobile apps aren’t recommended in place of a website—whether you have a responsive site or a separate mobile site, it’s always going to be better than an app. This is primarily because apps require a download, which is one more action you have to convince a user to take before they come into contact with your brand. They also have no search engine power because they are not crawled or indexed.

In addition, mobile apps have to be tailored to different platforms. This means that they’re cost prohibitive because multiple versions will have to be created for each platform (iOS, Android, Windows, etc.) and that updates will need to be made across each platform. It’s expensive and time consuming.

Responsive for the Win

When it comes right down to it, responsive is the best option in 9.5 out of 10 cases. Visitors have access to all the same content, so they can find what they’re looking for no matter where they are, and all that content will look great regardless of the device they’re using. Plus, responsive sites save you a lot of extra work and frustration, and they’ll adapt to any device that’s developed in the future. A responsive site is an investment, but it’s one that will pay off in the end.