Mobile Optimization: Reassessing the Responsive vs. Mobile Site Debate

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For the last four or five years, responsive design has been the go-to approach for most webmasters looking to optimize their sites for mobile. There are good reasons for this, which we touch on in this article, but it’s not necessarily the ideal solution in when creating a positive mobile browsing experience. Despite widespread perception that responsive design is now the optimal approach, there are still valid reasons to consider a different way: a dedicated mobile site. In this article we address some of the benefits of mobile sites that you may not have considered, as well as a reassessment of the strengths and weaknesses of responsive design. The purpose is not to dispute the general efficacy of responsive design, but rather to highlight the fact that it isn’t the de facto ‘best’ choice in all applications.

The industry standard

The introduction of responsive design as a way to easily accommodate a range of screen sizes was revolutionary. As the number of people using mobile devices for internet browsing grew so rapidly, the ability to accommodate a variety of formats was a huge bonus for webmasters. Now that mobile browsing has overtaken desktop, it’s no surprise that responsive design is considered by many to be the industry standard. So much so that website building packages, designed to be accessible for a layperson, often include integrated responsive design to bring this advantage to non-experts. The hosting company 1&1 is a prime example of this. For a quick refresher, here are a few core advantages to responsive design:

  • Versatile
    Ready to adapt to any size of screen automatically
  • One website
    Because it doesn’t require a separate website, responsive design sites are easier to maintain and promote
  • One URL
    Eliminates confusion of having a different URL for a mobile site for both users and search engines
  • Prepared for the future
    Responsive design can handle the dimensions of new devices with ease

The Unsung Hero

In the eyes of some, mobile websites (usually denoted with ‘m.’ in the URL) are old hat – why go to the effort of creating two sites when you can stick to one? It’s true that having to develop a separate mobile site with a different URL poses some challenges. For instance, you have to maintain two websites simultaneously, which is not only more time consuming but can also create complications for search engine visibility if not managed correctly. However, it’s not quite as simple as that. Not all websites are alike, and there are compelling reasons to consider a mobile-dedicated site, depending on the nature of your project.

User experience

A major advantage of a mobile-dedicated site is that it’s bespoke. That is, because it’s distinct you’re your main website, you can tailor it specifically for mobile use without affecting the desktop browsing experience. The difficulty with responsive design is that any design changes you make to improve the mobile UX will also affect users browsing on larger screens, sometimes negatively. This is a tricky balancing act, and can result in trying to please both mobile and desktop users, but achieving neither. Mobile sites allow you to separate these concerns.

That said, the significance of this issue largely depends on how complex your website is in terms of content and functionality. For example, relatively simple and streamlined websites without many complex design elements or applications won’t have much of an issue. On the other hand, large online stores would struggle to implement design elements for their entire stock and payment processing in way that satisfies both mobile and desktop UX. Particularly for a business like this, a hassle-free user experience is crucial to optimizing conversion rates. This is where a mobile site comes into its element.

Speed

Responsive sites tend to be slower than dedicated mobile sites, which can also negatively impact user experience. This is because a responsive site still has to load virtually all HTML elements and content, no matter if a desktop or mobile device is being used. So, either you have to significantly reduce the size of your site – and risk diluting the desktop user experience – or accept slower loading times on mobile. On the other hand, mobile sites allow you to streamline mobile performance completely independently of your desktop site. This way, you can ensure both sites load as quickly as possible.

SEO

In the past, search engines weren’t as good at ranking mobile sites effectively, so responsive design was regarded as more SEO-friendly. This is changing, and search engines are now much more able to appropriately recognize them. Having a mobile site also offers you the potential to optimize for mobile-specific search intention. This means you can more precisely target mobile users and direct them to a website that’s created specifically for them. Furthermore, the greater freedom to tailor the mobile user experience can be beneficial for SEO, as UX is a tangible ranking factor.

Summary

Responsive design is an extremely useful method of mobile optimization, no doubt about it. It excels in its role for many websites, but can be complicated to implement for necessarily more bloated and complicated sites. Mobile sites offer more design freedom, allowing you to maximize the user experience of more complex web projects. Mobile optimization is not a case of choosing the ‘best’ method – it’s a matter of selecting the most appropriate method for your individual needs.

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