Considering a mobile site for your business? You probably should. Internet users are increasingly accessing the Web via mobile devices. In the five short years since the iPhone hit the market, more than half of US consumers have purchased a smartphone. Of those smartphone owners, the vast majority regularly use their phones to access the Internet. Having a mobile site allows you to serve the needs of both mobile and desktop users while ensuring that you’re not missing out on potential leads or sales.
What Does Your Site Look Like on a Smartphone?
Even the best-looking websites can look “wrong” on a smartphone. Text is small and difficult to read. Images take a long time to load and may not render correctly. Certain functionality won’t work as expected, frustrating visitors and potentially driving them away.
If your site was built using Flash, you’re at an even greater disadvantage. Older technologies like Flash aren’t supported by many smartphone manufacturers, which means that anyone accessing your site with a mobile device is met with either an error message or, worse, a blank screen.
A mobile site is designed to change the way it looks and operates based on the size of the viewing screen and the device used to view it. When someone visits your site from a desktop, they see your full site. When someone views it from a smartphone, the site looks and behaves in a way more appropriate for that device.
It is important to also understand that a mobile site is not the same as an app. An app is a special type of software that must be downloaded and installed on a specific device. While mobile apps can be great tools for some types of businesses, an app should be considered an add-on, not a replacement for a mobile site.
Optimizing Your Site for Mobile Devices
Making your site work for mobile users can be done in one of three ways. The fastest and easiest is to make your existing site mobile-compatible, which means altering the way it looks and functions so that it will behave acceptably when accessed from a mobile device. You’ll need to get rid of Flash, thoroughly test your site from mobile browsers, and fix any layout and functionality issues you find. Usually there aren’t many. The goal of this approach is to make your site work for mobile users the same way it works for desktop users, with the assumption that a little pinch-and-zoom will be required for navigation.
Alternately, you can build a separate site for mobile browsers - one designed specifically to meet the needs of mobile users. If you take this approach, only those accessing your site from a mobile device will be directed to your mobile site; the rest will see your existing site. Several Internet heavy-hitters have built stand-alone sites for mobile users. Some examples include Facebook, Twitter and Amazon. These sites are designed to provide mobile users with the content and functionality they need, but also a faster, simpler user experience. Mobile sites generally include scaled-back features, streamlined design, touch-screen-friendly icons and fewer forms to fill out. They are also designed to make it easier for mobile users to find the information they’re most often looking for (e.g., store locators, menus, etc.).
If you’re building a site from scratch (or rebuilding an existing site), you may want to take a different approach: building your site using what’s known as “responsive design.” This technique involves designing and building websites with a fluid layout that adapts to the screen on which it’s viewed. Responsive design is built on the idea that a single URL should deliver the content that’s most appropriate for each user’s screen.
To see responsive design in action, check out Microsoft’s home page. If you slowly resize your browser window, you’ll see the site changing both in layout and the amount of information displayed on your screen.
Which Is Best?
Updating your existing site to ensure compatibility with mobile devices is the least expensive way to go mobile. Obviously, however, this approach has its limitations. As mobile sites become more common, many users consider navigating a full site via a mobile browser more trouble than it’s worth.
While its considered preferable for many types of businesses (e.g., ecommerce, restaurants, service-based companies, etc.), a stand-alone mobile site presents its own challenges. Its limited functionality and content may cause some mobile users to opt for your full site anyway. If you do choose to build a mobile site, you can expect to spend more than you would to make your existing site mobile-compatible.
Because it involves building (or rebuilding) a full website, responsive design is the most expensive way to serve mobile users. That said, responsive design can yield a higher-quality user experience and appeal to the broadest possible range of site visitors.
Whichever approach you choose, optimizing your site for mobile devices will ensure that your customers can find you when they’re on the go, opening the door to new leads and more sales.