Note: This post has been updated from an earlier version that was posted on February 27, 2014 to reflect updates to industry best practices.
For as long as the mobile web has been accessible and websites could be viewed on mobile devices, businesses have required two different websites: a desktop version and a mobile version. Having a mobile version of your website has become increasingly important for two reasons:
- 60.3 percent of the U.S. population will use a mobile phone to access the Internet in 2015*. [View Emarketer Chart]
- In April 2015, Google’s mobile-friendly algorithm was released to help users more easily find mobile-friendly websites in search engine results pages on smartphones.
With such a high percentage of the population using their phone to read, search for, and access content on the web, having a website that functions simply and looks good on a mobile device is a necessity.
As the usage of the Internet on mobile devices has grown and will continue to grow over the years, so will the number of ways a website can be created to fit a mobile screen. Today’s businesses currently have three options (responsive, dynamic serving, and custom mobile websites) available that will provide website visitors with the best experience possible. Each has its positives and negatives, so before you make a quick decision on which design choice is best, take a moment to review your options.
What Is Responsive Design?
If you’ve been in the position to decide what to do with your website, you’ve likely heard of a responsive design. With a responsively designed website, your website will adapt to the size of the viewing window. Depending on where a website visitor is viewing your website from, the only major changes will be in the design of the website. The content of the website will remain the same across each device.
- No HTML changes, only CSS. With no changes to your website’s overall structure, the experience for website visitors will be the same between desktops and mobile devices. The only changes made will be in the site’s style sheet as it recognizes the different device types.
- Less expensive to create. Responsive designs, as they don’t call for a new site structure to be created, are often less expensive and less time-consuming to create and update. This has been a big draw for many businesses across the country.
- It’s tied to your main site. When your main (desktop) website is down, your mobile website will be down as well.
- Mobile styling can take time. While the process to create a responsive website is quick, getting styling right can take time, as not every styling option will cooperate when switching between large and small screens.
What Is Dynamic Serving?
Similar to responsive design, dynamic serving websites utilize only one URL for each device that searches for your website. The big difference with dynamic serving is that the HTML structure of your website will vary on a device-by-device basis. The reason for this is that depending on the device that a website visitor may be using, the experience will be different. Certain content will be shown in one place but not another.
The advantage of this design is that files like videos that are too large to fit on a mobile device correctly can be removed. The same goes for written content. If you’re trying to drive mobile users to specific places on your website, dynamic serving allows you to specify what users of each device will see depending on the HTML that each website is built upon.
- Unique experience delivered per device. With less showing up on your mobile site, it could possibly help it run smoother, giving mobile visitors the chance to quickly navigate your website, which in turn could convince them to keep coming back.
- Only one URL. This is an important piece of making the experience positive for website visitors. With only one URL, visitors don’t need to remember if your website is the same as the desktop or if they need to type m.yoururl.com. The easier you make it on website visitors, the better.
- It’s an expensive choice. In contrast to responsive designs needing only a change in CSS, dynamic serving websites are individual websites built for specific devices. This means more time in development and additional work in the event that one site goes down.
- May require a Vary HTTP header. With the use of a Vary HTTP header, ISPs are being told whether or not to serve a device with the cached version of your website. If this is forgotten or decided against, you could end up with mobile users being served with your desktop website, slowing down the viewing process and potentially losing them as a returning visitor.
What are Custom Mobile Websites?
With a custom mobile website, which may also be referred to as an Mdot website or a separate mobile domain, there are similar principles to both responsive and dynamic serving websites. A custom mobile website allows you to create a unique experience between desktop and mobile versions, as the HTML/CSS structure will be different for both, yet the design and overall feel of the mobile version could be very similar to what you will find on your desktop website.
The major difference to custom mobile websites is the use of a mobile specific URL. You will see them in your browser as “m.yoururl.com” and are used today by a large portion of the Internet. This, similar to dynamic serving, may come at a higher price in the end, but will once again allow for unique content to be placed on your mobile site as compared to the desktop version.
- Noticeably mobile-friendly. Recall Google’s release of a mobile-friendly algorithm. Unlike responsive or dynamic serving, your “m.yoururl.com” tells search engines and searchers that your website is mobile-friendly directly in the URL.
- Can be prone to SEO errors. If the content between your mobile and desktop websites is going to be the same, you’ll need to remember to implement rel=”canonical” tags to let search engines know where the original information can be found. If you forget to do this, your website could be more susceptible to search engine algorithm “penalties.” Keep this in mind for dynamic serving websites as well.
Is there an obvious “best” choice?
When it comes to deciding which choice of mobile website is best, it comes down to a couple of questions. The first is, “What is your budget?” Depending on how much you are either looking to spend or willing to spend, the choices vary. If you’re looking for the simpler, less-expensive but still good-looking website, then a responsive design is the way to go.
If you have a little bit more money to spend, take the time to consider dynamic serving and custom mobile websites. They are very viable options and can provide your audience with an experience that responsive designs may not.
The second question is: where is your audience viewing you most? If your audience is viewing your website more often on their desktops or laptops, then a responsive design may be the best choice. By serving users with the same experience as your desktop version, website visitors will know where pages are and how to get to and from different areas of your website.
If it’s split down the middle or if mobile is viewed more often, dynamic serving and custom mobile websites may be the better options. As mobile users will want to view a website that is easy to view on mobile and only contains the information pertinent to completing a purchase or learning more, having a website dedicated to a mobile-first experience would be the way to go.