Which is Better, a Mobile Web Site or a Responsive Web Site?

Before you invest time and money in getting your site ready to support mobile users, this is actually a very important question to ask.  In the web development community, there is some on-going debate about this subject. So if you’re curious to know what all the fuss is about, please read on.

Both approaches will allow you to present your website correctly to mobile browsers. So there really is no correct answer to this question. Ultimately it depends on various goals and factors.

The chart below presents Google’s comparisons of the two methods. Some of these points are open to debate, but they do offer a useful starting point in your decision.

Before going on any further though, let’s define what we’re even talking about here.

Responsive Web Site

A “one-Size fits all” responsive site does simplify maintence.

For those who believe that a ‘screen is just a screen is just a screen ‘, responsive web site design is the clear winner. With responsive web site design, the 1 and only site is developed to respond adequately on any screen that it is presented on. “Code once and be done with it” is the compelling argument with responsive web designers. To accomplish this feat, advanced CSS (cascading style sheets) are used to ensure that any web element, be it menu item, image, video, table, whatever… will automatically be re-sized on-the-fly in order to accommodate any screen size.

Mobile Web Site

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A mobile site promotes targeted actions, while optimizing network performance.

A mobile web site is a separate web site that has been specifically designed and targeted for mobile prospects. While the mobile site is indeed separate from the main (or desktop) site, visitors will (should) be sent to the appropriate site automagically, based on the device they are on during their visit. Sending the client to the appropriate site is done using automatic browser detection and redirection.

pencil_128You can tell a mobile site from a responsive one if you see that the “www.” sub-domain has been replaced with an extension like “m.”, “touch.”, etc. or if the “.com” extension is replaced with a “.me” or “.mobi”. This is quite common with both big and small companies alike. For example, open www.linkedin.com on a phone and you will be routed to “touch.linkedin.com”.

The Debate

Supporters of Responsive Web Design believe that maintaining two different sites is unwieldy and unnecessary.  Their argument is that all content should be presented on all screens at all times <period>.

Proponents of Mobile Site Design argue that a mobile site should be streamlined and specifically targeted for a fat-fingered mobile user on a tiny screen and on a comparatively slow cellular network, such that site elements (like images, videos, tables, menus, etc.) are not simply re-scaled but are carefully re-sized, re-positioned, re-arranged, and re-purposed. If you’ve ever suffered having to watch standard TV broadcast on a high-definition television set, you can appreciate the rationale behind streaming the highest resolution content to the highest resolution screen (and vice-versa).

Our Position

Since we (Adverscan Mobile Media) actually develop both Responsive and Mobile web sites, we generally like to choose the most economical, time-sensitive, and effective solution for our clients. However, there are some points worth noting:

  • Using Responsive Web technology is smart and should be used whenever possible, even when you plan to offer a separate mobile site. (Adverscan sends mobile users to our mobile site, but also uses deep links to our mobile responsive site.)
  • Understand that a Responsive site design may NOT always offer the most “actionable interface” for mobile users who you want to contact your business quickly.
  • If like many sites, your site uses content sidebars, be aware that a Responsive design will typically append these content widgets after the main content section. This can have a significant visual impact when presented on a phone.
  • A Responsive site will usually be significantly “heavier” than a mobile web site in terms of content size and will therefore usually not load nearly as fast (especially over cellular networks) as a mobile site. Remember, re-scaling images and videos is much different than re-sizing images. Re-scaling simply tells the browser to re-size the image, but the whole original image has needed to be sent over the air.
  • Large companies have differing opinions on which approach is better. Consider the statement by Coca-Cola on responsive vs. mobile site design: “If you get into this HTML5, hybrid mindset and start pretending that a screen is a screen is a screen, you start forgetting about the customer experience…” (source: Marketers at odds over effectiveness of responsive design )
  • With browser auto-detection installed on your main desktop site, making sure that mobile visitors get redirected to your mobile site is easy and quite effective. So you should never need to actually promote 2 different site addresses, regardless of whether you go Responsive or Mobile.
  • A mobile site can, and should, be part of your domain name, e.g., “m.yoursite.com”. With simple subdomain partitioning (which is free with virtually any domain provider, e.g., GoDaddy), and the use of a CNAME record on the sub-domain, you can ensure that your mobile visitors stay within your domain, even though you have a separate mobile site.
  • A mobile web site may indeed end up having some duplicate content as your desktop site. While there are ways to avoid this (e.g., RSS feeds), having legitimate duplicate content will not, according to Google, affect your SEO (see “Demystifying the Duplicate Content Penalty“)
  • In our real world experience (many dozens of sites), a well-crafted Mobile site that focuses on action will have a lower bounce rate than a Responsive design. Many of our clients have Responsive sites yet use a Mobile site so that they can maintain total control over what, where, and when specific content is presented on a phone. A responsive site, rarely offers that level of control of content placement. Consequently, especially for your main landing page, a well-designed mobile site will usually have a lower bounce rate for mobile visitors than a responsive home page.
  • From the all-important cost standpoint, assuming you don’t already have a Responsive site, the migration cost can be higher and longer to implement than getting a mobile site developed. On the other hand, the ongoing cost (ie, hosting) can be higher, especially over time. So over the long haul a Responsive site should cost less to operate.

Adverscan can offer both solutions to going mobile. For those companies who’ve already invested in their web site and don’t want the added cost or time burden associated with new web development, we can build a mobile site for a fraction of the cost of most web development efforts. Alternatively, for those companies that either want a new site created, or already use a mainstream CMS platform (e.g., WordPress, Joomla, or Drupal) we can migrate their existing site to be Responsive.

Let me know if you found this article useful by emailing me at mike AT adverscan DOT com or feel free to ask for advice (no charge).

About Mike Cancell

Mike has been a thought leader in the area of mobile communications and digital marketing for the past 20 years. He is the principal partner of Adverscan, a small multi-channel marketing agency located in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina. When not daydreaming about skiing in the Rockies, wind surfing in the Caribbean, and dating supermodels, he can be found at home trying the patience of his wife and kids.