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December 2, 2015

Mobile Optimized vs. Responsive Websites

Author: Valerie Baker

Responsive Website ExampleWhat is the difference between a dedicated mobile site (or mobile optimized site) vs. responsive mobile site?

Before we jump into the technical difference between mobile and responsive sites: If you haven’t noticed, mobile devices have taken over. Back in May, Google & Search Engine Land reported that more searches are done on Mobile than any other platform. But search isn’t the only place Mobile is dominating. According to The Mobile Playbook – a quick guide to mobile for CEOs created by Google, smartphone adoption rates have increased from 36% to 61% in the last 2 years. Take a look at some of these stats:

  • 94% of smartphone users search for location information
  • 51% visited a store
  • 48% called a store
  • 29% made a purchase

… All mobile, all smartphone and all search! Mobile use has quickly eclipsed conventional desktop use and looks like it will eclipse TV use soon as well.


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So it’s clear people have overwhelmingly decided that mobile – particularly their smartphones – are one of their preferred methods for surfing the web, searching the Internet and digesting content. This means your business website needs to cater to (or at the very least account for) this audience.

The Different KINDS of “Mobile” Sites

The concept of using the web on a mobile device has been around for a very long time. In years past you could simply open up your flip phone’s browser, enter in an address, and wait a few minutes as a basically text-version of your favorite website appeared. A lots changed in the last 10 years (really beginning with the first iPhone) to allow both developers and users alike to settle in on some solutions that make sense for mobile browser.

To date the two major methods for handling mobile have been:

  1. Dedicated Mobile Website
  2. Responsive Design

What is a dedicated mobile site?

A dedicated mobile site is at its core a site created SOLELY for the purpose of serving up content to mobile users. In many respects this is absolutely ideal. These kinds of sites are created and coded for the sole purpose of showing off specific content to mobile users.

You’ve probably seen a site like this where it says “mobile-optimized” or “mobile-version” often with a link at the bottom that reads “view desktop version” or you may notice it includes m in the URL

In our research at Atilus on the top techniques by not only web developers, but also web marketers from around the world we’ve found that a dedicated mobile site, although ideal in some large-scale applications just isn’t feasible (or necessary) for many businesses. Here’s a breakdown of some of the pros and cons and and different applications where you should/shouldn’t use a dedicated mobile site:

Dedicated Mobile-Site Pros Dedicated Mobile-Site Cons
Custom(ized) Experience – a custom experience leads to happier visitors. Expensive – Creating a whole separate setup for mobile users via a dedicated mobile site can be expensive – not to mention you’ll want to account not just for the smallest smart phone screens, but also the largest Tablet screens as well.
Inexpensive – on small scales there are some tools out there to automatically provide a mobile optimized experience (Duda Mobile). Upkeep – Keeping your website up-to-date is already challenging enough. If you have a dedicated mobile site it could mean creating 2 or more copies of everything.
Marketing – It’s become clear that Google and other search engines are rewarding sites that custom-tailor experiences for each audience and provide the best experiences. You may see a boost in search traffic by implementing a mobile-optimized experience. Marketing Complexities – Because of duplicate site issues, a separate site, when setup improperly could actually heard your businesses search marketing.
Sales – providing a completely customized experience around a particular device or screen size can help make the process of purchasing (signing up, or contacting) easier – particularly in high volume situations.  
Exacting – Can offer more control for designers and developers that don’t want to deal with various screen sizes.  

What is a Responsive Mobile Site?

As opposed to a strictly “mobile-website” a responsive (sometimes called adaptive) site allows websites to be viewed on various mobile devices and screen sizes. As the name implies responsive sites “respond” to the device they’re on shifting and scaling based on the device screen size.  Responsive design is the preferred choice of Google, and regardless of the method you implement Google has made it clear that it will begin rewarding businesses that have optimized their websites (regardless of means) with higher Search Engine Result Page (SERP) rankings. But there are still some pros and cons to consider when discussing responsive sites:

Responsive Website Pros Responsive Website Cons
Automatic – More often than not 1 website (when done with “responsive-design”) is all you’ll need to handle all devices, meaning far less time with upkeep. Redesign – Since the responsive movement/standard is still fairly new many websites that are 2+ years old probably aren’t responsive and may need a redesign or retooling to work.
Marketing – It’s become clear that Google and other search engines are rewarding sites that custom-tailor experiences for each audience and provide the best experiences. You may see a boost in search traffic by implementing a mobile-optimized experience. New/Flexible – This is partially for designers and partially for the businesses considering responsive, because of the “flexible” nature of responsive design it means design conventions are new.
Less Expensive – Over time, especially if you’re developing a site today responsive is typically built into most development companies processes and should be painless/cost-free to maintain.

What’s the Bottom Line on Mobile vs. Responsive?

At Atilus the choice has been simple. Since the Bootstrap 3 (mobile first) framework came out we’ve been creating every new site with responsive design. It’s meant a change internally on design thinking, execution and testing – but it’s what makes sense for 99% of our clients.

In our opinion, there’s really only 2 circumstances when you should consider a “mobile-only” version of your website:

  • You have an existing website and would prefer not to incur the costs of redesigning it using responsive. We’ve done this for many clients, and there are even tools out there to assist with this quickly and automatically.
  • You’re a business that’s doing a LOT of online business/sales and the economies of developing out a separate website make sense. Developing a separate website experience for a particular screen makes a lot of sense when a small increase in conversion rates on sales means millions of dollars in extra revenue. In all other cases, responsive design will accommodate your audience just fine and will allow your business to experience the best harmony of updating your website one place, but making sure it’s still extremely usable on mobile devices.

What are your preferences? Is there anything I missed? Please feel free to leave a comment or ask any questions and I’ll be sure to answer.

Valerie Baker

Valerie is the Senior Account Manager & Project Manager here at Atilus.

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