Arin Adamson
By Arin Adamson | Web Dev | November 12, 2014

Mobile Websites vs. Responsive Websites

In my past articles, I’ve explained the importance of mobile device compatibility for your website. With traffic exponentially increasing from web enabled mobile devices, you cannot afford to have a website incompatible with mobile. Inevitably, mobile web traffic will overtake desktop traffic. Knowing this, it would be best to prepare for a future in which a mobile compatible website is more valuable than an incompatible one. There are two different paths to making your website compatible with mobile devices: a responsively designed website and a mobile website. A responsive website adapts the content and website elements based on the screen’s size, while a mobile website is a separately website-specific design for a mobile device’s screen size. Before deciding which path you should take, you should first understand the benefits and downsides of each.

Website Rendering

Responsive vs Mobile WebsiteWhile both a mobile website and a responsively designed website make a website mobile compatible, they differ how that compatibility works. Responsive design makes the device do all the work, which increases load time and decreases your website’s speed. On the other hand, a website with a separate mobile website makes the server do all the work. A simple redirect to the website’s mobile theme assets keeps the mobile device from loading unnecessary and unused assets.

Typically you will receive better page speed scores with a mobile website, but there are other benefits to a responsive design. What you lose in page speed, you make up for in user experience. You can tell a website to render differently based on screen size, orientation (landscape or portrait) and the type of device the user is on. This is a huge advantage when considering mobile device user friendliness.

Domain & Search Engines

A majority of sites with a mobile website create a separate site specifically for web enabled devices and direct a sub-domain to it. While this is a fast and effective method to make a website mobile-compatible, this method can make it difficult to manage your website. Instead of one central website to manage, you now have two. You can also do some harm to your SEO. Instead of all traffic residing on your primary domain, traffic gets split between your sub-domain and the primary domain. For SEO purposes, it’s always better to keep all traffic on one primary domain.

An alternative is to load a separate skin when a mobile device is recognized. Many CMS systems (Magento, for example) can do this automatically, and you can actually purchase an easy-to-install, cheap, pre-designed mobile website for these content management systems.

On the flip side, because responsive designs uses already-rendered web elements to adapt to screen sizes, there is no need to have a secondary domain or a secondary website. A responsively designed website is easy to manage and effectively increases the domain’s search engine integrity.

Future Preparedness

As the internet becomes more accessible from a multitude of devices like TVs, home appliances (yes, really), mobile devices and other interactive media devices, website design adaptability will be increasingly important. There will be multiple different screen sizes to account for, but mobile websites are typically made for only the smallest screen size. For better user experience, adapting web elements to screen size will be increasingly more important.

Establishing a mobile website maybe cheaper up-front, but it will cost you more over time in technical updates and management cost. A responsive design however, is future-ready. Because a responsive design can adjust to any screen size, there will be no necessary updates based on changes to future devices.

My Opinion

As a web developer, I generally advise clients to go with a responsive design. I am a bit biased, but the benefits of a responsive design heavily outweighs those of a mobile website. On the rare occasion that I don’t advise responsive design, it’s usually because a client’s budget constraints make the full responsive makeover unfeasible. When this happens, I’ll generally suggest a mobile website (but not a sub-domain mobile website).

Responsive design is the future, not just for mobile browsing but for all internet accessible devices. TVs are one device moving further in the direction of web accessibility. Whether via a third party device or an integrated wifi adapter, more and more TVs are being used to access the web. Today, many website designers do not account for scaling up, only scaling down. Scaling up is quickly becoming equally important. When a user lands on your website using a TV sized screen you’ll want your website to look just as good on the “big screen” as it does on a standard size computer screen.

Hopefully this helps you make a more informed decision as you move your website into the future!

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