Mobile Website Optimization – You’ve Got Options

Earlier this week, Cindy Krum gave readers sound advice on URL structures for mobile so it makes perfect sense to follow-up on her excellent column with some additional thoughts on how to actually develop your mobile web content. It’s a topic that could — and does — fill several books, but every marketer should be […]

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Shutterstock 68911843 MobilecheckEarlier this week, Cindy Krum gave readers sound advice on URL structures for mobile so it makes perfect sense to follow-up on her excellent column with some additional thoughts on how to actually develop your mobile web content.

It’s a topic that could — and does — fill several books, but every marketer should be aware of the basic options for mobilization of a website and how to select the right one for his or her brand.

As we explore those options, keep in mind that in most cases a mobile web site isn’t a completely new product — it’s a re-imagination of an existing desktop site.

So it’s very rare that you’ll find yourself approaching a mobile site the way you normally would approach a desktop site — i.e. planning for a completely unique design, content, architecture, and code.

At this point in time, there are very few instances where you would develop a completely new mobile website from scratch without basing your efforts, at least in part, on something that already exists. So although that may change as mobile becomes a bigger and bigger web channel, our recommendations below are based on the premise that you will be looking to mobilize your current .com desktop site.

That said, let’s look at the options:

The Fully-Hosted Mobile Site

A fully-hosted site is one in which your content is hosted by a vendor on their own servers, separate from your .com site in every way. You provide the vendor with content and desired functionality and they develop the page layout and code and host the final mobile site on your behalf. Mobile users are redirected from your desktop .com URL to the hosted version.

Fully-hosted mobile sites were the first option on the market back in the early days of the mobile web. While their popularity is waning, they’re still popular with brands just getting started, since they offer the simplest route to mobilization.

Benefits of a fully hosted mobile site include:

  • Low to moderate initial cost: a brand can have a full site up and running for a moderate upfront development fee (scaled according to complexity) plus a monthly hosting charge (scaled according to impressions).
  • Low level of effort: the brand simply has to hand over content and the vendor does the rest — as a rule, no technical resources are required on the brand side whatsoever.
  • Fast time to market: since the vendor isn’t touching the brand’s .com environment and most are working with a library of basic templates and code snippets that are re-purposed for multiple clients, a mobile site can be up and running in a matter of weeks.

If you’re eager to get started with mobile and if you have a site that would be difficult to mobilize in a more organic way — one built in Flash, for example — the fully-hosted mobile approach can make a lot of sense.

Or, if you’re looking to create a completely fresh, stand alone mobile site that isn’t based on a desktop site — e.g. for a mobile ad campaign — again, the fully hosted option can be ideal. But there can be drawbacks to the approach

Drawbacks to a fully hosted mobile site include:

  • Poor long term ROI: when you go with a fully-hosted approach, you’re buying a service — not a site. If you decide at any point you want to take your efforts in-house or switch vendors, you’re starting from scratch with no investment to carry over.
  • Design limitations: most fully-hosted vendors have a fairly templated design approach and limitations to what they can achieve in terms of functionality. You may not be able to achieve the level of user experience design you’d like to have and or include certain more advanced functionality.
  • Maintenance: since your content is hosted elsewhere, any time you want to make a change to your site, you need to provide the vendor with instruction and wait for them to implement your request.

So, while you can be up and running quickly, you’re not investing in tangible assets that you can leverage long term and you may pay a price in terms of design and functionality. What’s more, your content is not in your control — changes or updates are  dependent on your vendor’s schedule, not yours.

Reverse Proxy Solution

A Reverse Proxy Solution essentially re-purposes your desktop site on the fly, taking your existing content, assembling a mobile-friendly facsimile of of it, then hosting the resulting mobile site on a separate server. It’s similar to the fully-hosted solution in that your mobile site lives completely separate from your desktop site, but the overall approach is a bit more sophisticated.

Benefits of a reverse proxy mobile site include:

  • Low to moderate initial cost: pricing is similar in structure to the Fully-Hosted option but tends to be a bit higher in cost. As a rule you can expect a moderate upfront development fee (scaled according to complexity) plus a monthly hosting charge (scaled according to impressions).
  • Low level of effort: since the reverse proxy simply re-purposes your existing site there’s little or no need for a brand to involve technical resources — which is magic to the average marketing manager’s ears.
  • Fast time to market: since the vendor isn’t touching your .com environment and is simply reformatting your existing content on the fly, the time to market is usually very quick and sometimes quicker than the Fully-Hosted approach — often as little as 4 weeks.

There are drawbacks though — the reverse proxy approach isn’t ideal for everyone:

  • Poor long term ROI: again, you are purchasing a service — not a site. If you decide to go a different route or become unhappy with a vendor, you’ve made no investment that can be taken elsewhere.
  • Practical limitations: reverse proxy vendors can get fairly sophisticated with look and feel but they are limited based on the content of your site — they can’t create specific mobile functions that aren’t there on the desktop. Also, if you have content contained in Flash or exceedingly complex informational structures or elaborate imagery they may not be able to re-purpose your content successfully.
  • Maintenance: ideally, your desktop site and mobile site should stay in synch but often, on the fly changes can break the mobile experience unless the vendor is given prior warning.

Think of the reverse proxy as the next step up from the fully-hosted solution. You can create a slightly more sophisticated experience that is more closely in synch with your .com and you can get to market faster, but your content is still living on someone else’s server and not entirely in your control.

Cloud Platform Mobile Site

The cloud platform approach is ideal if you have a bit more internal technical expertise. These vendors offer a suite of tools and hosted services that enable you to quickly develop a robust mobile site. You develop the site content — most commonly with HTML5, JavaScript, and CSS3 — and incorporate additional proprietary scripts, services, markup, and device detection from the vendor. The final site is hosted within your own .com environment, enabling you to fully own your content.

Cloud platform services are relatively new and have multiple benefits:

  • Cross-platform reach: the tools that cloud platforms offer enable you to render multiple iterations of  your site on the fly so that you can service a broad expanse of high- and low-end devices.
  • Rich UI: Images and even video can be re-purposed in real time for diverse platforms, making it possible to create a truly rich media experience for as many users as possible.

For brands that have internal resources, cloud platforms are an excellent option but there are some potential drawbacks.

Drawbacks to a cloud platform mobile site include:

  • Cost: though you are hosting your own content, you are still purchasing a service, and without it, your site won’t work. If you decide to switch vendors or go a different route altogether you may be able to re-purpose some elements of the site — but you may not. You also have to consider the cost of the service along with your internal costs of developing and hosting the site.
  • Higher Strategic and Design Level of Effort: the key benefit of the cloud platform option is the ability it gives you to reach the full spectrum of mobile devices. This can be a double-edged sword since it forces you to consider designing separate user experiences and content strategies based on high- and low-end devices.
  • Higher Maintenance Level Of Effort: Unlike the fully-hosted and proxy options, this approach does necessitate maintaining your own content. To do so effectively you’ll need to delegate ongoing technical support to keeping the site updated and running properly.

Cloud platforms are really ideal for brands that want to reach both high- and low-end users and provide the best possible experience for all.

It’s also an ideal solution for very sophisticated mobile user experiences which include lots of images and rich media since these assets can be rendered on the fly for every user.

Many of these vendors will also do the design and development for you and even host. The true value of cloud platforms is that you get the best of both worlds where you reach all the users you want to reach but still own your content.

CMS-Driven Mobile Site

Most popular commercial CMS solutions now have support for mobile baked in. If your .com site is CMS driven, you probably have the option of developing mobile page templates and integrating them into your CMS. You then simply need to implement some kind of device detection mechanism on the front or (preferably) back end to route mobile users to the correct content for their device.

The CMS driven approach has numerous benefits:

  • Total control over URL structure and SEO: fully hosted and proxy options will usually offer you the option to alias and mask URLs (for an added fee) and in the case of Cloud Services, much of your content lives within your own server but only the CMS driven approach offers you full control over where your content resides.
  • Centralized content management: since your .com and mobile sites are hosed within the same CMS, you are able to seamless update both, keeping your content in synch.
  • Total control over infrastructure and deployment schedules: when you work with an outside vendor you are always dependent on their schedules in some way. The CMS driven approach allows you to exert total control over when and how your site is maintained and updated.
  • Best Long Term ROI: you are utilizing the same resources — database, services, content — for multiple iterations of your site, so you’re maximizing the investment in your business over time.

Of course, not everyone can take the CMS driven approach. Your ability to do it hinges on having the right kind of CMS and the right technical resources, whether internally or with an agency partner. As with the other options, there are potential drawbacks to be aware of as well.

Drawbacks to the CMS driven approach include:

  • Cost: it will almost always cost you more money upfront since you are creating tangible assets —  code and design that you own and can build on over time. You’ll spend more time creating this content and time = money.
  • Time to Market: since you are designing, developing, and testing unique pages, the process will be much slower than a vendor solution where you’ll have prefab resources to rely on. In all depends on the complexity of your site but you are probably looking at months vs. weeks in time to market.
  • Support for multiple form factors: One of the biggest frustrations of mobile web development is addressing the differences of device form factors. Code standards, JavaScript support, media formats and screen sizes can differ radically from device to device, making it a challenge to create a single experience that address the needs of all the users you want to reach. Multiple iterations of your mobile site may be required.

The CMS driven approach is favorable in that it offers you total ownership of your content and the best long term ROI.

However, costs and time to market can spiral out of control if you have multiple tiers of devices to support and want to create the best possible user experience for each.

If you’re catering almost exclusively to a certain subset of users — e.g. iPhone and Android — then you can probably get away with creating a single site experience. But, if you have many other device types to consider and want to serve an optimized experience to each, then you’re probably best off considering one of the aforementioned vendor solutions, at least in the near term.

Responsive Design

Last, but not least, we come to Responsive Design. The responsive approach won’t be an option for everyone since, by definition, it involves creating a whole site that flows gracefully across multiple platforms.

Most brands won’t be in a position to make a radical redesign and re-architecture of their .com site and will simply be looking for a solution to optimizing a select portion of their existing content. But, if you are at the point of developing a new site or doing a complete overhaul, the responsive approach deserves your consideration for several reasons.

Benefits of the responsive approach include:

  • Economy of design: you will spend more time up front thinking about how your design progresses from device to device but in the long run, planning out your user experience with an ecosystem of multiple devices in mind will save you time and allow you to respond quickly to new form factors as they arise.
  • Cost: No outside service to pay for equals savings.
  • SEO: As per Cindy Krum’s recent article, having a single URL enables you to benefit from the search equity you’ve built up over time, ensuring optimal visibility across multiple platforms.

But responsive design is not a panacea for mobile — there are still drawbacks.

Drawbacks to the responsive approach include:

  • Reach: not every device supports CSS queries — if you want to reach a broad number of devices, the responsive approach alone won’t suffice.
  • Load times: Responsive sites load the full page and modify the layout and images according to device which can lead to extended load times on mobile.
  • Design limitations: you can accomplish a lot with CSS media queries but you can’t achieve the same level of customization for mobile that you can by developing a specifically mobile site. To create truly customized mobile experiences, you’ll need to layer additional functionality on top of your “base” responsive approach to take advantage of what the mobile device has to offer.

In summary, we’ve reviewed five very different options — Fully-Hosted, Proxy, Cloud, CMS and Responsive approaches to mobile.

It will take more than a few bullets of pros and cons for each to truly determine which is the right path for your brand but understanding your options is the first step. With 120+ million mobile web users in the US, it’s a question we’ll all need to answer — and soon.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.

About the author

Rachel Pasqua
Rachel Pasqua joined iCrossing in 2005 to develop the agency's mobile group and her expertise in this rapidly evolving ecosystem has helped many of our clients bridge the gap between online and offline and connect successfully with their audiences. An industry veteran, she has over 12 years of experience with clients such as Toyota, Kia, Bermuda Department of Tourism, RitzCarlton, Marie Claire and Good Housekeeping to name but a few, spanning a wide range of services from mobile app development to near field communications.

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