Responsive Design or Separate Mobile Site, AppThe days of thinking of mobile as something you can get to later, when the mobile traffic arrives, are over. 

Mobile makes up a major share of overall web traffic -- this is undeniable. In fact, various sources have reported that mobile traffic volumes will overtake “traditional” traffic as soon as 2014.

If you haven’t already figured out how to attack mobile with your own website, you simply cannot wait any longer to get serious about it. This goes beyond simply cobbling together a mobile app -- it must affect the very architecture and approach of the website itself.

Some clients of ours have been waiting to optimize for mobile because they are unsure of the right way to do it. In helping them sort through the issues, we have spent a great deal of time analyzing the options.

In the end, the decision really comes down to whether you convert the whole site to a responsive experience (i.e. the same website responds to the size and platform of the browser and serves up a different experience for each) or build a separate mobile-optimized version of the website for devices such as smartphones and tablets.

SEO Implications

From a strategic standpoint, SEO should play a significant role in this decision. In reality, your website can succeed at driving organic traffic no matter which direction you choose to go.

With Google increasingly emphasizing mobile as a requirement for overall ranking, you need to build in time and resources to SEO the site as part of the upgrade or build out. But you need to do it responsibly. How can you best balance a custom experience for all platforms with targeting for the search engines?

We saw in the old days that a lot of webmasters chose to overemphasize SEO at the expense of user experience. Those websites did okay until Google Panda hit. Today, you have to keep content/page quality and overall experience in mind to rank.

The decision point here comes down to the amount of effort it will require to rank the mobile website. Which would you prefer:

  1. Build one responsive website that pursues the same keywords on any platform, but that adjusts dynamically to the interface being used to view the site.

  2. Keep your existing traditional website live, but also build a second website targeted to mobile browsers. The mobile site will provide more control over the user experience and custom mobile targeting for the same or different keywords. Both must be optimized and crawled separately as subdomains, so both will rank independently depending on platform.

Many enterprise webmasters swear by option number two as the right answer for various reasons, the most visible of which is the ability to completely control the experience on mobile. That sounds great, but only if you plan to invest in a full SEO campaign supporting both websites independently.

Rather than overboil the ocean, I always opt for the most efficient path. In this case, responsive is hands-down the easiest to optimize and grow for organic search traffic.

Advantage: Responsive Design

Development and Content Management Support

SEO is not the only place where support resources factor heavily into the decision. If you build two websites, you have to support two websites.

This includes having to update both sites every single time you want to add pages, change content or branding, modify a template and pursue new keywords. I've worked in and with enterprise development support teams, and they share one important characteristic: they operate with a perpetual lack of support resources.

Businesses tightened their belts as much as possible during the recent economic downturn. Many dev teams are now being forced to make significant tradeoffs between conflicting priorities.

If efficiency matters, a single website makes the most sense. Surely, some companies have ample staff to throw at an additional website. That doesn't mean it makes sense. Imagine what types of major additional projects your dev team could take on if you cut their tactical website support time by 33-50 percent.

Advantage: Responsive Design

User Experience

User experience impacts the success of your website in a myriad of ways.