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What’s the Difference Between Mobile Optimized and Responsive Sites?

by aschmidt

The advent of various Internet-ready mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones has completely revolutionized the website design industry. Only a decade ago it was standard practice to build and publish a website with nothing but desktop usability in mind, but adapting that mindset in today’s world could alienate a large percentage of your website visitors. The trend of accessing the Internet through various mobile devices is only going to increase; as a matter of fact, it is projected that local mobile search will surpass local desktop search by as early as 2015. This growing trend has forced many webmasters to make website optimization a priority, prompting them to design their pages to accommodate as many different viewing devices as possible.

The Birth of the Mobile Optimized Site

A large portion of the developer community recognized this emerging trend towards mobile usage years ago and preemptively responded by creating what was known as the “mobile site”. Mobile sites are specifically optimized to be viewed on a mobile device, and they are designed to provide an improved user experience for mobile visitors. After all, browsing a desktop website on your smartphone can be aggravating; more often than not, the page elements seem to pile on top of each other, and oftentimes the text is broken up or otherwise difficult to read. Mobile optimized sites also offer faster download speeds, as well as enhanced mobile-specific functionality such as click-to-call, GPS-based mapping and object hyperlinking via QR codes.

So What’s the Difference Between Mobile Optimized and Responsive Sites?

So how does a mobile site differ from what’s known as a “responsive site”? The main difference is that a mobile site is a completely separate website from its desktop counterpart, while a responsive site is a version of your site that adapts and adjusts the on-screen content to accommodate whatever device is viewing the page. A responsive website works with the viewing device, rearranging certain page elements in order to present a cohesive web page that fits the user’s screen size (small or large) and orientation (portrait or landscape). Responsive websites perform these operations on-the-fly, “responding” to the specifications of the viewer’s device so that the main elements of the web page will be visible and legible. If you’ve ever viewed a non-responsive website on a mobile device, you will easily recognize why responsive sites are so much better; with non-responsive sites, you’ll more than likely encounter some visual aberrations such as incomplete images and jumbled or poorly arranged text.

Mobile Optimized or Responsive Site: Which Should You Choose?

The choice of whether or not you should go with a mobile optimized site versus a responsive site will largely depend upon the purpose of your website. If you run an online store or any type of e-commerce site, a mobile optimized site will offer a streamlined, uncluttered interface for your potential customers. The increased speed that mobile optimized sites provide will also help to decrease page load times, a critical element to consider in terms of lowering abandonment rates. Countless studies have shown that if people have to wait too long for a page to load before they can purchase an item, they will simply go elsewhere. Mobile optimized sites are excellent “workhorses” for e-commerce and other online retailing ventures, as they offer clean and efficient transaction functionality.

Responsive websites are also used by online merchants, but they are most often utilized by content-rich sites such as blogs, online magazines and news aggregators. One important thing to consider is that responsive design is not a “quick fix” that you can add to an existing site–it requires a complete design and coding overhaul which may be too cost-intensive for many businesses to take on. If you’re satisfied with your current desktop website, or your budget won’t allow for a responsive redesign, it may make more sense to just build a separate mobile optimized site instead. However, if you are starting from scratch, it is commonly believed that responsive design will be the direction that the general Web is heading in the future.

Responsive sites are generally considered to be forward-looking because they take into account the ever-changing landscape of consumer electronics, specifically Internet-ready mobile devices. When the iPhone first emerged, it was a completely revolutionary device that changed the way users accessed and viewed Web content. As time went on, countless smartphones from various manufacturers have been introduced into the market, all of which display Internet content in a slightly different way than their counterparts. Responsive sites take the future into account, offering maximum flexibility and adaptability to accommodate whatever design specifications may come down the pipe from different manufacturers.

In summary, there are advantages and disadvantages to both mobile optimized and responsive websites, and you will have to evaluate your specific needs, budget and objectives to determine which one will be the best fit. The important thing to remember is that the general Web-browsing public really doesn’t care about these finer details of website development–they just simply want the site to work when they’re on it. At the end of the day, that’s what we should be striving for as well.

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