Mobile access to your business is crucial, and if you are like many companies, you may be struggling to figure out how best to offer that experience. It’s easy to get confused with all the talk about mobile websites, responsive structures, and mobile apps. These are not interchangeable, and in fact, are three completely distinct options.
A website with a responsive design is a single site—a company's primary website—which adapts itself structurally for different screens and devices (smartphone, tablet, desktop, etc.). The responsive site enables visitors to access your website using any type of device without compromising the user experience.
A mobile-optimized website is a separate site from a company's primary website and is specifically designed for small-screen devices. Mobile sites are architected solely for on-the-go use and generally contain limited core content, making them lighter and marginally faster than responsive websites. While there are scenarios that are best suited for mobile-optimized sites, in general, this approach is outdated as Google and other search engines have stated their preference for responsive design.
Mobile, or native apps, are designed for specific mobile platforms and often use functionality that is beyond what a website would support, such as using the phone's camera, GPS functionality, and others. Each phone platform—iOS (iPhone, iPad, iPod touch), Android, and BlackBerry—requires its own set of coding, so companies that choose to create a mobile app will need a version created for each. Mobile apps generally have to be downloaded from the App store or a marketplace like Google Play, and review and approval from the distribution source must be achieved prior to the app being made available.
So, how do we make sense of it all? Let’s focus on the actual needs of your business. By answering the questions below, you'll be able to identify the key factors which will shape your decision:
(1) Core Functionality
Do your planned primary functions need to take advantage of phone functionality? For example, will you need to use GPS, scanning, the camera, or other phone functions? If the answer is yes, a mobile app may be the best choice. That said, mobile responsive websites do provide the ability for click-to-call functionality and tapping in to the user's current location, which can enable the phone user to “find a location near you.”
(2) Budget for Initial and Ongoing Development
How limited is your budget? In general, responsive websites are less costly—both initially and long term. This is largely due to the fact that there is a single codebase for a responsive site (you are only programming a single entity), whereas mobile apps require a build-for-each-key mobile platform. In addition, companies that build native apps will still need to make sure that their websites are responsive, which means having an app is likely “ in addition to” rather than “in place of ” a responsive site.
(3) Frequency of Updates
How often do you anticipate updating your site or app? If your updates will be frequent, a responsive site is probably the better choice. Development costs aside, there are additional steps in the process of updating a mobile app which are not necessary with a responsive website. Mobile apps usually have to be updated by the app developer and then have to go through being approved by the App Store. Once the update is available, your users will have to download and install the updates before they can be used. Responsive websites do not require any action on the part of the user; they always deliver the most current version.
(4) Importance of SEO
Do you depend upon the search engines to direct new business to your company? If part of your strategy is to increase visibility within the search engines, a responsive website is the ticket. Apps are closed environments and cannot be crawled by search engines, which means they are unable to impact your organic search ranking.
Are you trying to create something that’s universally accessible? If you want to appeal to everyone across multiple platforms and devices, you are looking at building a responsive website.
There are many more considerations that might impact your choice between a responsive website and mobile apps, but these represent some of the key considerations to take into account. Mobile use is skyrocketing, with every indication suggesting that mobile use will overtake desktop. Will you be ready?