Mobile Site vs. Responsive Design: Head-to-Head Comparison of Cost, UX & SEO

Cort Buchholz

Written by Cort Buchholz

Mobile website on an iphone 5 and a responsive website on an apple laptop

Mobile devices are rapidly becoming the default point of entry for Internet users. For online businesses, the old “adapt or die” adage rings more true every day. The need for mobile-optimized experiences is clear, but there are multiple approaches to consider.

The mobile app vs. mobile site debate has recently expanded to include responsive design. Responsive web design adapts the site layout to the viewing environment. Page elements get resized, repositioned, or hidden as browser resolution changes.

For example, check out The Boston Globe site shrink your window as small as it can go, and watch what happens. Impressive, right? While it’s slick for users, the business-side benefit is that you’re dealing with a single site that’s optimized for both mobile and desktop devices.

The alternative (mobile apps not withstanding) is having a separate mobile site. That requires some maneuvering between the mobile site and the regular site, which can be unwieldy, expensive, and occasionally counterproductive. Yet there are many cases where creating a separate mobile site may make more sense.

What’s the best choice for your site? Read on for our point-by-point mobile site vs. responsive design comparison along three critical dimensions: cost, user experience, and search engine optimization.

Cost Comparison: Mobile Site vs. Responsive Design Toss-Up

Mobile developers have come down on both sides about which option is more cost effective. The reality is that cost is dependent on context.

If you’re building a website from scratch, responsive design can usually be integrated into the development cycle without making the project costs exorbitant.

If you’re working with an existing website, on the other hand, cost correlates with scale. For complex sites, it may be less costly to create an entirely separate mobile site (or mobile-specific design). For smaller sites, implementing responsive design is viable, but the costs could tip either way.

Ease of updating the site also factors into on-going costs. Responsive sites are typically much easier to update as you’re only dealing with one site instead of two. If your site tends to go through frequent iterations, you’ll save money by going responsive.

User Experience (UX): Mobile Site Wins

Dedicated mobile sites are often superior to responsive sites when it comes to user experience. By addressing mobile users separately, mobile-only sites can better tailor everything from navigation and contact functions to ecommerce and writing style. That’s a major plus for users, which can translate into benefits for the organization as well.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO): Responsive Design Wins

Dedicated mobile sites are often hosted on a subdomain (e.g. m.example.com). From an SEO perspective, links to that subdomain only transfer some of their “equity” or “authority” to the primary domain. That’s a hindrance when it comes to ranking well in search, which is largely dependent on the quality and quantity of incoming links.

Final Considerations

Cost / ROI can break either way. If you’re looking for an objective assessment of your particular situation, reach out to us for a consultation.

For large, well-known sites, SEO is less important and mobile user experience is more important. For smaller, less-known sites, it’s usually the opposite. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but in terms of SEO and UX, bigger sites tend to benefit from a separate mobile site while smaller sites typically benefit more from responsive design.

You may also want to check out our extensive, head-to-head mobile app vs. mobile website guide if you think a mobile app may be an option.

Cort Buchholz

Written by Cort Buchholz

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