Mobile Optimisation Strategy: Responsive Design or Standalone Site?

by Jessica Ramesh iCrossing

iCrossing explore some key issues around responsive design

Lately there has been a lot of talk about mobile optimised websites. Mobile usage is on the rise. A recent audit of iCrissing’s own clients showed an average growth rate in mobile traffic share of 125.6 per cent from 2011 to 2012, with retail representing the largest growth. We also found markedly lower conversion rates on mobile compared to desktop and tablet, this is partially due to default user behaviour on mobile devices, but it also shows a clear opportunity for site owners who are committed to improving mobile optimisation and engagement.

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There are many benefits to having a mobile optimised website, not only will it improve the customer experience, ultimately improving key metrics like conversion rate and cross device traffic but ignoring mobile optimisation can have a negative impact on search rankings.

There is one debate that many are still struggling with – responsive design or standalone mobile site?

Ever since Ethane Marcotte wrote his influential article ‘Responsive Web Design’ in May 2010, technologists, designers and developers have been waving their flags of glory for responsive design. And you can see why, as it appears on first impressions a very elegant design philosophy and development solution.

Responsive design works by using relatively straightforward CSS media queries to detect a devices screen width and adjust styling of the website so that it is optimised for a mobile or a tablet screen. From a technology perspective, what this equates to is building and maintaining one website with content optimised for multiple devices based on the viewport size.

Whilst it is possible to hide content in the source code and trigger display dependent on device, the typical philosophy behind responsive design is that sites should be designed with responsive principles in mind. In other words it’s mobile first thinking. If a piece of content is not necessary on a mobile, it probably isn’t necessary on a desktop. Thus the user gets a consistent yet optimised experience across devices.

On the other end of the spectrum a standalone mobile site is typically held at a distinct URL (e.g. Users are redirected to the mobile version of the site using device detection techniques whenever they try to access the site on a mobile device. This generally gives the site owner a lot more flexibility as to what content they display to the user.

Usability guru Jakob Nielson is one proponent who suggests that the best solution is to have a separate mobile site. He claims that user needs for mobile and desktop are different and thus currently a separate mobile site is the correct approach.

So who is right? Let’s take a moment to weigh up the realities of the debate by evaluating some commonly held beliefs.

1. Responsive Design is cheaper

One problem with responsive design is that it is quite idealistic in its assumptions. In the real world most businesses had their main site designed and built before mobile was a requirement. They didn’t have responsive design principles in mind. It therefore becomes very difficult to adapt their site through responsive design without significantly altering the design and code base of the main site. Whilst on the surface responsive design is the cheaper option, in many contexts it could end up being more expensive to implement.

Having said this, in many cases it is more economically viable to choose responsive design. For example a relatively simple site, one that lends itself to responsive due to its pre-existing grid structure and code base, or a fresh site build.

But the point remains there isn’t a hard and fast answer as to which is more cost effective. Agencies and clients have to work on a case-by-case basis.

2. Responsive Design is better for SEO

A single URL solution with responsive design may better preserve link equity, but this approach often doesn’t suit already established sites or the ability to display different content to mobile users.

In fact, while Google states that responsive design is their favored approach, there is nothing to suggest that a separate mobile site will not perform as well within search results: the advent of switchboard tags and the speed benefits may in the future swing the balance in favor of having a separate mobile offering.

Mobile searchers also often have different intent and will search differently to desktop users. They are likely to use more local based search terms & shorter synonyms. Brands need to evaluate whether their site is catering for different types of intent and insure the mobile version is optimised for mobile specific keywords.

3. Responsive Design creates a better user experience

In many contexts responsive design leads to a seamless experience across devices for the user, but in other contexts mobile specific content may be more appropriate.

But here is the bottom line. Neither responsive design or standalone sites are user solutions. The user of your website (unless they are a web developer) cares no more about whether your site is powered by PHP or ASP.NET as they do whether your mobile site is realised through responsive design or a standalone solution. Both are technology solutions. Ultimately you could reach the same interface solution and deliver identical user experiences either as a standalone mobile website or using responsive design.


So in summary, there is one truth we can be certain of; mobile marketing matters. Business owners can no longer afford to forget about mobile optimisation in a rapidly expanding market. Customers are increasingly accessing your website from mobile devices and will continue to do so in 2013. What is important when it comes to deciding between responsive design and a standalone site is to properly understand your customer and their needs and put them at the heart of your mobile strategy.