By Ian Tomlinson, CEO of Cybertill

Earlier this year, Google announced that it would expand its use of 'mobile-friendliness' as a ranking signal on 21 April 2015. This change has already had a large effect on search traffic for businesses as Google rewards websites for providing a ‘good’ mobile experience. The move highlights the urgent need to have a mobile friendly site. But what exactly is a mobile friendly site?

There are two options, a responsive website or a mobile site. So firstly what are they and what are the differences between the two and which is the best option?

Responsive design

Responsive web design is an approach that allows your website to adapt its appearance to the screen size it’s viewed on whether that be a desktop, tablet or mobile device. It means you are offering the best user experience for a wide range of devices.

Benefits of responsive design

A responsive website will typically load faster which meets one of Google’s key performance indicators (KPIs) it analyses when ranking a website. In addition, Google has a preference for responsive websites as they have the same URL and HTML regardless of what device is being used. Mobile and desktop sites have different URL addresses, (e.g. www.site.co.uk and www.m.site.co.uk), which makes it more difficult to share content across all platforms. Keeping the same URL benefits your mobile strategy by avoiding the loss of organic search traffic and additional web management.

It’s not just Google that approves, more importantly consumers prefer a responsive website. After all a website is designed for users and not Google. Responsive websites improves the user experience by avoiding big differences when they transition from using the mobile to desktop site or vice versa.

Lastly a responsive website is future proofed as there is no more development required to keep up with technology changes or mobile generation updates.

Difficulties with responsive design

As with any technology deployments there are drawbacks. In this case, more time will be taken in designing and planning for a responsive website. More thought is required to go into the content on a responsive website. For example, images must work well on both small and large screens, or be able to be cut from the mobile version with the page layout still flowing correctly and making sense to the user.

It is very difficult to simply turn an existing website into responsive design and typically means a complete redesign from the ground up which can be costly.

Not all browsers will display content the same, Internet Explorer is notorious for this which can cause more work and headaches for web designers trying to get the responsive design to work across the board. It is also important to check Google Analytics as this will inform you what browsers people are using to view your website.

Let’s go mobile

Mobile websites are specifically designed to fit a smartphone display which minimises any issues such as an image not resizing properly. It is often a cheaper option than responsive as it doesn’t require a full site re-design.

A separate mobile website can also use more modern front-end technologies such as HTML5, which can enhance users’ experience and reduce maintenance costs.

No to mobile

By choosing a mobile site for your mobile strategy, you are committing to managing and updating content on two different websites which can be expensive and time consuming. For example, mobile sites may require an entirely different set of images, thus doubling the workload for photographers and designers creating the content.

Similarly, a mobile site may need to be updated to keep up the latest generations of smart phones, making it more costly than it originally seems.

With a mobile website, you must create a different domain, which can affect search traffic.

Mobile sites can lack creativity or be ‘uninspiring’ due to the restrictions on creating such a small website and users may find it difficult to navigate if they are used to the desktop site whereas with responsive, the website is exactly the same.

Mobile or responsive?

So what is the answer?

When consumers started shopping on their phones, a mobile site was one of the first solutions available, but since then they have been superseded by responsive sites.

The main reason that mobile sites are not the best idea, is that it means you need to maintain double the amount of content, and Google has to crawl across both versions. Google will attempt to detect what device is being used, then redirect correctly, but if a mobile link is shared and clicked on through a desktop, this can sometimes cause problems.

Also it is important to consider when making your decision not to do it solely on cost. If you do, you may end up losing revenue from your website that can cost you a lot more than the initial investment.

So perhaps it best to be what your customers expect: responsive.