The last decade has seen a remarkable level of attention occur online. Social networks have popped up, designed to connect people based on every possible interest and need; service-driven companies and process-based web applications have been developed to take the place of traditional software.
Finally, a growing number of web companies have done their best to ensure that web services—whether essential or not—are accessible virtually anywhere with an internet connection.
Of course, the success of mobile internet isn’t entirely down to the ambitions and good will of Web 2.0 companies. We have technology to thank for the prevalence of mobile internet today. If anyone out there remembers the ancient black-and-white (or black-and-green, if you prefer) internet once accessible on mobile phones, it’s unlikely that they’ll be thanking software developers alone for making mobile internet so accessible.
But there’s a growing focus on mobile internet that just isn’t justified, especially for profit-driven online companies and commercial web businesses.
Spurred on by the success of Facebook’s mobile platform, YouTube’s iPhone-friendly mobile application, and Twitter’s mobile popularity, a growing number of designers, site owners and entrepreneurs are beginning to believe that they need to make their web presence accessible by phone.
Is Your Website Aimed at Mobile Users?
Some web applications are aimed at mobile users, but many aren’t. Facebook and Twitter have scored record growth in mobile users specifically because their platforms are geared towards what mobile devices do best: help people communicate.
In many ways, the popularity of social websites on the move is no surprise. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and hundreds of other social media websites ranging from ultra-niche to as general as possible are accessed by mobile users regularly.
Facebook reports that over 25 percent of their traffic comes from mobile users and that mobile users are more active than PC-based users.
For social companies with an expectation to earn money through general advertising, the thought of greater mobile traffic is appealing.
With Apple’s iAd platform looming on the horizon and Google’s own Adsense advertising network settling into mobile markets for two years, it appears that user-driven social websites have made the most of their deserved mobile popularity.
The problem, however, is that many online businesses and websites aren’t driven by more general page views, more activity, and more conversation.
When you look outside of the small sample offered by Silicon Valley startups—many of which, it’s worth nothing, are not yet profitable—you begin to see that most advertising-supported websites fare quite poorly when ported to a mobile platform.
Advertising Performance on Non-Social Mobile Websites
Apple’s iAd demonstration was impressive. There’s no doubt that the company has a clear idea of just what it will take to dominate mobile advertising and marketing. And with their past technological successes backing the company, there’s even less doubt that Steve Jobs knows how to make mobile advertising highly profitable.
But it’s interesting that the sample advertisements release for iAd were the same big-brand advertising that we’ve grown used to seeing on social websites. Pixar, Nike, and Best Buy can all afford the distribution network and commercial power required for effective brand-focused advertising.
Can small businesses—often the financial bread and butter of blogs and websites—find the same success on a mobile platform?
What platforms like iAd, adMob (now acquired by Google), and others can show web designers is that mobile audiences, for the most part, aren’t particularly involved in browsing with the intent to spend.
Action-driven advertising, particularly the advertising for service businesses and direct response products so common on independent blogs and websites, may not be as effective when transferred to the smaller mobile screen.
What About E-Commerce Websites?
The value of mobile design for sales-driven websites is a little trickier to judge. Most major e-commerce websites—giant Amazon included—are available as a mobile page in some form.
In Amazon’s case, almost all functionality is intact. Users can order products, buy MP3s and other digital media, and add items to their wishlist just as they could online.
But Amazon’s Mobile Payment Service (MPS) has only been available since October 2009. Phone browsers have been in existence since halfway through the last decade, leaving many websites short on mobile-focused payment options right from the start.
While it’s difficult to find conclusive statistics for the value of Amazon’s payment system or mobile website, it’s safe to assume that they’re not as valuable for the company as more traditional approaches to purchases using a desktop or laptop computer. After all, who would order major products while on the go and on a rush? Wouldn’t a bigger screen size be needed to browse through photos of a product?
It’s even more difficult to determine the value of mobile design for small sales-focused websites. Most e-commerce tycoons are hesitant to release information on their mobile shopping platforms, often because of the edge it could provide to competition. With e-commerce design largely unaccommodating to mobile users, it appears as if mobile sales don’t account for a large percentage of online orders.
Direct response advertisers, often some of the most profitable marketers on the internet, may find mobile commerce an even more difficult pill to swallow too. Just like Amazon, they’re stuck with a difficult goal: convincing users to buy while away from the comfort and psychological security of their PC.
Unlike Amazon, they’re rarely given the luxury of their own one-click payment system. Most action-driven direct response websites depend on customers being able to open their wallets, find their credit cards, and order now.
Does Your Website Need a Mobile Version?
Unless you’re the owner of a major social website, a popular entertainment blog, or a web property with a focus on big-brand advertising and sheer content, then the answer is most likely "no", or at the very most, just "maybe."
With just a fraction of mobile users reaching further than the social web when out and about, it’s unlikely that content-rich websites and sales-driven online presences will even be seen on a mobile browser—much less seen with an interest in advertising or purchases.
The one exception is in the world of design and technology. If your business depends on being able to demonstrate a command of technology, a mobile version of your website could be a worthwhile investment. If you’re a designer frequently approached for mobile web design projects, your own mobile-focused website could serve as a quick demonstration of your abilities for prospective clients—if that’s something you want to get into in the first place..
Until then, it’s firmly in the "no" camp for us. Effective web design isn’t about indulging and providing for every possible visitor, as much as we may wish it was.
If you’re in need of a website with a clear commercial focus—be it advertising-supported or sales-driven—put your focus on the majority of your site visitors.
Right now, we don’t expect they’ll be your mobile users.
Are mobile versions of websites essential right now? Is the focus on mobile web design warranted or out of proportion in terms of return of investment? Share your thoughts in the comments.