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Untether Mobile To Capture Its Full Potential: The Case Against Responsive Design

The hype about mobile responsive design reached a crescendo about a year ago and it’s easy to see why. On the surface, the pitch resonates. Why manage multiple sites when you can manage just one and have it resize itself for all channels? Simple, right? Not so fast.

When mobile only made up 5-10% of a retailer’s traffic, the pitch resonated, but the flaws in this approach have been exposed as mobile commerce has grown far-faster than predicted and has evolved into a unique channel that drives significant revenue for retailers.

The notion of “one web” for all audiences might suffice for content sites like newspapers or magazines, but, for retailers, the mobile channel now deserves more than a reformatting of a desktop site, shrunk to fit a smaller screen.

Some Serious Numbers

According to comScore, mobile traffic now makes up 33% of all digital traffic for Wal-Mart, 33% for Best Buy, and 37% for Target. These are some serious numbers and for online pure-plays they are even higher (and increasing fast).

And it’s not just traffic. According to eMarketer, 2013 mobile sales are up 68% over 2012. Deloitte just reported that almost 70% of US smartphone owners intend to shop on their smartphones this Holiday Season, with smartphone market penetration now over 60%.

According to IMRG/Capgemini, mobile commerce made up 23.2% of all Q213 online sales, yet only 51% of smartphone owners reported making a purchase in the last 6 months. This means we are only seeing the tip of the mobile commerce iceberg. eBay alone will exceed  $20B in mobile sales this year.

As traffic and resultant revenues skyrocket, mobile is quickly evolving into a distinct channel that deserves to be treated as such. No longer does a “smaller copy” derivative version of an ecommerce site make the grade and retailers are starting to notice.

The Google Factor

Google famously gave responsive a boost, when it “officially recommended” it back in 2012. But one only has to look at how Google makes it’s billions to see why. A responsive approach makes their job easier, as they can crawl and rank a single entity, versus several. Google’s main point in this same post was to recommend 1) Having a mobile site 2) supporting deep linking and 3) fast pageload speeds. All three of these points, it can be argued, actually lean toward a deep integrated approach, versus responsive.

To be clear, having a mobile-specific “mdot” site does NOT mean SEO rankings will become “diluted” or hurt a page rank. In fact, since their “official” recommendation, Google has specifically stated that a responsive approach does not benefit rankings and it is standard practice to add ecommerce page tags that instruct Googlebots regarding the fact that there is alternate content and where it can be found. In fact, Google itself uses rich mobile-specific sites, versus responsive.

The negatives of running all your channels of consumer interaction off a single base of HTML can be most-easily be seen when looking at performance rankings, as the same imagery, graphics and text used for ecommerce are re-rendered for mobile, while load times differ.

Also, a resized version of an ecommerce site means only what first exists on the ecommerce site can exist on the mobile site. This is called the “necessarily derivative limitation” and it’s key to understand. This same limitation also applies to transcoded sites, by the way.

Inextricably Intertwined

A mobile (or tablet) site inextricably intertwined with the “upstream” ecommerce site features and functionality  can trap retailers into an inability to shape the mobile site specifically for their rapidly expanding mobile customer base, to capture maximum ROI and respond to evolving mobile buying trends.

A responsive approach also means the changes made to the ecommerce site can cause problems that cascade downstream, as graphics, text and site elements meant for large-screen ecommerce often translate poorly into the smaller mobile site context. These problems are usually discovered when the new etail content is pushed live and then negatively impacts the mobile site.

Much has been made recently of a re-positioning of responsive design, sometimes called “server side responsive”. And this is often positioned as a fix to “traditional responsive” (which necessitates a site replatform). But this is really just a rebrand of the same solution, using better detection methodology to try to render different slices and dices of the site, based on the device detected. The essential limitation remains. It cannot exist on mobile if it does not first exist on ecommerce.

More Effort But The Payoff Worth It

Building and managing a site built specifically for the mobile channel might take a little more effort, but the payoff is that a retailer can tailor the mobile site experience for maximum effect by adding mobile-specific features and functionality catered to a growing mobile audience.

And there are real examples. IR 500 retailer Finish Line was quite open about the foray it made into responsive, as an element of their ecommerce replatform, taking the unprecedented step of announcing a $3M loss associated with the botched transition. And an increasing number of large retailers are investigating ways to unhinge responsive mobile sites from upstream etail functionality.

An alternative to a “derivative” responsive mobile site (and certainly a transcoded site) is one based on a deep integration with an ecommerce infrastructure using API calls. The template for the mobile site is unique and built from “whole cloth”, using best practices specific to the mobile channel. Data (price, size, sku, color, availability, imagery, etc.) flows seamlessly in real-time from current ecommerce operations and is cached locally. Third party services are integrated and the software that powers the site can be licensed and hosted by the retailer, in-house. Promotional images are designed specifically for the mobile channel and loaded via a control panel dashboard.

In this way, current ecommerce operations are leveraged and extended into mobile, while the retailer has the freedom and flexibility to offer mobile-specific features and functionality designed to drive mobile revenue. And they have full in-house control of the entire site.

Up to 6X Faster

An independent survey of mobile commerce sites conducted by Marlin Mobile showed API-integrated sites load up to 3X faster than transcoded sites and up to 6X faster than responsive sites. Industry-wide conversion rates for all mobile sites in their totality lag behind ecommerce, so reducing friction and ensuring optimal performance is an imperative.

A deep integration approach also does not necessarily mean more work for the retailer’s IT team. While this is a common refrain among responsive solution providers, the fact is that, once APIs are mapped for a specific ecommerce platform, this “pre-integration” can be applied to all retailers using it, with tweaks and additions made to link up 3rd party services like recommendations or reviews.

Pageload time rating

IT Involvement: More Is More

Also, it is increasingly viewed as a positive to have the merchant IT involvement, as more and more retailers want the option of licensing the software and running mobile on their own servers, to take technical and creative control of a channel that’s responsible for an ever-growing percentage of revenue.

Mobile buying behaviors are different and the channel is different, and, as it grows rapidly, smart retailers are untethering the mobile experience from their ecommerce site functionality, to take maximum advantage of mobile commerce in ways only just starting to be understood.

 


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More Stories By Wilson Kerr

Wilson has 11+ years experience in the Mobile and Location Based Services (LBS) space. Recently, he became Director Of Business Development and Sales for Unbound Commerce, a Boston-based mobile commerce solution provider. He has deep expertise in the areas of mobile commerce, social media, branded location integration, branded content licensing, and is knowledgeable in a broad range of navigation technologies. Wilson has worked with top tier brands, content providers, device manufacturers, and application developers, including Nokia, Unbound Commerce, Tele Atlas/TomTom, The Travel Channel, Langenscheidt Publishing, Intellistry, Parking In Motion, GPS-POI-US, and others. Wilson is a blogger on all things location-based, edits the LBS topic page on Ulitzer, teaches a Social Media 101 class, and has served as a panelist and speaker at Mobile LBS conferences and networking events. Wilson has held positions in Business Development, Sales/Marketing, and Digital Licensing at The North Face, Outdoor Intelligence, Fishing Hot Spots Maps, Tele Atlas North America/TomTom and, most-recently, Unbound Commerce. Wilson left Tele Atlas to start Location Based Strategy, LLC in 2007. Company Website: http://www.LBStrategy.com. Twitter: @WLLK

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