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Will mobile kill the traditional website?

Friday, July 27, 2018

Will mobile kill the traditional website?
Mobile use of the Internet has been growing steadily for years. There is much evidence that it has overtaken desktop use of the Internet already. Does this spell the end for the traditional "desktop" website?

Some cell phones in the late 1990s were capable of accessing the World Wide Web, but the mobile Internet really started with the release of the iPhone in 2007, or perhaps the iPhone3G in 2008, which paired the iPhone's great user-interface with a fast 3G connection.

We'd have to admit to being a little skeptical back then about how far the mobile revolution would go. While it seemed plausible that people would search for taxis (remember those, before "Uber"?) or restaurants on their cell phones, it seemed unlikely to us that many would choose to use their cell phone when shopping online, or searching for jobs - the user-experience was just too difficult on a small screen. How wrong we were.

Few websites had the resources to create separate versions of their sites for mobile and desktop, as major organizations like the BBC and Ebay did.

That changed with the arrival of responsive design in 2010. The concept was to create a single website, but code it in such a way that the content reformats based on screen size. This is how the vast majority of mobile websites are delivered today.

Its difficult to generalize about traffic across the entire web, but a good place to start is by looking at traffic at Google. It is the gateway to the web for most of us.

In April 2015 Google made an update dubbed "Mobilegeddon". This priotized sites that are mobile-friendly for those searching on mobile devices. This makes perfect sense - if I'm searching on a cell phone, I'd probably rather find a site that works well on a cell phone. Sites that didn't support mobile reported significant drops in traffic as Google sent fewer users their way.

In May 2015 Google announced that web searches on mobile devices had overtaken searches on traditional PCs in 10 major countries including the USA and in November 2016 GlobalStats announced that globally mobile use of the Internet had overtaken desktop use.

GlobalStats - Global mobile usage overtakes desktop

GlobalStats report also contains some surprising facts. Despite what you might expect, it is in developing countries where mobile Internet has the biggest margin over desktop. According to their 2016 figures, in the UK and USA mobile accounted for a minority of traffic - 45% and 42% respectively. In India it was 75%. If you seek overseas customers, especially in the developing world, mobile is critical.

In 2017 GlobalStats reported that Android had overtaken Windows as world's most popular operating system.

In light of theses developments, its hardly surprising that Google announced in 2016 that it would go "mobile-first", and rolled this out in 2018. Previously they'd indexed the desktop version of a site, but now they index the mobile version instead. In reality for responsive websites this should make little difference, as there is only one version of the website. However as Google makes clear in the announcement

we continue to encourage webmasters to make their content mobile-friendly. We do evaluate all content in our index - whether it is desktop or mobile - to determine how mobile-friendly it is. Since 2015, this measure can help mobile-friendly content perform better for those who are searching on mobile

So is it time to abandon the full sized website, and go mobile-only?

Mobile is still growing relative to desktop traffic, but at a slower rate than before. It seems a little early to call time on the desktop PC as a method of accessing the World Wide Web.

But there is another reason to continue to target larger screens. Mobile device manufacturers have been increasing the size of cell phone screens for years. Many larger phones are not much smaller than tablets. But what could truly revolutionize the mobile Internet is the foldable screen. This could give users a screen 2 or 3 times current sizes, that you can still fit in your pocket.

Samsung is known to have been working on a fold-able screen for a few years.

The PC isn't going to die for the forseeable future. Many of us still spend the majority of our working day sitting in front of one, and a cell phone or tablet isn't going to replace it yet. Developing and testing websites for small screens is increasingly important, but there is also increasingly less reason to abandon the traditional website for larger screens.

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