Your Business Needs a Mobile-First Website – Here’s Why

Back in early 2017, something momentous happened in the history of the internet. During the first quarter of that year, for the first time ever, the volume of website traffic coming from mobile devices rose higher than the amount coming from desktop computers.

It was only a very slender margin at first. But it was a historical tipping point nonetheless. It confirmed a trend that analysts had been debating for a number of years – as smartphone use continued to grow around the world, would mobile one day become the dominant means of getting online?

Just a decade earlier, when the first iPhone was released and brought the smartphone concept to mainstream consumer attention, the very idea would have seemed laughable. Yes, with the arrival of 3G mobile data, you could use the internet on your mobile phone prior to that. But it was a limited, clunky experience. Web traffic from mobile phones was minuscule compared to that coming from laptops and PCs.

It’s fair to say that the era of the smartphone ushered in by that first iPhone release changed everything. It also changed how we thought about web design. Because a smartphone and a desktop computer are very different devices. They have a very different user interface – screens of radically different sizes, a keyboard and mouse versus a touchscreen.

Those differences have a big impact on how a website looks, how it functions, how you navigate your way around. Browsing the web on an early smartphone could be a strange experience. Sites designed with desktop browsers in mind wouldn’t display all their content on the much smaller screens – there just wasn’t enough room. Designs that looked great on a larger screen would look all crowded squashed into a smaller space. Images and text would look huge. It was fiddly to get from page to page.

The web design industry quickly responded with what we call responsive web design. HTML and CSS code, the fundamental building blocks of a website, was adapted so designers could set a page up to adapt how it looked and functioned depending on whether it was being viewed on a mobile device or a desktop.

But even at a very early stage, some forward-thinking tech industry insiders recognised this wasn’t enough. As early as 2010, Google CEO Eric Schmidt laid down the gauntlet by challenging web developers to adopt a ‘mobile-first’ approach when building websites. Bear in mind this was seven years before mobile web browsing caught up with desktop in terms of traffic volumes. But even at that point, Schmidt and others could see the direction of travel.

Why mobile first makes sense

Even now, we’ve not yet reached a point where mobile web browsing is threatening to make desktop obsolete. But it does now comfortably account for the majority of global website traffic – 59% versus 41% on desktop – and the expectation is that that figure will just keep rising.

That is the primary argument for going mobile first with web design. If you anticipate that the majority of the people browsing your site are doing so on a smartphone, it makes sense to cater to their needs first. Make sure you nail how to present all of your content on a smaller screen, and how to navigate using swipes and presses rather than scrolls and clicks, and then worry about the rest later.

This also makes sense from a development perspective. In a nutshell, it is easier to ‘build up’ from a simpler version of a website and add more features and complexity later than it is to ‘build down’ from the all-singing, all-dancing version.

Mobile places limitations on what you can do from a web development perspective. We’ve mentioned the smaller screen, for example. But mobile also offers you less bandwidth (certainly until we’re all using ultra-high capacity, high bandwidth 5G mobile, anyway).

If you want web pages to load fast on mobile (and if they aren’t fast, people won’t stick around for very long), you need to think very carefully about the amount of content you have, the size of image and video files, what sort of gadgets and interfaces you include. Mobile challenges developers to build leaner, sparser products that place more emphasis on functionality rather than trying to wow users with tools and content – but are still engaging enough to deliver a satisfying experience.

In web development circles, we call the idea of starting with a leaner, simpler version of a software product ‘progressive advancement’ – you get the foundation right and then keep adding bits on later. Mobile first web design fits into this line of thinking perfectly. It also ties in well with Agile development, a methodology that again emphasises starting simple and then evolving a product through lots of short, rapid iterative steps and continuous review. Again, it’s hard to stick to an Agile approach if you build a bells-and-whistles desktop site first and then try to downsize to mobile.

Finally, another strong argument for adopting a mobile first approach when creating a website comes back to Google. Eight years after Eric Schmidt’s battlecry in favour of mobile first design, Google announced a major change to the way it would index and rank websites in its search results. Known as mobile first indexing, since that date Google’s algorithms have prioritised taking information from the mobile version of a website over the desktop version.

Again, the change came about because Google recognised the significance of mobile web traffic overtaking desktop traffic by volume. People running searches on smartphones were previously getting search results based on desktop indexing, which means their search results were directing them to sites that might not be offering them the best experience as mobile users. From Google’s perspective, this became a problem the more people browsed on mobile. It meant their service wasn’t providing those people with the best possible results.

For website owners, this switch means that mobile first is now an important part of SEO strategy. If you want to rank as highly in search as possible, it’s now your mobile site that has to impress the Google bots.

If it has been a few years since you’ve had an overhaul to your website, or if you’re unsure whether your site has been built with a mobile first approach in mind, get in touch with our skilled and experienced web development team and find out how to transform your site for today’s mobile browsers.

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