The mobile web is a different beast from the good, old, familiar desktop web. Here are my Top 10 most important ways that the mobile web differs from the desktop web and techniques for succeeding on the mobile web.
- Bandwidth Matters: Mobile web pages must optimize for byte size and minimize network round-trips required to download all page components. The smartest mobile device accessing the web on the fastest 4G mobile network still accesses the web an order of magnitude slower than a desktop computer. Mobile networks have coverage and capacity issues that mobile web developers must consider. Use whitespace minimization techniques, exploit browser caching and consider MIME/Multipart encoding for supported devices.
- Mobile Sites are Silos: The mobile web is not nearly as connected as the desktop web. Mobile web sites generally do not cross-link to very many related sites. There are few authoritative sites on the mobile web that are not direct extensions of desktop web brands. Search ranking algorithms like PageRank that rely on websites conveying reputation through cross-linking do not apply on the mobile web.
- Content Adaptation: Content adaptation on the mobile web is complex and challenging. Screen sizes on mobile devices vary by a factor of 17. (i.e. the largest mobile device has a screen that is 17x larger than the smallest mobile device.)
- Browser Quirks: Web browsers in mobile devices frequently contain bugs in implementations of web standards. Operators sometimes rush popular mobile devices to market with enough pressure to overlook or bury “minor” browser quirks, causing endless frustration to mobile web developers. (For example, I know of a smartphone recently launched in North America with default microbrowser settings to download JPG and PNG images but not GIFs. Users could change this setting but – my god – the browser was set to ignore GIFs by default! Not a very smart phone.) Mobile web developers build up arsenals of known mobile browser bugs and workarounds. Users have little or no control over browser caching behavior.
- Usage Patterns: Mobile web users want answers, not surfing. Users are generally on-the-go and looking for specific, timely information. Location-awareness is a key feature of mobile web services. The average mobile web session length is 3 minutes.
- Discovery: Mobile users have difficulty discovering new mobile web sites and services. Desktop sites should advertise their mobile versions (and vice versa). What is the mobile version of example.com? example.mobi or m.example.com or wap.example.com or example.com/m/ or example.com/mobile/?
- Transcoders: To “preserve the web browsing experience” for featurephone users, many mobile operators deploy transcoders that re-format desktop web sites (and some mobile sites, much to the frustration of mobile web developers) to provide syntactically-correct web surfing for mass-market mobile devices. Unfortunately, transcoding almost always destroys the usability of a web site. One desktop web page may be re-formatted into 20+ mobile pages. Forms don’t submit, content is re-formatted and text is spread across several clicks. Transcoders sometimes re-purpose (read: hijack) the original content by adding branded headers, footers and advertising. This is at best a questionable use of copyrighted web content.
- Markup Validity: About 4% of desktop web sites use valid HTML markup. Desktop browsers tolerate invalid markup. On the mobile web, however, invalid markup can have drastic ramifications. Invalid mobile markup can cause mobile browsers to crash and even reset the mobile device. I have personally observed this worst-case scenario on mobile devices in the market as of this writing. Mobile web developers, become best friends with the W3C Markup Validation Service and ready.mobi mobile validator.
- Keep URLs Short: Most mobile users still perform text entry with triple-tap. Keep a mobile site’s entry point URL short to give triple-tappers a break. Mobile users are more likely to browse to site.mobi vs. verylongbrandname.mobi/mobileversion/.
- User Identification: It’s difficult to identify unique mobile users and track them over time. Mobile browsers may not support cookies. Operator proxy servers may strip cookies from HTTP traffic. IP addresses assigned to mobile devices are neither unique nor static.