Responsive Design vs Separate Mobile Website

We’re blogging all about m-commerce this month. In this post, Mark Bebbington, Developer, discusses whether the use of responsive design or a separate mobile website is the better approach based on your business needs and your users’ needs. At SMX London this week, Pierre Far of Google stated Google’s preference for simplicity of crawling as being responsive design, saying: “If you can use responsive web design, please please do.” That’s not to say separate mobile websites can’t succeed, of course! We have plenty of examples where they do and as long as you provide the right instructions to the search engines (which we’ll cover in a later post) you’ll have no problems!

responsive design

Responsive Design vs Separate Mobile Websites

You’ve decided the web is the best route to take your business to a mobile audience. The next step is to decide on how you can best deliver this content, through either a responsive website, which will cater for both computers and mobile devices, or a separate mobile website.

Responsive Web Design

A person may have a smart phone; tablet and a desktop computer but prefer reading articles on their tablet in portrait mode. Responsive web design allows websites to accommodate these different devices by ‘responding’ or ‘adapting’ to the size of the viewport of the device that it is being viewed on.

With responsive design, your website will remain on the same URL, but the way in which it appears to the users will depend on the screen. An example of this our own website.

Separate Mobile Website

A separate mobile website is a stand a-lone website that has been designed specifically for mobile, to deliver the best user experience possible for people viewing on smaller screens. Content can be severed to both a desktop and mobile website through an API, which allows data to be stored and managed in one central location.

A separate mobile website is often held on a subdomain, for example

It’s all down to context

When weighing up which approach is best for your business, the context in how a site will be used is key. Responsive Web Design isn’t the answer for every mobile website and if you’re an e-commerce business trying to engage with a mobile audience I would almost always recommend a separate mobile website for the following reasons:

  1. Speed – mobile devices might be connected to WIFI but you have to assume they are on a slow cellular connection. This means that Responsive Web Design may not be the best approach for websites that rely heavily on images or JavaScript as they will take longer to download.
  2. Screen Size – there are design challenges as the screen size is much smaller and there also technical challenges when loading in content and images. A separate mobile website means that layout, images and content can all be optimized for mobile.
  3. Location – a user could be surfing the mobile web from the comfort of their sofa whilst watching TV, but assume that most of the time a user viewing on a mobile device is probably out and about and looking for quick bits of information. It’s much easier with a separate mobile site to make quick bits of information such as store opening hours or nearest store locators more prominent.
  4. Site Structure – the size of the website and how the content is structured site-wide can influence on how you approach implementing a mobile website. In terms of e-commerce, there can be many options that a user may need to navigate through to view a product. Taking a fashion website as an example, the user may need to select their gender, a category and then possibility a sub-category. Traditionally on websites designed for the desktop computer, this is all served through a large drop down menu. Serving this much content to a mobile device in a single responsive page whilst keeping a clean, concise user experience is near impossible. A separate mobile site allows the user to view simplified menus over several pages, drilling between screens to refine their search. This is similar to how you perform such an action in a native app, something the user will already be familiar with and comfortable in using.


If you have a blog or brochure-style website, it’s likely that no matter which device the user will be viewing it from, the website will be used in the same way. These sites are about finding and reading content, which responsive design offers a great solution.

For larger websites, consider the context in which the site will be used and how the content may differ between a mobile and desktop view. If your mobile website requires some degree of interaction beyond finding and reading information, creating a separate mobile website will allow you to best engage with a mobile audience.