Last week, I was on a panel at a CTIA pre-conference show in Orlando, and a question that was asked during several sessions at the conference was “what should we invest in: a mobile site or a mobile app?”
I heard this same question in a panel I was on at Digiday Mobile in September 2010, and earlier at the Mobile Search App Opportunities session at SMX West 2010, so it’s clear that this is still a question that marketers and developers are still struggling with, and have been since the opening of Apple’s App Store in 2008.
If you’re lucky enough not to be familiar with the question, brands with limited resources often wonder whether they really need to build both a mobile site and a mobile app, and would prefer to funnel their limited resources into one fully-funded mobile project.
Mobile apps have historically been seen by web designers as the only way to provide a rich user experience in mobile, and they are recommended frequently by CEOs who have been impressed by the user experience of an app and then fast-tracked their own mobile app project.
Why are companies still struggling with this issue after three years of talking about it? I think that’s because it’s a complex issue with more than one right answer depending on your business goals and objectives.
Add to that the countless partisan debates between those who want to sell you a mobile app and those who want to sell you a mobile site and it can be difficult to get to some semblance of truth about what it actually makes sense for your business to invest in.
As an SEO, I’m not selling mobile apps or mobile sites, and I can help you optimize either for more qualified traffic in search, but I’ve seen enough to know that the strongest mobile strategies start with a mobile web site and use it as the foundation for success.
Consider the following problems inherent with betting the farm on a mobile app:
- The most successful iPhone app project, which becomes viral enough to be passed around to every user on the platform, would only ultimately reach only 7% of the total mobile market. A mobile website or mobile web app, on the other hand, has the potential to reach 100% of mobile web users.
- Many iPhone apps require the current version of iOS to run, which can’t be run by first-generation iPod touches. According to Chitika research, these devices account for almost 10% of iPhone traffic, which could lower your reach even more. Android devices are even more fragmented, and could require additional development time to make your applications accessible to the already-limited app market. Mobile websites and web apps built with a progressive enhancement strategy, however, should be accessible to most users regardless of device.
- It’s a myth that users prefer a mobile app experience, largely propagated, I suspect, by those who are looking to sell additional services. Research shows that most users, in fact, prefer mobile websites over mobile apps (Adobe, eMarketer, InsightExpress), and that more people use mobile websites than apps.
- Users of search engines will likely not find your app in Google or Bing unless they’re looking for it. You can optimize the app for app stores and to some extent for Google, but it’s a different process that requires some specialized knowledge for success. As of this writing, it’s highly unlikely that searchers will find your app when searching on high volume, competitive keywords in search engines outside of app stores unless you buy a search ad. Given that 21.4% of mobile users in the United States search on their phones, a brand that wants the content it creates to find an audience would be wise not to ignore traffic from mobile search.
- Most apps are downloaded once and discarded (Pinch Media, Localytics). If you don’t have a good reason for creating your app and don’t ultimately succeed in creating an app that people need to use regularly, it’s likely that your app will suffer the same fate.
- There are very few apps that exist that provide something beyond what a mobile web site can do. If you’re creating a game or an application that truly cannot exist on the mobile web as it exists today, then by all means, build an app. However, given that Safari now has support for accelerometer and gyrometer, there are many things that mobile websites can do now that they couldn’t do previously. Be sure that you can’t build your mobile app as a web app before you build it, as there’s a good chance that you could build something similar with greater reach and engagement.
- Apps drive link equity to iTunes, Android Market, or Blackberry App World, and not to your website, which needs it to help your other content be found in search results. Even mobile websites at m.subdomains ultimately benefit the host domain, which could help you generate more revenue on your desktop, tablet and mobile websites if they’re hosted at the same domain.
- Apps are software. As such, they’re not currently able to be crawled and indexed as individual pages with a separate theme. It’s likely that you will index and rank one or two mobile applications pages for navigational keywords for apps, but you have the potential to rank as many pages as you have accessible pages with web apps. If your app is relevant to more than one concept or audience, building it as an accessible, open web app instead of a native application will give you greater relevance and reach.
There are good reasons for creating native apps as well, so I don’t want to make it seem as though creating a mobile website is all any business needs to reach its mobile target. For example, if you build a mobile website and not an app, you run the risk of alienating your brand from the audience that does prefer mobile apps and uses them regularly.
That audience, though, is the minority target; and if you only have funds to build one experience—mobile web or native mobile app—my recommendation is to build the best mobile web app you can afford, market it as aggressively as possible, and use the money you make and the data you collect to experiment with native apps.
If you can afford it, of course, the best solution is to build both a mobile site and a mobile app, and to enjoy not having to answer this question of limited resources that many businesses are struggling with today.
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