What to do about the mobile web

With as many routes to mobile-friendliness as there are screen sizes, few have yet found an approach that works for every device, David Bowen says, in a sneak preview of the 2014 FT Bowen Craggs Index results.

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The next Financial Times Bowen Craggs Index of corporate online effectiveness will be published in the Financial Times (and by us) on October 13. But I’m spilling some beans early and looking at what must be the biggest question for many online managers: what to do about the mobile web. There has been a huge amount of activity in the last two years as companies have rushed to make their sites mobile-friendly. The results have not always been as positive as they might be.

Blurred screens

It is certainly getting more complicated. The days of neat steps from mobile to tablet to computer have gone. With the arrival of the iPhone 6+ (which followed similar Androids), the borders have blurred to a point where screen size itself is only one issue. Another divider is whether it is a touch screen or not. But even this is being overtaken by a more fundamental division: how different devices are used.

Meanwhile, where have we got to? We have been looking at the 78 giant companies listed in our latest Index to see what they have done about the mobile web.

Responsive and the rest

The most striking, if unsurprising, finding is that responsive sites have been appearing all over the place. Almost 40 per cent – 29 sites – reformat automatically according to the screen size. The next group, 21 companies, have done nothing. These tend to be in the bottom half of the Index, but non-mobile high scorers include Unilever, Novartis, Rio Tinto and AstraZeneca. We then have 18 that have separate mobile sites – many of these were established before responsive was invented, but not all. BNP Paribas has just launched a separate mobile site, while Siemens has three separate sites – for mobile, desktop and tablet.

Finally, eight companies have mixes. Microsoft includes three different approaches on its federal web estate, Apple and Statoil start responsive but go to an unadapted approach deeper in the site, while Bank of America has a responsive corporate site but uses a separate mobile site for its customers.

Of these groups, only the last can be condemned. That you cannot read the text of much of Apple.com on an iPhone (including all corporate areas and deeper product pages) is bizarre – especially as you start off with a bright responsive home page.

Following fashion v. ‘what is right for us’

It is no coincidence that most of these ‘mixers’ are American. US sites are much more likely than European ones to be a loosely connected federation, with each department doing its thing. This approach has all sorts of knock-on effects, which we will discuss when the Index is published.

The most interesting mixer is not American, however. BP.com does not have a responsive or any other mobile version, but nearly all its business and country sites are responsive. This sounds barmy, and is certainly way off best practice, but it does have some logic. The point is that people do not tend to look at corporate sites on small screens – mobile viewers usually make up less than 10 per cent of the total. Why would you want to look at complex information on a tiny screen when you almost certainly have access to a big one? By contrast customers are much more likely to be on the move, and have only a phone with them.

BP has clearly thought about the issue, even if the result is a little odd. And this is the real division – between companies that have thought what is right for them, those who haven’t really considered it, and those who have followed fashion for its own sake.

It is sometimes hard to distinguish between the first two groups. Rio Tinto, Vale and BHP Billiton do not have mobile optimised sites. As they are purely corporate information affairs, they are probably saving money wisely – but whether this is deliberate or a happy coincidence we cannot say.

We can however suggest that Schlumberger, the oil services group, is missing out by failing to provide a mobile version. There must be engineers out there struggling to read product detail on a tiny screen.

Don’t forget the desktop

Responsive is the great trend and is an easy sell for agencies. The same site works on all screens, so is wonderfully cost-effective. It can be, certainly. Nestlé, Johnson & Johnson, Telefonica and Walmart have sites that work well on all screen sizes.

This means, more than anything, that they work well on large screens. For it is here that other companies have got themselves into trouble. We usually equate ExxonMobil and General Electric with management excellence, but they have got it badly wrong here. The problem is that in converting to responsive they have followed an unwise fashion – abandoning conventional left menu navigation even on the desktop. As a result their sites work well on small screens but are poor (in Exxon’s case very poor) on large ones – even though this is where the great majority of visitors will see them. The slogan ‘mobile first’ has a lot to answer for.

The separatist movement

Separate mobile sites are a safe alternative but they are almost always cut-down versions of the main site. There is logic in concentrating on groups that are most likely to use mobiles – whether customers, journalists or investors. But there will inevitably be frustration for others. Also, of course, it is more expensive to produce two versions of the same site.

This brings me back to Siemens, which does nothing without thinking hard. It launched its tablet version a year ago. It is still struggling getting it going – too many links lead to the standard site – but the concept is sophisticated. People use mobiles to find information fast on the move; they loll around browsing and watching videos on tablets; and they look detailed stuff up on laptops or desktops while at work. Can the same site serve audiences well on all three? Siemens thinks not, and it may well be right. But what about the iPhone 6+ and its ilk? A challenge, even for the folk in Munich. Complexity persists.

First published 01 October, 2014
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