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Mobile Sites Show Little Improvement

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Much of the focus at Mobilize 09 earlier this month was on the oh-so-bright future of the mobile Internet. But the present? That’s a bit uglier than the industry would like to admit, according to a new study from the Yankee Group.

The study looks at the usability of 27 web sites across a variety of feature phones and smartphones. The market research firm considered 25 factors, examining everything from URL size to layout to rendering times, grading the sites on a 100-point scale.

Four sites — two from Google and one each from Yahoo and MLB.com — passed Yankee’s test with a score of 70 or higher. And while that was four more than passed last year’s exam, the average score this year was 52, down two points from 2008. Yankee also found that 31 percent of mobile users access the web via their handset — an astonishing figure, really, considering the lack of mobile-friendly online content.

Before you tell me how great the iPhone’s Safari browser is, remember that Apple’s gotta-have device still accounts for less than 2 percent of the overall handset market. And while smartphone uptake is surging, the sophisticated gadgets are still far outnumbered by feature phones, almost all of which have at least primitive browsers.

But the most ironic thing in the Yankee Group findings is the fact that most U.S. operators’ sites are afterthoughts. Sprint’s 53 was the high-water mark among the four major carriers’ sites, and both AT&T and T-Mobile USA earned an embarrassing 12 points. Yes, out of 100. Carriers are virtually ignoring the kind of tech-savvy, data-hungry users they should be targeting on the wireless Web.

Yankee Group did offer these tips for clueless Web publishers, though:

  • Use device detection technology to deliver optimized content to mobile users.
  • Take advantage of mobile context by using location information and other mobile metadata.
  • Enable as many mobile URL formats (such as m.yourcompanyname.com, yourcompanyname.mobi and wap.yourcompany.com) and send all mobile-seeking users to a single, optimized site.
  • Prioritize mobile information, optimizing layout for the small screen. Consider how consumers will want to use your mobile site as opposed to your PC site and make the most of the small screen by omitting unnecessary content.
  • Enable access keys, associating keypad numbers with mobile Web page links.
  • Validate your site and use online tools to ensure your site delivers valid XHTML.
  • Hire a designer with mobile web experience.

Those are all good suggestions for online publishers looking to present their stuff to mobile users — which, of course, should be nearly all of them. Because if 31 percent of mobile users are already checking out the mobile web, imagine how much higher that number will be when the experience doesn’t suck.

Question of the week

Why are online publishers failing to reach mobile users?