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Keys to building better mobile websites

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This week Google launched GoMo, an initiative designed to educate businesses about the importance of mobile and to help them build better sites for on-the-go users. Users and businesses have been quick to jump on the mobile application bandwagon, but they’ve been slower with the mobile web, and for good reason: Earlier this year Antenna Software found that 27 percent of U.S. mobile users were “discouraged from using the mobile Internet by web sites that don’t display well on their mobile screens.” Well-built websites, though, can allow businesses to address a far larger audience than any app can claim. For those companies, GoMo is a valuable resource. However, it fails to address a few basic issues for businesses looking to expand (or create) a presence in mobile.

Understand your goals

Businesses must understand not just what they want to achieve through a mobile website but also how consumers will use it. Bank customers are more likely to use their phones to check their balances and perhaps transfer funds than, say, shop for a home loan. So a bank’s mobile site should make it easy to do those things by clearly presenting those options at (or near) the top of the site. Similarly, an airline’s mobile site should enable users to check in or track the status of a flight — not to shop for vacation packages. United Airlines’ site, for instance, presents a simple menu of half a dozen options that mobile users are likely looking for.

Detect devices and redirect

While many websites now have the functionality to determine device type and redirect the user to the appropriate site, too many sites still lead mobile users to the primary, PC-centric site. Craigslist, for instance, presents its entire shrunken home page on my Android handset. I have to zoom in just to make the content legible, then scroll down and across the page. That means I’m probably not coming back. Craigslist has done a good job of building solid smartphone apps, but the company hasn’t yet made an effort on the mobile web, which could cost it many users.

Don’t forget feature phones

Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS account for most of the traffic on the mobile web, and smartphones are finally beginning to outsell feature phones in the U.S. But feature phones still account for nearly two-thirds of the U.S. mobile market, according to recent data from ComScore, and they will remain a sizable audience for at least the next few years. Mobile sites should be easy to use on those lower-end gadgets: They should require less data transmission (so as not to bog down the phone) and should be simple to navigate with QWERTY or twelve-key pads. And they should be easy to consume even on the small, low-resolution screens of flip phones.

Why is all of this important?

Mobile devices are only driving about 7 percent of all traffic on the web today, according to ComScore, but wireless traffic is expected to pass fixed-line traffic on the web by 2015. Consumers will increasingly access the Internet from the devices they carry in their pockets and purses every day. Some of that traffic will come via applications, but the most effective way to have a big presence in mobile is through sites that can be easily used across a broad range of devices. And if consumers are having a hard time using your site, they’ll turn to your competitors.

Question of the week

What are the best and worst sites on the mobile web?