February 1, 2016

5 Things Your Competitors Can Teach You About Mobile

Lee Steely

If you’re reading this on a desktop, chances are you’re in the minority. With 80% of internet users owning smartphones, 47% owning tablets, and new devices of varying display sizes proliferating, there’s no way to predict how specific users will be viewing your website. But we can make a pretty good guess that a healthy percentage will be on mobile: Americans now officially spend more time on digital media from mobile devices (51% more) than they do on a desktop. If you want to get a good idea of how this can affect your business while scoping out your competition, all you’ll need is a little time, a smartphone, and maybe a tablet or two for extra credit.

Scary Load Times? Must Be an M-Dot Site

If a competitor’s website deals with mobile traffic by using two separate sites, one specifically for desktop and the other for mobile, you’ll notice a slight lag after clicking the link, followed by a re-direct to the m-dot version of the website (so called because the URL will typically begin with an ‘m,’ as in, “http://m.url.com”). Think about how that load time affects your experience. A study by Aberdeen Group found that 25% of users will abandon a website after a delay of only 3 seconds, which is why you’ll find this approach to mobile optimization is already going the way of the dinosaur. The current industry standard favors responsive web design, a technique that detects the screen size of a user’s device and adapts the page layout to optimally fit those proportions. It takes a little more work to develop upfront, but far less maintenance down the road than maintaining two separate websites for desktop and mobile—especially as the rest of the web moves away from m-dots.

Critical Content Should Display Prominently–On Any Device

Once you’ve loaded the website, how does it look? A well-designed, responsive mobile website should load quickly, navigation bars should be easily accessible, and relevant information should be easy to read. If the website isn’t optimized for mobile at all (gasp!) you may have significant trouble—do you have to scroll or resize to see all of the menu bar options because they don’t all display on your mobile screen? Or, is the text size so small it’s unreadable, begging the question, “What is this, a website for ants?” The first time you encounter a website like this in a mobile browser, you’ll see why it frustrates users into abandoning ship. If your website is just one in a list of relevant search results, a visitor can always hit the back button and choose a competitor with a more convenient display. If you find a competitor’s website with this issue, take a moment to think about that first impression. Being this unprepared for mobile traffic begins to seem just a bit unprofessional–the web equivalent of, say, sending long unsolicited faxes in 5pt font. Make sure your website is broadcasting your relevance and expertise by checking for this on all devices.

Responsive Design: Everybody’s Doing It

Now it’s time to really hone in on your top competitors—online, anyway. Think of the top search terms users are most likely to use to find your business online if they’ve never encountered you before—for instance, “Atlanta plumber,” or “Chicago law firm”—and plug it into Google to see what currently comes out on top. If it’s your website, congratulations! You’re ahead of the curve. In 2015, Google tweaked its famous algorithm to favor websites made with responsive design, so chances are the top search results are all going to be responsive. You can tell a website is responsive if the layout changes depending on what device you use to view it, and if it loads quickly, without the tell-tale redirect delay you’d experience with an m-dot website. If you’ve recently taken a hit in page rankings, being slow to adopt responsive design techniques may be the culprit.

Think—And Search—Like Your Target Audience

Now that you’re looking at a search results list of your competitors, imagine the experience your potential clients have when they pull up these results. We already know that users are not likely to wait to give your website a chance if it takes more than a few seconds to load, but even once they’ve successfully made it to your homepage, the average user will spend only 15 seconds looking for information on your site. This means text should be easy-to-read, and important information like your business hours, contact information, or contact forms should ideally be obvious enough for a new user to locate in under 15 seconds. This is really a best practice issue for both desktop and mobile, but when you consider that according to Google research, users spend 15+ hours per week researching on search engines from their smartphones, a mobile-first or responsive design approach begins to make a lot of sense. And if that isn’t enough, according to Pew Research Center, a growing percentage of the American smartphone-owning population has neither traditional broadband internet service at home, nor easily available alternatives for online access other than their smartphone. Because a lot of people from lower economic backgrounds are choosing between paying a cell phone data plan and home internet, this demographic may not be reachable if your website isn’t mobile responsive. If your target audience is low income or skews younger, prioritizing mobile is going to be critical to reaching them.

Use What You’ve Learned

So go ahead: try out a few search terms and see how your competitors are handling the challenge and opportunity of mobile traffic. There’s nothing like first-hand experience to show how much more user-friendly a mobile optimized website experience is from a smartphone or other non-desktop device. According to Google, 57% of users even say they would not recommend a company with a poorly designed mobile website. If your competition hasn’t taken advantage of the shift to mobile, you have a real opportunity to get ahead of the pack. And if you’ve found you’re being out-mobile-d by the competition, well—now’s the time for a game plan.