How NOT to Go Mobile: Screen-scraping

May 29th, 2012 by

When it comes to building out your mobile web strategy, we know that sometimes it seems like there are as many development options as there are smartphones—with new ones cropping up all the time. But as with anything, some options fair better in the real world than others.

Many screen-scraped websites end up looking similar and miss out on branding and personalization opportunities

One option that has been around for some time now, and picked up a bit of momentum with Google’s GoMo initiative, is the idea of building a proxy mobile site, or screen-scraping. Largely marketed as the quickest DIY option to mobile-optimization, screen-scraping is used to shrink an existing desktop site down to mobile proportions by mirroring the HTML data and outputting it into a mobile template.

You might be thinking, “Wow! Quick…easy…DIY…and I just get to use my current site? Sounds perfect!” But don’t believe the hype, proxy mobile sites are not at all what they’re cracked up to be. And many companies who take this route often realize later on that building a separate mobile site is the way to go. Here’s why:

Not optimized for the mobile use case

One of the largest issues with a screen-scraped site is that it’s a simple mirror of your desktop site. By now, you should understand that mobile devices are fundamentally different than their desktop counterparts. Location, time and situation all become important factors in contextualizing the current mobile user’s objectives. Providing a mobile site that offers the right content in the right context is the holy grail of mobile web development and you just aren’t going to get that by scraping a desktop site.

Limited design options

You may have noticed that many mobile websites look similar—a small logo, an image, and a few rows of content sections (see the image example above). When going with a screen scraping development option, unless you’re willing to pay for a high end, custom proxy site (and why would you?), you are likely limited to a set of design options. The same set of design options the other hundreds of companies are limited to. Screen scraped mobile websites can compromise your brand and online image if you’re not careful.

Mobile updates are delicate and tied to desktop updates

When it comes to updating your mobile site, flexibility is a major factor. Delivering changes and updates should be fluid and uncomplicated. With a proxy mobile site, flexibility is removed completely—they are prone to break and their updates are directly tied to the evolution of the desktop site. Due to the delicate nature of scraping a desktop site for content and re-displaying it onto a mobile template, breaking this connection is all too easy. Any major changes on the desktop side can easily break the proxy connection to the mobile site and throw things all out of line. Additionally, another problem is presented as mobile and desktop updates must be directly tied to each other. You cannot update one without having to worry about the other.

Your mobile web experience should stand on its own, and not be a shadow of your desktop website. Whether it is done internally or through an outside vendor, building a separate mobile site rather than a proxy site is a more seasoned approach. Not only are you able to create a custom mobile experience without compromising brand image, but updates and long-run maintenance are more flexible and less costly. So how do you want to go mobile?

Agree or disagree, keep the conversation going and let us know how you feel about proxy mobile websites in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

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One Response to “How NOT to Go Mobile: Screen-scraping”

  1. Good post. I am dealing with many of these issues as well..