Are web content management systems properly tuned for mobile?

September 22nd, 2015 by

Are web content management systems properly tuned for mobile?

Earlier this year, Google announced that it would consider the responsiveness and overall user experience of websites on mobile devices as it calculates rank and relevance of a website in search results. Google also said it would favor sites that were optimized for a better user experience on small screens — for example those that use larger font sizes and separate links so that they are easier to tap. Factoring the mobile user experience makes perfect sense in a world where the majority of web traffic is now between web servers and mobile devices.

The effect of the resulting tweaks that Google made to its search engine algorithms were at first discounted by industry pundits, but then later found to be quite significant. For example, Adobe tracked traffic to more than 5,000 sites, which it divided into two camps: mobile-friendly and non-mobile-friendly. Its statistics showed that, compared to mobile-friendly sites, traffic to non-mobile-friendly websites from Google mobile searches fell 12 percent in the two months after the changes took effect in April 2015. So, while Google’s new approach took time make an impact, it’s now clear that websites that deliver a poor experience on mobile devices are getting dinged by the world’s biggest search engine.

It’s easier for smaller website operators

If you’re operating a small or medium-size website with a manageable number of reasonably static pages (say, 10-20 pages), your path to Google redemption is pretty easy: make sure your website uses responsive design techniques. But if you’re running a much larger website, your path is likely much more complicated and possibly beyond your direct control. Ecommerce businesses and dynamic content publishers (enterprise and news media sites, for example) are probably using some sort of content management system, which means they’re completely dependent on their vendor’s ability to adapt to this massive shift to mobile.

Web content management (WCM) systems have become extremely popular with publishers, ecommerce operators and indeed any enterprise that manages a complex website. In a recent report[1], Gartner observed that the “…Web content management remains a vibrant and growing market, fueled by the aspirations of digital strategists on the demand side and continuous innovation on the supply side. IT application leaders, marketers, digital experience specialists and merchandizers all now view WCM as mission-critical.”

That report looked at just 10 vendors that offer WCM systems — although there are maybe three times that number that were not included. And that’s a lot of websites powered by WCM systems. Since dynamic content (and by extension, a WCMS) is the hub of every enterprise’s interaction with its audiences, it’s important to understand how these systems are adapting to the New World Order of the mobile web.

WCMS vendors have differing approaches to mobile optimization

To understand this, we’ve been talking to several of the WCM system vendors in recent months as they wrestle with how to improve the user experience they provide mobile users. What we’ve learned is that they employ one of four different approaches. Here’s a quick low-down of each, and our assessment of its suitability for a mobile-centric world.

First, let’s define them. Search Engine Land summarizes these rather well:

  Responsive Design. Often referred to as “RWD” for Responsive Web Design, this design approach uses fluid, proportion-based grids, flexible images and varying CSS style rules to deliver different user experiences to desktop, tablet and mobile devices — while maintaining the same HTML and URL structure. The site shrinks or grows according to device.

  Adaptive Design. Also referred to by Google as dynamic serving, adaptive design serves different devices using the same URL structure, but it does so by detecting the device and generating a different version of the site’s HTML appropriate for that device. The site has multiple versions that are served through common URLs.

  Dedicated. Sometimes referred to as mDot (“m.”), this configuration delivers different HTML on separate URLs, depending on the device detected. The usual arrangement is to have the desktop site located on the www subdomain and the mobile-friendly site’s pages located on the “m.” subdomain. Pure Oxygen Labs recently reported that 54 percent of the Internet Retailer top 500 brands currently employ this configuration.

As we apply these approaches to WCM systems, crucial advantages and disadvantages become apparent. Let’s look at each and examine the role of the server versus the client, and what this means for user experience.

Responsive

 Responsive Design: this is the approach most favored by WCM vendors. To enable this as a client-side approach, often the WCM system uses a front-end framework developed by a third party such as those from Bootstrap, Skeleton and Zurb.

Observations: While this approach is great for the vendors (since only one codebase is required), it’s not great for users because all the web content is sent to the client, regardless of the device type. It’s simply optimized (via CSS) for presentation on the mobile screen. In our recent responsive design survey of media websites, we highlighted the poor user experience that can result when this approach is used on an image-rich website.

Adaptive

Adaptive design. Typically, the approach taken here by WCMS vendors is to use pre-configured templates (minimally, three) that are selected and served after identifying the target device and categorizing it into one of three screen-size classes.

Observations: In adaptive design, the server responds with different HTML and CSS templates from the same URL, depending on the user agent requesting the page. While this improves the experience for users, it’s not ideal for massive amounts of server-side content because it requires you to create and maintain at least three sets of content and code for each page.

Dedicated M.

Dedicated/m-dot: most experts would agree that this is a holdover from the early days of website design. The fact that it’s still so prevalent with ecommerce vendors perhaps shows how disruptive and costly it is to ditch this approach on favor of something more modern.

Observations: The single-largest problem with this approach is that it requires a completely bifurcated content and layout strategy: one for mobile and one for desktop. It’s an error-prone approach that Google clearly does not favor.

Trilibis take: User-first is more important than mobile-first

Through our work with some of the leaders in the WCM sector, we frequently hear that user engagement is key for high-traffic web publishers and retailers. For this reason, some WCM vendors are adopting a server-side strategy in conjunction with client-side adaptation, such as that employed by Trilibis’ SNOW technology, which goes beyond presentation (UI) to optimize how a website behaves (UX) on a particular device. 

SNOW

The Trilibis SNOW approach leverages server-side resources to deliver the advantages of adaptive design, only with a single codebase. In other words, SNOW offers dynamic serving on a unified code base (RESS): this provides the positive aspects of both responsive design and dynamic serving. In this approach, server-side code, working in conjunction with the WCM system and client-side capability, identifies the device type and features, then serves up only the HTML, CSS, and images required by that particular device, all from one code base. The result is a highly optimized user experience, reduced page payloads, and a super-fast experience for all users. 

Trilibis WCMS table

For many WCM systems, we think a complete RESS (Server-Side Components with Responsive Web Design) approach is an efficient complement to their existing architecture, and has provided our WCMS partners with a distinct edge in the marketplace, and a future-proof mobile engagement strategy.

To learn more about how Trilibis can work with your WCMS, email Jason Saroyan at info@trilibis.com.


[1] Magic Quadrant for Web Content Management, Gartner Inc., 29 July 2015
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