When Mobile Web Dominates Apps in an App-Dominated World
In 2013, mobile devices (i.e. smartphones and tablets) surpassed desktops to become the leading platform in terms of total time spent online. As mobile engagement continues to grow, another major milestone occurred just this past month— consumers now spend more than half of their digital consumption time on mobile apps, leaving us without any doubt that we are currently living in an app-dominated digital world. Yet although there has been a shift from web browser to app, which coincided with the shift from desktop to mobile, certain media properties continue to attract an inordinate size of their mobile traffic via the browser. But what determines the preferred access method for a particular media property?
Why Does a User Visit the App vs. the Website?
Perhaps the best example of a browser-dominant media property is Wikimedia Foundation Sites, the organization that runs Wikipedia, one of the most popular sites on the web. But as popular as Wikipedia is, it remains one of the few large digital media properties that has succeeded on mobile despite a very small portion of its smartphone engagement occurring via app. In contrast, the smartphone audiences for most of the top properties spend the majority of their time on the app, not the mobile website.
This is what you would expect given the many advantages apps have over web browsers on mobile, including:
- Ease of access – All it takes to open an app is one tap of your finger on the home screen. In contrast, visiting a website requires you to open up the browser and then type in the web address.
- Optimization for mobile – Apps are built for the smaller screen and typically include interactive capabilities specifically designed for the touch screen, whereas the mobile web may not render well for the small screen and has more limited functionality.
Wikipedia and Glam Media are two notable outliers on this list of top digital media properties, with more than 80 percent of their smartphone engagement on a web browser. To fully understand this phenomenon, we’ve analyzed many of the top digital media properties that are mobile web-dominant, and determined three primary drivers:
- Reliance on search and social referral for traffic
- Emphasis on responsively designed site architecture
- Philosophical reasons for de-emphasizing the app experience
*Property includes Reddit
Search and Social’s Role in Driving Mobile Traffic
Receiving large amounts of traffic from referrals might be the most important indicator of why some properties skew to a web browser. Wikipedia, for example, receives a significant 66 percent of its desktop traffic from Google, Bing and Yahoo searches. On mobile, it comes down to the simple fact that typing a query in your mobile browser’s search bar or Google Search app is no less convenient than searching for something in a Wikipedia app. Additionally, it’s worth noting that people don’t usually seek out Wikipedia articles to discover information. They simply seek the information, so they use a search engine, which often directs them to Wikipedia as one of the top results. This is also the case with other online hubs of information, such as About.com, Answers.com and wikiHow.com, each of which generates all of its smartphone activity on a web browser.
Social referral is a major driver of web browsing traffic, as well. BuzzFeed is an example of a site that has successfully capitalized on social media to promote its content. The site’s catchy headlines and easily digestible articles are designed for shareability, which explains why 43 percent of its desktop traffic comes from Facebook alone.
The ability for people to share content with their friends and followers on social media has even enabled some media properties, such as Gawker Media and Complex Media, to thrive without any app at all. It’s an interesting strategy in today’s digital marketplace, but it can work as long as there are ways to drive traffic to the site. Building and promoting an app can be resource-intensive, and there’s no guarantee a media property will be able to develop a large enough app audience to make it worth it. And since homescreen real-estate and phone storage are scarce resources to the consumer, they may be more reluctant to download an app unless they believe it will provide them with high utility and expect to visit it frequently. So media properties who know they are relying on referral traffic may opt instead to prioritizing design for the mobile web.
Mobile Website Design Makes a Difference
This leads us to another common characteristic among web-dominant mobile properties: responsively designed mobile sites. The keys to this mobile browser design are simplicity and scalability across different sized screens. These sites tend to have primarily text-based content and utilize vertical scrolling, given that side-to-side scrolling can be more challenging on the smaller touch screens. Wikipedia has always been a highly structured and text-driven content experience, which made it optimize more easily for mobile.
Gawker and Complex also have great mobile websites that are likely the byproduct of a particular emphasis on developing responsively designed sites. Both websites feature minimalistic design, with article headlines listed vertically up and down the page, along with a simple thumbnail image placed next to it. No excessive graphics, no fancy layout. The simplicity of their content experience allows it to seamlessly translate to mobile.
Rebels With a Cause
While website design and referrals seem to be the key determinants mobile browser dominance, there are certain media properties that fit into this classification for reasons more philosophical than practical. Some mission-based, community-led web entities not primarily motivated by the profit incentive are among the most prominent within these ranks. While Wikipedia, which is not-for-profit, does have an app, it also realizes that it is reaching a global audience of mobile phone users who may not use apps. So gaining mobile app users may not have the same organizational emphasis as ensuring the widest global accessibility of its content, which is on the web browser. Craigslist and Reddit are two other examples of community-oriented websites that never built apps. Perhaps they are satisfied with their current offerings and haven’t found the reason to invest resources in managing another access channel. Or perhaps they firmly believe in the freedom and openness of the web, a philosophy which they feel the closed-off nature of apps opposes.
Which Mobile Strategy is Best for You?
While app usage should continue to dominate our increasingly mobile digital world for the foreseeable future, a handful of properties seem content to remain web browser-focused for the time being. Each publisher ultimately has its own design sensibility, business model, marketing/traffic acquisition strategy, and philosophical approach to the web, which ultimately may dictate a different approach to focusing on apps vs. the mobile web. Understanding some of the commonalities behind the mobile web-dominant players might just help companies determine which strategy is best for them.