An area frequently explored in the current climate is how equipped the web is for mobile and tablet browsing – and no wonder, considering the rise and prevalence of smartphone use online. And since a large proportion of the web is dedicated to selling online, how the smartphone user fares with ecommerce sites is of interest. In the UK, sales through mobile devices accounted for 23% of all online sales in 2013- up from 12% in Q2 2012 (Campgemini/IMRG, 2013).
This piece will focus specifically on the travel industry, which of recent years has significantly altered its channels to market. Consumers that may in the past have relied on high street travel agents now often piece together their own ‘package deals’ or search for the best prices online. Research has shown that 88% of customers who book their holidays online do so to look for descriptions of their destination and special offers and deals (Frommer’s Unlimited, 2011). Only 1% of those surveyed did not use online source at all when researching and booking their holiday. It is interesting to note that 58% of these holiday planning consumers found the site they were visiting confusing (Frommer’s Unlimited, 2011), indicating that website layout is a consideration for online travel consumers.
So what do we mean by mobile friendly? Mobile Vs. Responsive
On the face of it, sites designed specifically for mobile devices seem like a positive innovation. Optimised for mobile browsing, these sites generally boast high usability for mobile devices, with simple navigational structures and large buttons, ideal for chunky fingers on touchscreen smartphones. Mobile sites are often cheap to produce, with open source tools and templates that allow a developer with basic skills to create something professional looking quickly – for example, WordPress mobile plugins (https://wordpress.org/mobile/). Mobile sites also prevent the pain of transitioning an existing site to become mobile friendly without a complete redesign.
However, like much else which on the face appears quick and easy, they do have their drawbacks, especially when it comes to search engine visibility. If not handled correctly, creating a mobile site on an m-domain can dilute organic search content and link equity, as links shared from mobile browsers may not count as search link equity towards your primary site (smartz.com, 2013). However, technically speaking this should not be an issue if your mobile site is handled with advice from search marketing professionals, who would advise, for example, mobile urls to be given canonical links to prevent such duplicate content issues. It is also possible to dynamically serve all mobile and tablet devices with the same set of URLs, using different HTML and CSS depending on the user agent (Google, 2013). However this does include redirection to the device optimised view, increasing loading time and possibly reducing the ‘freshness’ of your indexing as the site is less crawler efficient.
Alternatively, the current Google recommendation for mobile and tablet browsing is responsive web design. Responsive design elements vary, but are generally classified as methods to make a website usable on any device – the most obvious method is creating sites with flexible width which will adjust automatically depending on the size of the browser window. Google considers this the preferred option as using a single url for content avoids redirection, saving resources for both the site and Googlebot and potentially reducing load time.
So how do Travel Sites fare?
The nature of sites within the travel industry can prove a challenge for mobile devices. With the amount of data available to search through and the variety of parameters involved, simplifying your travel site for mobile browsing may not be a simple task. Here’s a runthrough of frequently used UK travel sites and how they fare in the mobile stakes…
UK National Rail Enquiries
First impressions were that the grid layout was great for mobile devices, as it is fairly narrow, with only tabs on the main navigation and large fonts. I was almost disappointed when I loaded it on my phone to find a mobile site. The mobile site is very easy to navigate, with large tabs, and doesn’t disappoint. It also offers the opportunity to use the accompanying app – a positive. However, if you click the ‘full site’ link at the bottom of the mobile site it does open the desktop version. There is a lot of potential here and I feel this site could be easily adjusted to have a responsive desktop version. One small criticism is the use of text fields for the data entry form – other travel sites use drop down boxes, which are usually picked up nicely by a phone’s native functionality. A suggestion would be to add GPS functionality to pick up on the mobile user’s location and find their nearest station.
The mobile experience for British Airways was somewhat disappointing. Although the site fit neatly to the screen, the miniscule font indicated that it is not responsive. The form featured on the homepage features drop down boxes as opposed to text boxes, useful for mobile browsing as it invokes the operating system’s native ability to handle drop downs.
However, the datetime picker is not ideal as it gets lost somewhere to the right of the screen and requires scrolling to be found again. On further investigation, the reason for the lack of responsiveness is probably due to the fact BA has an app – so why not promote it to customers and give them the opportunity to use it?
I have to admit to being slightly biased against Ryanair’s site, following a trip abroad late last year and a frantic attempt to amend a booking with my phone. My personal experience with Ryanair’s booking management system was pretty horrendous – the pop up ads rendered the system impossible to use on both mobile and tablet devices, and frustrating on the dated computers provided at the airport – clearly not designed for a range of browsers and operating systems. However, on visiting the site I can clearly see there have been a few changes, with the outdated yellow and blue design altered to a much cleaner layout. I also have high hopes that the new ‘My Ryanair’ booking management feature has made it easier for customers both on desktop and mobile (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/travelnews/10460167/Ryanair-unveils-simpler-website.html).
It’s unfair not to praise Ryanair for listening to its customers for responding to poor user feedback. The new site is admittedly much better. However, better doesn’t necessarily equal mobile friendly. On loading, it is obvious that the site does not feature flexible width, as it renders about twice the width of the screen. The design is also image heavy, which won’t help load time. Although from a developers point of view this may be an attractive design, especially the image carousel, this will not only cause problems with mobile browsing but also indexing, as images are used in place of text,with only a few alt tags (there are a few empty alt tags as well, not sure if this is a dynamic feature or the developers have forgotten about them.)
The final point that will be noted is site structure. I can appreciate that there is lots going on on this site, but I feel improvements could be made, such as altering the layout to a narrow grid. Several tabs actually open into new windows and seem to be microsites in themselves. This not only increases load time, but made browsing difficult due to the cookies pop up for new windows. The scroll on the pop up is not completely functional if the browser window is too narrow, which disabled my browsing for a good duration while I tried to figure out how to close it (turn the phone on its side).
Considering the prevalence of mobile browsing, it is wise for a brand to consider optimising their site for mobile use. If we agree with Google, which is usually a wise thing to do, implementing responsive design elements in your site may be the way to go. However, it is important to remember that how a company should prioritise mobile usability depends on how their customers actually engage with them, which may be different depending on the brand or service.