Why You Should Automatically Route iPhone Users to Your Mobile Site

When I praised National Public Radio’s mobile site last week, I noted that unlike NPR, the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News did not automatically route me to the mobile version of its site on my iPhone. This week I confirmed that it did indeed auto-detect and route me to its mobile site when I borrowed a friend’s Blackberry. So, this is an iPhone issue.

My NPR mobile post received a comment from Morgan Cartwright, director of interactive operations for Bay Area News Group, which owns the Mercury News. Cartwright noted something about iPhone users that I’ve heard from several news site developers: “We used to redirect those devices to the mobile site as well, but got feedback from [iPhone users] that they wanted to use the Safari browser and the main site.”

There are a few realities that all Web developers and site owners could benefit from understanding about iPhones, iPhone users and the quality of AT&T mobile service. These points explain my strong advocacy for auto-routing all iPhone users to your mobile site:

1. AT&T 3G coverage is extremely spotty. I use my iPhone frequently, and even in downtown San Francisco I’ve found myself suddenly losing 3G coverage. If I’m not at home, I probably won’t be on a wifi connection, which means my iPhone’s data service reverts to AT&T’s infamously slow Edge network. On the Edge network, the standard layout of most news sites loads at a snail’s pace. It’s painful.

So just because someone has an iPhone with a snazzy mobile browser doesn’t mean he or she is in a situation where the site will load fast. When you’re on the go, loading speed matters.

2. iPhone battery life isn’t great. This was true of first and second generation iPhones, and it appears to be even more of a problem with the new 3Gs model. If iPhone users want to get more than three or so hours of life out of their battery, they quickly learn that they have to turn off features.

One of the main iPhone battery drainers is the 3G network connection. It’s common for iPhone users to turn off 3G and other features to conserve battery power. This means that if you’re not on wifi, you’re back to the Edge network for slow-to-a-crawl Web access.

3. Complainers on this issue are a vocal minority. Whenever a site auto-directs iPhone users to the mobile rather than full version, the site owner immediately receives a flurry of impassioned complaints, saying: “I don’t want your mobile site! Don’t make me go there!”

Yes, there are iPhone users who have reliable 24/7 access to wifi or 3G almost everywhere they go, or who don’t care much about battery life, or who adore the mobile Safari browser so much that they don’t care if something takes forever to load on it. These people tend to be the ones who complain when they get routed to a mobile site.

They seem to be a vocal minority, though, and I think it’s a mistake to cater your iPhone delivery strategy to them (as the Mercury News did). Check out your mobile analytics and compare the total number of iPhone users to the total number of complainers on this topic, if you don’t believe me.

Most people want to access news on the go quickly. Auto-routing all iPhone users to your speedy mobile site makes far more sense than forcing all iPhone users to first download the (probably slow, un-mobile-friendly) version of your site, where they’d have to hunt for a mobile option. If they’re not on a fast connection, chances are they’ll just click away to Google News or to an iPhone app from another news organization.

4. Use cookies to set iPhone user preferences. Create an iPhone-optimized version of your site. This would be a separate template with some minor tweaks made from the general mobile site you serve to other phones. Include right up at the top of the page a clear option: a link that says “send me to the standard site” link.

When a user clicks that link, set a cookie to store that preference. That user’s phone will then default to the standard version in the future. (Yes, mobile Safari handles cookies.) A similar “send me to the mobile site” link at the top of an iPhone-optimized version of your standard site can set a cookie for the opposite preference.

Fellow Tidbits contributor David Herrold, a key developer for the Houston Chronicle‘s Web and mobile sites, told me: “I made the decision at the Houston Chronicle last year to add the ‘mobile’ and ‘standard’ links at the footer of the mobile site. Clicking the ‘standard’ link dropped a cookie on phones capable of accepting the cookie. If the phone can’t accept a cookie, chances are it should be redirected to the mobile site anyhow. The cookie allowed a user to set a preference for the standard site. Then we simply checked for that cookie before redirecting.”

Herrold also said, “We had a handful of iPhone users who complained prior to this, but were satisfied by this solution. Most mobile users prefer a well-designed mobile site over the standard site.”

This leads me to another crucial point: Your mobile site should be user-friendly. I’ve written before about how important it is for news sites to be extremely mobile friendly. In the comments section of my piece last week, Cartwright noted that some iPhone users probably balked at the Mercury News mobile site because: “Our mobile site isn’t the greatest, thanks to a problematic RSS feed system out of our content management system.”

Interestingly, in a subsequent e-mail, Carwright wrote that after he posted his comment on last week’s Tidbit, “MediaNews Group, the Mercury News‘ parent corporation, decided it would roll out a new iPhone mobile site for all of its Web sites, including mercurynews.com. It will have a link at the top to the Web site for those who would rather view it that way. Reportedly it will also solve the problem of Web links in e-mail and elsewhere that can only be opened on the Web site.”

Mobile users comprise a huge, crucial and fast-growing digital news audience. They are not just a “nice-to-have” feature; mobile should be at the core of every news organization’s business and outreach strategy. If there are any internal barriers (such as a clunky CMS) to making your content very mobile friendly, it should be a top priority to fix those problems.

And if you’re just starting out with a new news venture, make sure your content and systems are highly mobile-friendly right from the start.

Mobile news consumers are very fickle. If you waste their time once, you will lose them. Increasingly, they will become the core of your online audience. Meeting their needs, at least on a basic level, isn’t technically daunting. News organizations that ignore mobile opportunities now may lose ground in this market forever.

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