What Is a Mobile-First Strategy?

The phrase "mobile-first strategy" refers to an approach to developing websites in which the mobile-enabled version of the website is given priority over its desktop version. 

Companies are increasingly prioritizing the mobile versions of their webpages, due to the growing popularity of phone-based internet browsing and online shopping among consumers.

Key Takeaways

  • A mobile-first strategy is one whereby the mobile version of a website is given priority over its desktop version.
  • This practice was relatively rare in the past, but has become increasingly common.
  • Going forward, mobile-first strategies will likely become the norm, due in part to the decision of major search engines to prioritize the mobile versions of websites.

How Mobile-First Strategies Work

When pursuing a mobile-first strategy, a company will first release a mobile-enabled version of its website, before investing substantial time or resources into developing a desktop version. Often, some rudimentary desktop website will be released alongside the mobile version, but this desktop website may consist of little more than a landing page which links to a mobile application or to basic information such as a frequently asked questions (FAQ) page.

There are several underlying factors driving the popularity of mobile-first strategies. To begin, the percentage of web traffic attributable to smartphones as compared to desktop computers has grown steadily over time. According to StatCounter, mobile browsing was essentially equal to desktop browsing with each taking a 48% share in January 2021. Perficient estimated that 61% of all U.S. web traffic originated from mobile devices in 2020.

Another major factor encouraging companies to pursue a mobile-first strategy concerns the additional data and features that mobile websites can provide. Because smartphones now typically utilize touch-screen interfaces, it is possible for owners of mobile-enabled websites to obtain detailed user experience (UX) data regarding exactly how the user physically clicked on or scrolled through the page. In some cases, website owners can even obtain data concerning the eye movements of the user, as determined using their phone’s front-facing camera.

Although these advanced user data metrics are relatively rare, other types of rich user data are quite common. One such example is location tracking, in which the GPS coordinates of users’ phones are automatically passed onto the website provider. This kind of information can be instrumental in informing future marketing campaigns or planning business development efforts such as the opening of new retail stores or distribution warehouses.

Real World Example of a Mobile-First Strategy

Yet perhaps the most significant factor driving the adoption of mobile-first strategies is the "mobile-first indexing" strategy from Google. This decision, which was put in practice in July 2019, made clear that, going forward, the company’s search algorithm would give priority to the mobile versions of websites when initially indexing a new website.

In practice, this means that new websites that are developed without a mobile-first strategy are likely to experience sub-par search engine optimization (SEO) results. Considering the enormous influence that Google enjoys in the global search-engine ecosystem, it seems likely that mobile-first strategies will be embraced as a best practice for most if not all new website development projects going forward.