Which is better, to make a mobile app or mobile website? Both bring their own benefits and tradeoffs, and can be leveraged in different ways, depending on your organization's goals.
That said, mobile websites have one unique advantage it's important to consider: search engine traffic. In other words, how many people Google, Bing, Yahoo, Ask.com and others send to your company website and its landing pages each day or month.
First, some quick background. When I say "mobile app", I mean a native mobile application, that is installed on the phone. An example is an iPhone app that you, or your prospect, download through Apple's iTunes app store.
The biggest advantage of a mobile app is the kind of experience it can provide. Apps can provide a nicer, richer experience for the end consumer, far more than what's currently possible with a mobile optimized website. A well done, properly designed app can leverage this to increase conversions.
Mobile apps have one big disadvantage: when a mobile app is made, it's specific to a single model of phone, such as the iPhone. People using other phones won't be able to install the app.
If you want people on Android or Blackberry phones to be able to install the app, you often have to remake it from scratch for each platform. And North American consumers use hundreds of different phones spanning over a dozen platforms.
A mobile website will be available to everyone with a smartphone. The cost to create this is often less than what it would take to create a mobile app for a single mobile platform. In addition, a well-done mobile website will automatically work on new phones as they reach the marketplace.
Since your mobile website is essentially an extension of your company's total web presence, it gets another big benefit automatically: referrals from search engines
Mobile Search Traffic
In some ways, the mobile website's biggest advantage is that it's accessible to search engines. Native apps are not, and may never be.
So what? That means search engines will send highly qualified visitors to your mobile website. With relevant content and search engine optimization (SEO), over time your mobile site could get as many referrals from Google, Bing, Yahoo! and other search engines every day as your current desktop-optimized website does.
A native app won't benefit from that. It's possible that within the next year or two, search engines will attempt to index app stores. But the technical hurdles are different, and higher. If it does happen, it is going to take months or years to ramp up. Whereas mobile websites are getting referrals from search right now.
This is an important factor to keep in mind when planning your organization's mobile strategy. Almost all your prospects use internet search many times every day. Ask yourself, how can I position our mobile web presence to benefit from this reality?