Sales Pitch: Responsive Web Design is best for SEO

If you have decided embark on your responsive website design journey, you were probably sold a bills of goods that included promises of improved SEO.  How true is this? How much benefit will you receive? Did you abandon your successful mobile web site for improved organic results?

The Promises:

Promise 1: Google’s algorithm recommends responsive as the best way to target mobile users. Here’s what Google actually says on the subject:

 "Google supports smartphone-optimized sites in three configurations:

  1.  {C}Sites that use responsive web design, i.e. sites that serve all devices on the same set of URLs, with each URL serving the same HTML to all devices and using just CSS to change how the page is rendered on the device. This is Google's recommended configuration.

  2. Sites that dynamically serve all devices on the same set of URLs, but each URL serves different HTML (and CSS) depending on whether the user agent is a desktop or a mobile device. 

  3. Sites that have separate mobile and desktop URLs." Source

Although, they go on to say that they recommend responsive over mobile URL’s, this preference is based on efficiency as fewer pages have to load and Google’s crawlers only have to search one page instead of 2, not searchability.

In fact, some SEO experts argue that most responsive sites actually have problems connecting searchers with platform specific content. For example, users searching for “mobile games” might be sent to a responsive site that offers the desktop version of the game that will not work on their mobile device. It’s also fair to assume that mobile searchers might be searching for device specific content, and a responsive site might not deliver the relevant results the searcher is looking for. For example, I am looking for “TTT Game for iPhone” because I want to play this game on my iPhone, however the keywords triggered the link to their responsive website which loaded a resized desktop version of the game. 

Promise 2: Customers will have a better experience on a RWD. This isn’t necessarily true. If built correctly a RWD will deliver the best user experience, however as I talked about in another post, many RWD offering leave much to be desired and you might be better served by maintaining your optimized mobile site (if it’s working).

 There is much criticism of a “stripped down” mobile site as being a bad thing, but is that the case? Can you imagine if the New York Times had a straight-up RWD, where content was removed or simplified for mobile users? Having a functional, clean presentation specifically for mobile users is the best way to go. We analyze visitor information in Google Analytics to see what are users are looking for and optimize our mobile landing pages (RWD or Mobile URL) to fit that demand. You don't necessarily have to strip content off of your mobile site, but prioritize the information for optimal performance (and preference). Learning what the majority of your mobile users are looking for is crucial when designing your mobile website. 

Design Notes:

If you use a separate mobile URL for your mobile site, make sure you have the proper annotation for your desktop and mobile pages. This will ensure proper crawling of your website. For instance Google recommends:

  • "On the desktop page, add a special link rel="alternate" tag pointing to the corresponding mobile URL. This helps Googlebot discover the location of your site's mobile pages.
  • On the mobile page, add a link rel="canonical" tag pointing to the corresponding desktop URL."

Click here for more on the subject.

Closing Thoughts:

Responsive Website Design is the way to go - if it is done right, but its not the "SEO holy grail" that it is often presented as. If you go with RWD over mobile URLs, think through the design and make sure your site truly responds to the needs of your mobile users.