Responsive Web Design: Are We Missing The Point?

There is no shortage of articles about responsive web design (RWD) out there. It seems like every time that I pick up a trade magazine (automotive industry), there is an article about responsive web design and if you are not doing it - you might as well close your doors. Of course that is a drastic example, but for the most part many of these articles really are missing the point. Too often we get caught up in trends, the latest and greatest, and fail to truly address the root need of the products we “must have.” So, really, why does my website need to be responsive? First, lets dig a little deeper and learn some definitions.

RWD has a different meaning for marketers than it does web developers.  To web developers the aspects that define a website as responsive are technical in nature. How content is displayed and by what method is just as import as the look and feel of the site.  Ethan Marcotte, a web-designer out of Boston, and an authority on the subject, maintains that a responsive website must utilize certain techniques, such as media queries, flexible images, and fluid layouts to make a website properly functions across different environments. If you do not have any idea what that means, that ok. This is not a discussion about the technical implementation of a website, but it is important to recognize the technical aspects of this concepts as they are seldom discussed in conversations about RWD, especially in the car business. (I am leaving "Adaptive" completely out of this entry)

Why are they important? They are important because if your website does not load quickly or properly you are losing money - regardless of how pretty and functional it looks.  Efficient web design has not been a top priority for automotive web vendors over the past several years. The vast majority of dealer websites still focus on an cumbersome desktop model, and with broadband penetration at over 70% website, regardless of how improper the design, pages will still load in an acceptable amount of time. However, on slower connections, the experience will not be so acceptable.

 Typically we are given 3 choices as the solution for our mobile customers:

  • mobile formatted website, usually via a subdomain i.e.
  • adaptive website, which relies on a library of device resolutions, same domain regardless of the device
  • responsive website, which resizes for the device and typically uses the same domain regardless of the device

Today, mobile sales representatives are quick to dismiss the old ways of mobile formatted website in favor of the “new” responsive model. In fact, the pitches are very aggressive (or passive aggressive), and are quick to discount the mobile formatted website altogether. Like I said earlier, if you are not doing “responsive” design  - you might as well close your doors. Bottom line, if this is the pitch you get feel free to laugh or hang up the phone, becauseThey are missing the point.

The purpose of your mobile website should be to deliver the best user experience possible for your customer – regardless of the technique. For marketers, this can be further broken down into 2 elements:

  • Speed
  • Content (content, functionality, and design) 

Speed. Everyone has smartphones with broadband access, so why is speed important? Easy, not everyone has fast broadband access.  4G networks are not available everywhere, in fact only 22% of users have a 4G connection, and 40% of the time they do not have 4G access. If you are located in the city, you probably have better usage numbers than this, but it is still very likely that users will be connecting to your mobile website on a slower-than-4G connection so design for it. Start by:

  •  Choosing a vendor that understands this and can offer a mobile product that is responsive to typical and non-typical mobile connection speeds
  •  Choose a template that is light on high-resolution graphics and backgrounds, and use color fills whenever possible.
  • Test, test, test. Tell you spouse. Ask your boss. Ask his teen-age daughter. There is no better way to find performance issues than to have mobile power users test it for you. This is true for performance issues as much as it is “hiveminded” design flaws.

Content. Your index page on your mobile site should never mirror your desktop site unless you only have one page on your desktop site. Even then it still shouldn’t look the same and should at least serve the content differently. The user expectations for a desktop site and a mobile site are different – and both must serve their content effectively. Desktop users are very likely on a broadband connection, and have a huge screen with lots of real estate. Mobile users are on a smaller screen with a slower connection. How will you change your design to accommodate this (check out my upcoming posting on mobile site design tips for more in depth ideas)? To start you can:

  • Visit top 100 sites. See what the big boys are doing. This is not to say they are all doing it right, but it certainly will expose you to different designs and techniques.
  • Visit your competition, see what you like and don’t like. You are an expert critic here. Don’t repeat their mistakes.
  •  Do not be pressured to switch to a “responsive” site just because it’s the thing to do. If they tell you that everyone is doing it, tell them that only 12% of the top 10,000 website are actually responsive and send them this link.

RWD is a very effective technique, and is probably the best way to display your company’s digital storefront across multiple devices – if done correctly. The problem is that it is rarely done correctly, and you have to pick out the best vendor or designer available to you at the time. So if that means your mobile site has a separate mobile subdomain, so be it! What is for certain is that when your customers have a terrible mobile experience, they are leaving for good, responsive or not.

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.

Have you heard of BRAVE? If you haven’t, you will soon!

The Wired article reads "BRENDAN EICH REINVENTED the web. Now he wants to upend the advertising industry.” That’s putting it mildly.

Last week Eich launched Brave, a startup company that will develop a new web browser (for desktop and mobile platforms) that specializes in blocking ads and then replaces them with its own ads. This browser is going to shake up the digital advertising industry, and potentially change the way ads are served on the internet.

Who is Brendan Eich? Brendan Eich is the creator of JavaScript, which is the world’s most used programming language. He is also the co-founder of Mozilla, the organization behind the Firefox web browser. If there is anyone who could pull off a product like Brave, it would be Eich.

Eich has received both cheers and jeers regarding his new product. Proponents call it big step forward towards privacy-protection, while opponents call it an illegal attack on content providers. Which ever way you see it, one thing is certain, and that is Brave will change the advertising landscape as we know it today. 

Let’s say Brave passes its legal tests and is allowed to operate today: What do I as a marketer need to know?

Brave will automatically block programmatic advertisements and tracking cookies, and will replace those ads with Brave’s partner ads. It can be assumed that the ad networks will work with Brave directly. In exchange, Brave will take 15% of the ad revenue. The publisher will get 55%, the ad supplier 15%, and the last 15% would go to the user. That’s right, you the surfer would get a 15% cut.

I repeat, you the surfer would get a 15% cut. Whoa.

Despite this appeal, without a clear breakdown, advertisers could end up paying much more for less eyeballs. If your ads are being served, but blocked by Brave, you could still be charged for an impression. Then you would still have to pay Brave to serve that same ad that was just blocked. There are many “could” and “woulds” at this point in the process, but it’s certainly a major repercussion of the new model.

Another interesting feature of Brave is that it will be able to target ads based on a surfer's browser history without sharing that information with advertisers. That would allow ad targeting more precise than ever while completely protecting users’ privacy. That is a win for everyone.

The Future is Unclear

Brave is not the first to attempt such a feat. Others, like Gator in 2002, have been met with lawsuits from publishers, and ultimately abandoned their ad replacement model. Only time will tell what will happen with Brave, but what is clear is that many, perhaps a majority of surfers, are not happy with the current ad system and are very concerned about their online privacy. Until these concerns are addressed, there will continue to be broad support for startups like BRAVE.

In layman’s terms: Google updated their core algorithm - what does it mean for marketing mangers?

The last 2 weekends have brought some major changes to Google’s core algorithm, and depending on a number of factors, it could effect how your website “ranks” on Google. 

What was the update?

In a nutshell, Google's Panda update has now been integrated into their core algorithm. When Panda rolled out in 2011 it was more like a filter that was applied after the search results were processed (after the core). Now it has been rolled into the core algorithm, and will be applied to sites overall and is part of their “core ranking signals.” Google continued to update their algorithm through this last weekend.

What’s a Panda update?

In order to improve the quality of search results, Google rolled out an update in 2011. The update targeted “content farms” and “scraper sites” that were gaining top listings with “shallow” or “low-quality” content. Lowering or removing these sites from user searches will increase the relevancy of the results and fight off web spam. However, they continue to thrive on social media.

What's a content farm and a scraper site?

Content Farm - "a website that contains very large quantities of content, typically of low quality or aggregated from other sites, generated solely to ensure that it appears high on the list of results returned by a search engine." Or to generate ad impressions.

Scraper Site -  "a website that copies content from other websites using web scraping. The purpose of creating such a site can be to collect advertising revenue or to manipulate search engine rankings by linking to other sites to improve their search engine ranking through a private blog network."

How will this effect my site?

For most of you, not much. If you are a retail site, and have been executing a healthy SEO strategy, then you are well prepared for this change (and have been since 2011). Panda loves deep, responsible, content. If you have product landing pages that uniquely and clearly communicate the intention of the page, then you are safe. If you copy content from other websites for the intention of driving traffic for ad revenue, I would advise consulting with your SEO strategist immediately to determine how this update will effect your site.

Bottom line, Panda was designed to fight web spam and garbage content - if your concerned that you might be a generator of either, then you might want to consult your SEO strategist.

Apple's Fights The Good Fight: Decides To Aid The Opposition in "Bloatwar"

Fresh off my post yesterday regarding the looming war between telecoms and publishers, Apple decided yesterday to allow iPhone and iPad users install ad-blocking software on their devices running iOS 9.

If publishers weren't completely serious about their ad-clutter, they should be now; but for many it might be too late, and they will have to look into the mirror and realize they have no one to blame but themselves. As I wrote in this earlier post, content site like diply have been over-advertising on their site, and have ruined the user experience for many of the those that use their site for media consumption. These sites deserved to be punished for their abuses, but unfortunately they will not be the only victim of this blocking.

Collateral Damage

The real losers in this war will ultimately be the surfer or the content consumer. Thousands of legitimate, valuable, & responsible publishers will suffer at the hand of these ad-blockers. Websites like depend on ad revenue to operate, and with out this revenue - quality sites like this might cease operations. “If you go to a site, and you’re blocking their ads, then you’re not giving that site any reason to be in existence,” says Seth Weintraub, operator of “I don't hate the companies that are doing it or the users that do, but people are hurting the sites they are enjoying.” That stinks for us!

Hope Is Not Lost

As the war goes on there are emerging companies that are giving consumers a way to fight back against irresponsible publishers and advertisers while allowing responsible parties to continue "block" free. For example, blockers like AdBlock Plus are allowing ads to remain unblocked if they meet certain standards. Also, many have teamed up with Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit that allows advertisers to opt in to a "Do Not Track" list that certifies them as responsible when it comes to advertising and privacy (tracking). Essentially, this means that if you are a publisher, and you are responsible with your advertising, you will be able able to show ads and more importantly monetize them. That's a win for us!

Source: Bloomberg