With a title like When Responsive Web Design Is Bad For SEO , it’s hard not to want to read the once Twitter-trending article by SEO consultant Bryson Meunier.
While the “responsive site vs. mobile site” debate is not new, SEO considerations add more fuel to the already raging fire.
So does responsive or mobile win? It really boils down to two things:
1) The needs of the site’s users
2) The technologies that will meet those needs at the lowest cost
We don’t believe responsive design is the answer to every problem, but there are definite pros.
It’s often the best approach for organizations with limited budgets, who are already spending a lot on their desktop site, and now need to accommodate mobile users. It offers the huge advantage of a single codebase — desktop, tablet, and mobile site in one. Less expensive at the outset; easier to maintain and extend over the long term.
It’s more than mobile. Users are expecting more consistency across devices and the ability to do complex things on their phones. The classic approach of delivering a stripped down mobile experience with location-specific functions is outdated. How do you know someone is on the go or browsing at home on the sofa?
It’s more flexible. Device sizes are multiplying. Soon every inch of the spectrum will be occupied. How would you decide where to draw the line when serving a separate mobile site? Does a small tablet like the Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire count as mobile? What about an iPad, which is nearly the size of some laptops, yet highly portable? Responsive design normalizes all of this by adapting the same site to whatever screen is present.
Meunier’s article talks a lot about mobile-specific content, and responsive design has something to offer here. We’ve been discussing with clients the fact that responsive design best practices are largely focused on screen size at the moment, but will eventually move on to other aspects of a user’s environment, including device type, aspect ratio, pixel density, and media type. There is a lot of potential to create highly tailored experiences.
How about SEO? The mobile search data in Meunier’s article is refreshing in a debate where people often base their arguments solely on philosophies and principles. Usage information is critical and should inform any creative process. We advocate a thorough study of web analytics and qualitative research at the beginning of a project to understand user needs. This helps us choose the right solution. And some form of responsive design will likely continue to be the most compelling answer.
Responsive design doesn’t have to be a drag on performance, though it often is without extra attention. Images are the biggest problem, but there are (imperfect) solutions. An addition to the HTML specification on the horizon will solve this for good. We are also seeing server-side approaches thrown in the mix, like RESS, which allows the conditional loading of portions of a page, dependent upon the user’s device. So in the end, does it have to be a choice between a responsive and separate mobile site? We can combine pieces of both.
Jeremy Perkins is Art Director at iFactory. When he’s not putting thoughtful responsive design philosophy on paper, he enjoys taking stellar profile selfies.
Jeremy is iFactory’s Director of UX & Design. He works with a diverse group of clients in higher education, publishing, healthcare, and not-for-profit. Fluent with technology, he designs, writes code, & helps teams solve hard problems with great ideas.