Allow your jaw to become unhinged at this statistic:
There are over 1 million more mobile devices activated every day across the world than there are babies born.
Yeah, mind = blown.
Indeed, designing with a mobile-first mindset becomes more important — quite literally — by the day. As does answering burning questions related to mobile design best practices.
For example: Is mobile responsive web design good for SEO or not?
This has become a hotly debated topic, even right here in the Copyblogger comment sections, with reasonable minds making reasonable arguments on both sides.
Depending on where you look and what you read, you might come away thinking that Responsive Web Design is in perfectly fine shape regarding SEO … or that it creates a mess that’s going to destroy your search results.
Is it possible that the real answer is more complex than either of these?
What would Google do?
You might have heard that Google recommends utilizing mobile responsive design on your website. Any article you read touting the SEO benefits of responsive design typically starts here.
This is what Google says on the subject, specifically:
Google recommends webmasters follow the industry best practice of using responsive web design, namely serving the same HTML for all devices and using only CSS media queries to decide the rendering on each device.
One of the oft-cited SEO benefits of responsive design is the ability to present a single URL for a page, rather than a separate mobile URL (e.g. copyblogger.com vs. m.copyblogger.com).
Theoretically, this should help the overall SEO of your site and pages by channeling all present and potential link juice into a single URL, instead of splitting it.
Google’s recommendation above fits this premise.
But that statement from Google is just bullet point #1 of two bullets beneath the heading “Overview of Google’s recommendations.”
Bullet point number two says: “If responsive design is not the best option to serve your users, Google supports having your content being served using different HTML.”
So Google — they of the 67% search market share — recommends responsive web design first, while quickly noting that it’s okay if responsive web design is not used … if there’s a better option for serving your audience.
The bots can handle it, Google assures us, if you choose to offer different sites for desktop and mobile users, separate URLs and all.
As explained by noted responsive web design-for-SEO critic Bryson Meunier of Search Engine Land, Google provides “webmasters with the option of consolidating link equity in separate URLs with bidirectional annotations or switchboard tags.”
The level of sophistication needed just to understand that sentence suggests that Option #2 is the more complicated of the two. But hold that thought, we’ll come back to it.
What’s most important here is the big picture point, which is a vital one:
This is yet another example — straight from the horse’s mouth in this case — of how the best SEO strategy is to simply create great content and present it in the most user-friendly way possible.
Maybe that’s with a responsive design … and in certain cases maybe it’s not.
When should you not choose mobile responsive design?
The StudioPress team has been a pioneer in responsive web design, particularly as it relates to WordPress themes.
There are now a number of Genesis child themes that feature mobile responsive design, with all remaining child themes slated to be responsive as well. (See all currently responsive Genesis themes here.)
So you know that I’m eventually going to side with the responsive web design side of the equation in this article, at least as the optimal design strategy for the majority. (Sorry to kill the suspense, if there was any.)
I recently set up a new site of my own, and I threw a responsive theme on it without hesitation because responsive web design fits the content of the site and how readers will interact with it.
But what about when responsive isn’t the right choice? Such cases are out there, and the aforementioned Mr. Meunier highlighted a few of them over at Search Engine Land.
Disney’s responsive site is one of the examples he discusses.
The site is visited often via mobile devices by people wanting to play one of the number of games they make available. Unfortunately, the games cannot be played on small screens, which is going to disappoint the 30,000 users each month who wind up on the site by searching for “Disney games” from their mobile device.
The negative SEO impact of this is obvious: a poor experience will lead to a quick bounce by mobile users. For related keywords, this will likely harm the site’s mobile SEO.
Does this mean that Disney is necessarily wrong to have gone with a responsive site? No. This example just highlights one area of the site where being responsive is not as beneficial as having a separate mobile site — for its games — might be. For all we know, going responsive has had a net positive impact on Disney.com’s SEO strategy.
The point is that there is much more to take into account when deciding if a site should be responsive than cherry-picked anecdotes suggesting an isolated negative SEO impact caused by a responsive design.
Among factors that can tilt a publisher’s decision away from responsive web design:
As with Disney’s videos, responsive design may not be for you if your site has features that will not be able to load without being handled by a mobile-specific site.
2. Content Relevancy.
This is rare, but do your mobile users look for a significantly different experience than desktop users? A mobile-specific site may be better if highlighting specific mobile-preferred content is necessary, as opposed to just rearranging the normal site content.
If mobile commerce occurs frequently on your site, you may want a mobile-specific solution for browsing products as well as a shopping cart.
And now, a quick word on keywords …
The ability to target mobile-specific keywords is an oft-cited benefit of mobile-only over responsive web design. But no less an SEO expert than Greg Boser explained to me that the devil is in the details, and the details are not always as simple as the mobile-only backers make it seem.
There are so many factors beyond keyword targeting that determine how pages will rank on mobile devices … the biggest being location.
So, while having a separate mobile site that can serve up different mobile keywords for a page may be beneficial, it is far from the silver bullet many make it out to be.
The point here is to not think of this question — to deploy responsive web design or not — in terms of SEO impact first. It’s to think of it in terms of content and audience-friendliness first (which, by the way, is just good SEO … and which, ahem, is how Google wants you to do it anyway).
Think about your content and think about your readers. What’s the best way to display the content? What will your audience expect and enjoy the most? Committing to deliver the best experience possible for the greatest number of site visitors is going to be the most beneficial long-term SEO strategy.
And in most cases the way to do that is with mobile responsive web design.
When should you choose mobile responsive design?
Brian Gardner, founder of StudioPress and the man who spearheaded the initiative to begin making Genesis themes mobile responsive, believes that thinking of responsive web design as being necessarily “good” or “bad” for SEO is misguided.
The reality, as Gardner explains it, is that it’s subjective, that a site’s SEO is impacted by so much more than just the design strategy.
“Responsive design is more about readability than it is about SEO,” Gardner told me. “It is about how elements on a page are arranged and delivered to the user based on the device being used to access it.”
He summed it up this way:
What design best fits your content and your readers?
And for the majority of content creators, going with a responsive design — especially an out-of-the-box theme that is built to be responsive — is the most prudent decision.
A mobile-specific site, or even just a series of mobile-specific URLs, may be deemed the best bet for users, and thus, for SEO. But can you afford the development cost? The answer depends on your situation. (And you better be sure that the bang for your buck will truly be there.)
What doesn’t depend on the situation is whether a responsive site will provide a better, cleaner experience for mobile users. It will. It may not be ideal in all situations, but 99 times out of 100, it will be better.
Creating a mobile-specific site also takes time. If being mobile-specific is worth the cost and the time, and your content demands it, go for it. But in the absence of this specific criteria, why not spend way less to make your theme responsive in a matter of minutes?
Installing a responsive child theme on the Genesis framework will allow you to do just that.
You want your content to be shared. And when it is, you want the visitors who reach your site to have the same pleasing experience the original sharer had. This is much more likely to happen with a mobile responsive design than a mobile site with separate URLs.
Consider the case of The Guardian.
One of many large media sites that probably cannot go straight responsive — because of issues like ad serving — The Guardian’s website shows the problems that can arise without proper multi-direction device detection protocols in place. (Something you don’t have to worry about with responsive design.)
If someone is reading a story on a mobile device and then shares that URL on Twitter, the mobile URL is what gets distributed. Then, when another person clicks on the link from his or her 27-inch iMac, that person will have to try and read the story on the tiny mobile layout.
Do you think that might have on impact, even if subconscious, on the reader’s willingness to stay on the page, let alone share the page again or link to it? You bet. And any factor that decreases time on site or the likelihood of social sharing and linking has a negative SEO impact. On that, we can all agree.
The heart of the entire question this post is addressing is this: do you need a separate mobile site to convert?
We covered the exceptions above; but for most of you, the answer is no.
What you need is to give your mobile users as clean and convenient an experience as your desktop users so that your content can shine and your conversion strategy can go to work. That is exactly what responsive design enables you to do.
And at a minimal additional cost.
So … is mobile responsive design good for SEO or not?
In a word, yes.
In a few more words:
Yes, because it’s good for users. Mobile responsive design gives your audience a better mobile experience than a non-responsive design that simply serves up a bloated desktop view.
A better experience equals happy readers … which equals on-page engagement, linking, and sharing … which equals better SEO.
The only question you might need to ask is whether, in your specific case, your site fits within the minority of sites for whom a separate mobile site would bring important benefits.
Just remember to frame the question properly: ask not whether your design is good for SEO; ask whether your design is good for your content and your readers. The latter is what has the greatest impact on the former in the long run.
If you are in the small group of sites with stringent content display needs — and you’ve got a fat wallet — consider a mobile-specific site.
But if you’re like the rest of us, mobile responsive design is your best bet.