Responsive Web Design Isn’t Meant To Replace Mobile Web Sites

The title of this article is my opinion, but also the opinion of the founder of responsive web design.

At the end of his book, Responsive Web Design, Ethan Marcotte says very clearly, “most importantly, responsive web design isn’t intended to serve as a replacement for mobile web sites”. He really leaves it up to the designer to determine whether or not responsive design makes sense for their project.

So why are so many designers, SEOs and search engines so gung-ho about responsive design these days? Whether it’s Angie Schottmuller, John Mueller, Barry Schwartz, iCrossing, Brian Klais, Jill Kocher, Kerry Dean, Bing, or countless yes men, it’s hard to swing a cat on the web these days without running into a gaggle of gurus singing the praises of responsive design.

Design Once, Format For Different Devices

If you’re just joining us, responsive web design is a design philosophy and front end development strategy that makes desktop websites accessible on a number of devices through the use of fluid grids, flexible layouts and media queries. Instead of serving your users multiple URLs depending on the device that they’re accessing your site with, responsive web design allows webmasters to design a site once and format it differently for many devices.

The benefits are obvious to many. Because sites can be designed once and reformatted, responsive web design eliminates the need to maintain multiple sites, which can sometimes decrease dramatically the costs of going mobile. Responsive web design also makes content available on a single URL, which some SEOs cite as a solution to a duplicate content problem.

Though with Google’s skip redirect/Old Possum update in December, it’s a duplicate content problem that doesn’t exist, because relevant mobile sites that are properly redirected will be shown to smartphone searchers now regardless of link equity. And honestly, even before then Google did a decent job of surfacing mobile sites for mobile queries.

Proponents also cite less of a need to take up resources hosting two versions of the same content.

Responsive Web Design Doesn’t Fit All Needs

Yet responsive design, as Marcotte put it, is not always the right answer. Whether responsive web design can work for your project really depends on user goals, he says:

“As we were planning the site, it helped us to think of the desktop site as the ‘pre-game’ experience. The mobile site, on the other hand, was really intended for the night of the event, for attendees who were physically present. So the goals of the two different contexts couldn’t have been more distinct.

With that in mind, it definitely would have been possible for us to include all the markup for each context on every page of the site. If we’d taken that route, every page would have had the regular ‘desktop’ content marked up in its HTML, as well as the map, directions, and voting information for the mobile site. And with those two modes baked into every HTML page, we could have used some combination of media queries and display: none to deliver the two sites to the right devices.

But that wouldn’t have been the right approach. We real­ized it would have been irresponsible of us to ask our visitors to download all that extraneous HTML, marking up content that they’d never see, much less benefit from. And I don’t say that just out of concern for mobile visitors: regardless of whether our visitors were on a phone-or a desktop-based browser, we would have been penalizing them with extra markup.”

Just because you can put all of your content on one URL doesn’t mean you should. It can be “irresponsible” (his words) to burden the user with extra markup that’s not intended for their context. In some cases, providing mobile-specific content to a mobile user is a better solution than reformatting it with responsive web design.

Sometimes, A Dedicated Mobile Site Is The Answer

Earlier this month in Search Engine Land I presented one such use case in which has identified searcher needs for their mobile website to be very different from their desktop website. They then elected to host the mobile home page on a separate URL in order to serve the needs of the mobile or smartphone searcher.

eSurance and State Farm did the same thing with their mobile sites, as it was clear that their users need accident resources and towing help that desktop users don’t need.

There’s nothing wrong with this from a design, usability or SEO perspective. As long as the proper redirects are put in place for feature phone and smartphone users, as well as feature phone and smartphone Googlebot, these sites will appear in search results when users are searching for them. And since the content is tailored to their needs with the keywords that they’re using, it’s more likely that the user will be engaged with this content, which can only help in search results.

There’s a time and place for responsive design, but it’s not every time and every place. Even the founder of the responsive design movement knows this. Advocates of responsive web design should put it in perspective, and use it when it makes sense. When it doesn’t make sense, mobile web sites with mobile URLs can also be a good solution.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Mobile Marketing | Google: Mobile | Mobile Marketing | Mobile Marketing Column


About The Author: is the Director of SEO Strategy at Resolution Media, and a primary architect of Resolution Media’s SEO product and Clear Target Digital Behavior Analysis. You can follow him on Twitter @BrysonMeunier

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  • Jason Greeno

    Interesting stuff. Could you explain how the use of a second website, in this case a mobile site, is better than one site with good modular design and strong funnels? 

  • Bryson Meunier

    Thanks, Jason. I thought I did that in the article when I mentioned how in many cases mobile users are going to have different goals than desktop users, and a single web site is unlikely to have the content necessary to meet those goals. As I mentioned, Walgreens, State Farm and esurance have mobile web sites that address the mobile context, not just reformat content not made for a mobile user, and that’s why they’re better than a single web site that tries to be everything to everyone all the time. James Pearce, Facebook’s mobile developer relations head, said it better than I did here if you want more of a design than an SEO perspective:  

  • Mike Mai

    Responsive is one of the MANY mobile web solutions. Of course it doesn’t replace anything. What solution you choose depends on your needs. Responsive is most suitable for blogs, editorial sites, or anything that requires to display the exact same content on all devices, just laid out differently. A separate mobile website is most suitable for marketing website where you’d want to edit down your messages to be short and sweet, meaning not displaying the exact same content. And lastly, a mobile web app is most suitable for a product obviously (facebook, twitter, linkedin, ect.).

    The downside of responsive is that it doesn’t optimize (user experience, SEO, and load time) for each specific device, or at least not very well at this moment. But if we are brushing responsive off solely on the the terms of SEO, we’d be too stupid. Because SEO is evolving rapidly due to the rise of mobile. There’s just no absolute rights or wrongs right now.

    What I don’t like is that responsive is just a buzzword, like HTML5, lots of people hype it up without knowing what the heck it is. Responsive doesn’t fit everybody. If you truly care about your mobile presence, do research and figure out your needs, then you’d be able to pick the most suitable solution.

  • Bryson Meunier

    Mike, thanks for your comment. I wrote this article as a reaction to the trend in the SEO industry toward responsive web design, and the slogan “one URL to rule them all”, which is not appropriate in all cases. As I say in the article, there is a time and a place for responsive web design, but it’s not every time and every place. As I explained in my Search Engine Land column recently, I actually recommend a hybrid solution that uses mobile URLs when appropriate and media queries when appropriate. My problem, and yours it seems, is with those who recommend responsive web design as the best solution in SEO and web design, and treat mobile sites as a thing of the past. In fact, mobile sites can be very powerful for SEO and user experience if done correctly. You just have to take the time and resources, as you say, to figure out what your site and your users actually need.

  • Leonardo Lima

    Bryson, I think you made a good point about not serving content that is meant for different context or device. With that in mind, I totally agree on making a dedicated mobile site. But don’t forget that even making a dedicated mobile site requires you to use responsive web design. Think about the variety of screen sizes, resolutions, viewport and on top of that, orientation changes. Those are things we have to consider even making a dedicated mobile site. Now, going back to the serving the right content to the right context, there is another point to be considered. If you use conditional loading, depending of the context of course, you don’t have to make that dedicated mobile site. Have a look at this article:

  • Bryson Meunier

    Leonardo, you make a good point about responsive web design not being completely at odds with a dedicated mobile site. I was reacting to many people who have characterized it as such, but your point is well taken.

    Mobile first responsive design is definitely preferred to reformatting a desktop site, as you at least have the content on your site in order to display. I still prefer a dedicated mobile site from a usability perspective, as people who follow a link to a URL might not see the content that they were promised, depending on what platform they’re accessing the site from. But it is definitely a step up from the reformatting of desktop content that is unfortunately very popular among designers and SEOs right now.

  • Keith Bloemendaal

    I love responsive design… for blogs. But for clients like my homebuilder client, a mobile site/app is more appropriate. 

  • Pali Madra

    I agree with Bryson that responsive design is cannot be treated as a fail safe method for having a mobile website.

    I had a couple of questions which I wanted to clarify 
       a) Does it mean that a mobile optimized website and the desktop optimized website should have different back-end since they would have to be optimized for different keywords (in most cases)?
       b) Should mobile optimized websites focus on local search optimization as most mobile search users would seek a business near the place where they are searching from?

    This is an interesting ‘new development’ (if I may say) in the field of SEO and has got me excited as it lends a different perspective to the whole SEO approach.

  • Leonardo Lima

    I’d like to highlight that even dedicated mobile sites should have responsive (flexible) layout, fonts, images, etc… because of the gazillion of mobile screen sizes out there. Now, concerning digital marketing: Dedicated mobile sites are good for SEO coz of the extra quality content but they are not 100% reliable for content sharing, which is as important as SEO I’d say. Let me try to explain my point with my humble Brazilizan English: User “X” accesses a dedicated mobile site “S”, finds a fantastic recipe and recommends that recipe via facebook to his/her mother, and 5 other aunts that don’t have a smartphone and only access the internet from their desktop. Can you see where I’m trying to get? A 320px X 480px page in a 1200px X 800px screen wouldn’t look very good.

    Guys, I’m not against dedicated mobile sites or apps, but I want you not to forget about these little important facts.

    Bryson, thanks very much for creating this amazing discussion!

  • Tim Macchi

    Bryson, I totally agree with the pragmatic approach to responsive design. Its not the Holy Grail that some say it is. Actually, thats what I titled a blog article I wrote on the topic (

  • William Clarke

    Hi Bryson, in my opinion the features of responsive web design in mobile website can help a online business to great extent. So i think combination of these two feature should be essential to improve the performance of an ecommerce website.


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