Why Matt Cutts Is Wrong About Responsive Web Design

Like most white hat SEOs in our industry, I respect and appreciate what Matt Cutts has done for SEO. So much so that, though I’ve never met the man, I recently donated to help him fight Cancer in the Dana Farber Boston Marathon challenge (you should, too). More than anyone, he has been a tireless referee and champion of those who play fairly in this game of gaining visibility in the search results that we call SEO.

When I first started doing SEO, there were no rules for gaining visibility in a way that was fair to clients, search engines and search engine users — but Matt changed all that, making Google’s guidelines crystal clear for all, and stepping in to help when there are gray areas.

Cutts has helped countless webmasters with his grab bag videos on the webmaster help channel on YouTube, which is why I subscribe to and recommend the channel to my team members and all beginner SEOs that I meet.

And this is why it’s so hard for me to see something like this (see video). Cutts’s recent webmaster central video on responsive Web design not only muddles what is already a confusing issue to webmasters but potentially encourages them to create content that is bad for search engine users.

Is Responsive Web Design Detrimental To SEO?

If you haven’t seen the video, Matt was asked if responsive Web design could be detrimental to SEO and in his response focused only on one issue: split link equity with mobile URLs.

To his credit, he did mention that mobile URLs are a valid way of serving mobile searchers, and that the split link equity that has been discussed is only hypothetical, and only possible if users don’t employ workarounds; however, he didn’t mention anything about the issues that myself and many other SEOs have mentioned as legitimate reasons why responsive Web design might not be the best solution for all businesses.

If you want proof that responsive Web design can be detrimental to SEO, do a search on your phone for the query [mobile games] and tell me how many responsive websites you see. I’ll save you the suspense: You’ll only need a finger to count it: 12,000 impressions per month for the term, and 34,000 impressions for [free mobile games], and the sites getting traffic from it are not responsive. Not getting relevant traffic is not SEO.

EA’s wap site is #1 in both smartphone and core search, and Zynga’s mobile games list is the only responsive site to appear in listing #4. Disney’s responsive site appears on the first page for the keyword [games], but they don’t show up for the keyword [mobile games]. This is not an accident. This is the fault of responsive Web design and adaptive content.

Responsive Sites Have Trouble Connecting Searchers With Platform-Specific Content

In its webmaster guidelines, Google says, “Think about the words users would type to find your pages, and make sure that your site actually includes those words within it.” The problem when it comes to mobile devices is that mobile users are often using different words to find content that’s usable on their phone. Many of them do generic [games] searches and find Flash games listed first that don’t work on their phones. They then refine the search using qualifiers like [mobile] and [Android] to get more relevant results.

In my experience, most responsive sites don’t address platform-specific content, and either make desktop pages available to mobile searchers or don’t acknowledge that a searcher might use different keywords and have different content needs when they’re away from their desk. This is usually intentional — many in the Web design and development world are fond of saying “there is no mobile Web” and believe that all content should be adaptive, or displayed for a user regardless of their device. However, it doesn’t help users find your content when you’re not using the words that they use when searching for it on a given device.

Disney’s responsive site doesn’t use the word “mobile games” on its site because the games can be played on a variety of devices.

Though many of them don’t, there are three ways that responsive websites can address platform-specific content:

  1. By creating platform-specific content and mentioning it on a responsive page. This is what Zynga does that is somewhat effective for them. The problem with this is that a user has to scroll through a number of irrelevant games before they find what’s right for them. And since mobile searchers are more fickle than desktop searchers, it’s unlikely they will have the patience for this.
  2. By creating a site like Disney with HTML5 games that also work on mobile devices. With this strategy, you can either ignore the fact that people looking for these call them mobile games, or you can mention that the games are also compatible with iPhones and other mobile devices, as Google’s Pierre Far recommended at SMX East this year.
  3. By using RESS to swap out platform-specific content. However, this is dynamic serving and not Google’s preferred method of mobile site configuration.

But, most sites that Google has ranked for [mobile games] are not pages like these. They are tightly-themed landing pages that contain only mobile games. If, as Matt Cutts said in the video, responsive Web design can’t be detrimental to your SEO, someone forgot to tell his search results because they are not showing popular responsive sites like Disney’s, which has more page authority and link equity than the top sites for this query, and also now has HTML5-based games that work on most smartphones, but does not use the term [mobile games] anywhere on their page.

Of course, many queries that smartphone searchers use are going to be the same as what desktop searchers use. But many are different and present new opportunities that sites with separate mobile URLs will best be able to capitalize on.

Responsive Sites Often Create Less Compelling Content

Another basic SEO principle that responsive design often violates is this oft-quoted “make great content” directive. Google’s SEO Starter guide (PDF) puts it like this: “creating compelling and useful content will likely influence your website more than any of the other factors discussed here,” making it the most important factor for SEO, in Google’s opinion. Yet, responsive websites with adaptive content are limited in the types of content they can deliver to users based on platform.

Sears’ mobile site, for example, dynamically serves users content based on their platform to enhance their user experience. Instead of presenting the same content that they would show to users on a laptop, Sears shows the specific app as a button on the page to increase downloads. More importantly, they use the smartphone’s access to a camera as an opportunity to present a scanner to a user to help them find the lowest price.

Because Sears understands that 84% of smartphone shoppers shop while in-store, they want to make it as easy as possible for them to find the lowest price at Sears. But this win for the business and for the user is not currently possible in responsive Web design without server side components.

Sears' mobile site uses dynamic serving to serve a price scanner and app downloads based on a user agent string, which is not possible in responsive web design as Google defines it.

Sears’ mobile site uses dynamic serving to serve a price scanner and app downloads based on a user agent string, which is not possible in responsive Web design as Google defines it.

As another example, the mobile site for Lowe’s includes in-store maps on their mobile location pages to help users find what they’re looking for quickly. It’s useful to Lowe’s customers because it helps them find what they’re looking for quickly (and most useful on the smartphones that are always with them). And, it’s useful to the business because it creates loyalty and helps a conversion; but, it’s difficult to do without serving different HTML or providing content to a searcher that they won’t be able to use on their device.

Lowes includes an in-store map on mobile store locator landing pages to help searchers find what they're looking for while in-store.

Lowe’s includes an in-store map on mobile store locator landing pages to help searchers find what they’re looking for while in-store.

Both are examples of creating compelling content that will delight users and differentiate them from competitors. And both are examples of things that wouldn’t be possible without serving different HTML through dynamic serving or dedicated mobile URLs.

There are a number of other ways responsive sites can be detrimental to SEO, and I’ve mentioned all of them before in my columns and in the press. I just finished an SEO audit of Disney Junior’s responsive website, which shows major problems with Disney’s responsive site when it comes to keyword usage, unusable content, slow loading pages and more.

It’s obvious from the video that Matt Cutts doesn’t read this column, so I would just refer him here, here and here for more potential issues with responsive Web design. At the very least, he could have mentioned the issue with responsive websites and feature phones, as Google doesn’t even recommend responsive Web design if your audience accesses the Web primarily through feature phones (as 158 million visitors did on Opera Mobile in December 2012 alone). As it is, it just looks like he didn’t do his homework before giving a very simplistic answer to a more complex question.

Beyond The Argument From Authority

Look, I’m obviously not afraid to disagree with people who are more popular than I am if I believe what they are saying is incorrect. I think my regular readers appreciate that. There will no doubt be many in our industry that will read the headline and not read this article because of who Matt Cutts is and who the author of this article is, but this is unfortunate.

I don’t have as many followers as Google’s head of spam, but the followers I do have probably have seen me quoted on mobile SEO in Search Engine Land, .Net Magazine, eMarketer, Marketing Profs or Forrester or seen me speak at SMX, SES or SIS over the last 8 years and follow me specifically because of what I’ve said about mobile SEO and responsive Web design.

Again, I respect Matt Cutts enormously and defer to him on every issue related to spam at Google. But if Mr. Cutts was honest with himself and did his research, he might understand that there can be problems with responsive Web design when it comes to SEO. I’m not holding my breath that we will see an admission of that from Google or Bing, but at least you don’t need to make the same mistakes that people listening to them on this issue without using their critical thinking skills do.

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

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

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About The Author: is the SEO Director at Vivid Seats, is an SEO veteran with more than 14 years experience both agency and in-house, and is a thought leader in permission marketing as a columnist and a frequent speaker on SEO and mobile marketing.



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  • TmWe

    Thanks for this page. Responsive design would be okay for some sites. But to suggest it is practical, suitable and optimal for every site is just fanciful.

  • Pat Grady

    Thank you, you’re making a lot of people think, examine, research, question, and re-assess!

  • Mike Hudson

    Bryson, given the perseverance over the last 12-24 months you’ve taken with this vocal choice-supportive bias against the overall benefits of a responsive approach vs the alternatives, I feel that you’re now suffering from an escalation of commitment when you’ve decided to challenge the recommendations of almost any respected expert who doesn’t support, or challenges your dogmatic-esque point of view.

    No one doubts that there are certain cases where responsive design simply isn’t the total solution for every scenario, and I do believe there is a voice to be heard that cautions against blind adoption without consideration, but having just read the links you referenced after the “Beyond argument from authority”, I can’t help but come away feeling that you’ve exhausted almost every logical fallacy to support your position(s), acting as a voice of doom, rather than a voice of caution or wisdom.

    My advice, if you’d care to take it rather than respond to it, is to read back over your articles, absorb the tone you write with, and consider making future discourses more positive, rather than adversarial.

  • http://www.tugboatgroup.com/ Tugboat Group

    Our first thought was who is Bryson Meuneir and why should we trust him over someone who actually works on Google’s interpretation of what makes a page relevant?

    Mr. Meunier essentially ignores everything Matt Cutts is talking about and latches on to another issue, and that is that, especially early on, responsive sites have had a tendency to not actually be full sites.

    By stripping out potentially useful content on the smaller screen version, we provide users with a dumbed down version of the site. On a well designed responsive site, all of the information is still there. It may be hidden behind some tabbed interface to control the flow of content, but a good responsive design doesn’t lack content. Contrary to this, we often find mobile sites frustrating to use because they do strip out useful content.

    Mr. Meunier also notes that a mobile site can provide an enhanced experience, such as Lowes, which has a store map, but that’s not to say we can’t enhance a user’s mobile experience with additional content. You can still use javascript to detect the browser then potentially add things like links to store maps and what note, but we think the best approach is to subtly inject a link to an app and then provide that information in a native app as opposed to the web, in that case you have way more control over what’s happening.

    As a user, when we’re on a desktop and someone sends us a mobile link, it’s a frustrating experience – we’re using something that’s not only not designed for our device, but also using a device that isn’t optimized to use that content. Mobile devices work the other way around in that when you visit a non-responsive site, they take into account things like font size and adjust it to a comfortable size. They also provide the ability to easily zoom in on sections so the user can focus on what they want.

    All in all, we’re really just scratching the surface of responsive web design and I think Mr. Meunier is looking at this from the angle, pointing at where responsive design has failed the user in the past and not acknowledging its potential to offer something greater and better for all web users. Matt Cutts’ argument about splitting page rank is very valid and until Google says they’ve managed to combine the two together, we prefer the fact that it’s more SEO friendly and see this as an opportunity to provide a better, consistent, more robust user experience.

    There are solutions that meet both parties’ desires, something like modify (http:// www . mobify . com/) which sits on your site and detects the user’s browser and screen size through javascript to offer up the appropriate version of the website, all while keeping things at one URL. One look at their client list demonstrates that it’s a very viable solution.

    Thanks for the opportunity to express our opinion on this matter.

  • jackduncan00

    I don’t understand this author’s consistent need to tell us how’s he’s disagreed with certain people or that he has less followers than so and so. Drop the inferiority complex and make your points. The entire end of the article, multiple paragraphs, is useless and childish.

    The premise of the article itself is ridiculous, he’s making a comparison between 2 approaches where there is no “inherent” issue. He cannot cover every example of poor implementation in a short video (on either m. sites or responsive sites). I agree with Mike Hudson’s comments as well…Post has little to do about helping people and more to do with ego-strokes for the author via ranting about the topic.

  • http://www.brysonmeunier.com/ Bryson Meunier

    Mike, I’m sorry you feel this way. There’s actually nothing
    dogmatic about my approach here as I’m not inclined
    to lay down principles as incontrovertibly true (https://www.google.com/search?q=dogmatic) but have made an argument
    against using responsive web design in all cases by using actual examples of
    responsive sites that violate basic tenets of SEO as defined by Google. If
    responsive web design as a methodology were able to address the issues that I
    and other SEOs have mentioned as shortcomings I would happily advise my clients
    and my readers to get on board. As it is I’ve seen no rebuttal from the
    responsive web design camp, and only dismissive comments such as yours.

    Ironically dogmatic (or “dogmatic-esque”?) is what I often
    get from responsive web design advocates who want a simple answer about mobile
    site configuration and is the fire that fuels people to believe Matt Cutts in
    all things SEO even when what he’s saying conflicts with other SEO guidelines
    that Google has published. I see myself as fighting dogma with evidence when
    necessary, not in trying to persuade others to my way of thinking because of
    the inherent rightness of what I’m saying or who I am. Maybe you and the 17
    SEOBook disciples who upvoted your comment should reconsider your definition of
    dogmatic before you make such baseless claims.

    I appreciate that you don’t disagree with the fact that RWD
    is not the right approach for every business but I don’t see the same consensus
    out there that you claim exists. In fact, when I said at the beginning of this
    year that I was not going to talk about responsive web design anymore people
    asked me specifically to keep talking about it because they didn’t think that
    alternative viewpoints were visible enough. So I listened to these people, kept
    talking about it, and these articles, both in Search Engine Land, Marketing
    Land and most recently Smashing Magazine have become my most popular and
    socially engaged posts ever. People seem to want this alternative viewpoint,
    especially as Google and other organizations advocate it in spite of the
    potential drawbacks to the user.

    As for my tone, Marketing Land wouldn’t publish it if they
    thought it were an attack piece. And honestly I’m amazed that anyone could read
    what I’ve written in this piece and take issue with my tone. I’m very
    complimentary to Matt Cutts in most of the piece and only take issue with his
    advice about responsive web design when it’s clear that it conflicts with what
    Google has said in the past on this issue.

    If you read the piece on my disagreement with Rand Fishkin
    you’ll see that Rand actually complimented my tone in his comments, saying “Despite
    that, you treated my comments with terrificly [sic] civil discourse. I’m
    thrilled to be in a field where that level of professionalism and camaraderie
    is the norm.” This is not someone who agrees with you that my tone is
    disagreeable.

    I was also respectful to Aaron Wall in our disagreement at
    first, but it soon became clear that he and his followers weren’t interested in
    arguing the evidence of brand bias (let alone defining how Google determines
    “brand” and why so many large brands did so poorly in search in spite of this
    bias) but simply in using logical fallacies like argument from authority to
    suppress the evidence that I presented. In spite of that, I never attacked him
    personally (as he did me), but simply defended my position. Learning
    more about him and observing his actions it’s clear to me that Wall’s definition
    of SEO and mine is very different, and that there’s not much about SEO that I
    will be able to learn from him and vice versa.

    Honestly, though, I’m not out here to make friends, or to
    gain more followers than more popular talking heads in SEO. I’m trying to help
    companies avoid alienating their users by following a design methodology that
    might not be right for their business. If I’ve done this at all then as far as
    I’m concerned there’s nothing about my tone to change.

    Do you frequently leave comments advising people not to
    argue with what you say? And this is not dogmatic?

  • http://responsivedesign.is/ Justin Avery

    This article comes across as just link bait.

    If you’re targeting the term “Mobile Games” and don’t use it at all in your page then you’re not going to rank for that term. Simple.

    If you want to rank for that term, use it.

    Matt Cutts isn’t wrong about what he said, he is very much accurate, this article is pointing out points that were not considered in the video post in question.

    There is no problems with RWD and SEO in the same way that there’s not problems with it and website performance. If you build a site badly, it will be slow, if you don’t target keywords, you won’t rank for them.

  • http://www.netspeaksolutions.com/ Stephen J Dow

    Amen Mike. This author has been providing his one-sided drivel for quite some time now. Truthfully, I feel he should no longer be allowed to publish his one-sided rubbish.

  • http://www.brysonmeunier.com/ Bryson Meunier

    Mike, I’m sorry you feel this way. There’s actually nothing
    dogmatic about my approach here as I’m not inclined
    to lay down principles as incontrovertibly true but have made an argument
    against using responsive web design in all cases by using actual examples of
    responsive sites that violate basic tenets of SEO as defined by Google. If
    responsive web design as a methodology were able to address the issues that I
    and other SEOs have mentioned as shortcomings I would happily advise my clients
    and my readers to get on board. As it is I’ve seen no rebuttal from the
    responsive web design camp, and only dismissive comments such as yours.

    Ironically dogmatic (or “dogmatic-esque”?) is what I often
    get from responsive web design advocates who want a simple answer about mobile
    site configuration and is the fire that fuels people to believe Matt Cutts in
    all things SEO even when what he’s saying conflicts with other SEO guidelines
    that Google has published. I see myself as fighting dogma with evidence when
    necessary, not in trying to persuade others to my way of thinking because of
    the inherent rightness of what I’m saying or who I am. Maybe you and the 13
    SEOBook disciples who upvoted your comment should reconsider your definition of
    dogmatic before you make such baseless claims.

    I appreciate that you don’t disagree with the fact that RWD
    is not the right approach for every business but I don’t see the same consensus
    out there that you claim exists. In fact, when I said at the beginning of this
    year that I was not going to talk about responsive web design anymore people
    asked me specifically to keep talking about it because they didn’t think that
    alternative viewpoints were visible enough. So I listened to these people, kept
    talking about it, and these articles, both in Search Engine Land, Marketing
    Land and most recently Smashing Magazine have become my most popular and
    socially engaged posts ever. People seem to want this alternative viewpoint,
    especially as Google and other organizations advocate it in spite of the
    potential drawbacks to the user.

    As for my tone, Marketing Land wouldn’t publish it if they
    thought it were an attack piece. And honestly I’m amazed that anyone could read
    what I’ve written in this piece and take issue with my tone. I’m very
    complimentary to Matt Cutts in most of the piece and only take issue with his
    advice about responsive web design when it’s clear that it conflicts with what
    Google has said in the past on this issue.

    If you read the piece on my disagreement with Rand Fishkin
    you’ll see that Rand actually complimented my tone in his comments, saying “Despite
    that, you treated my comments with terrificly [sic] civil discourse. I’m
    thrilled to be in a field where that level of professionalism and camaraderie
    is the norm.” This is not someone who agrees with you that my tone is
    disagreeable.

    I was also respectful to Aaron Wall in our disagreement at
    first, but it soon became clear that he and his followers weren’t interested in
    arguing the evidence of brand bias (let alone defining how Google determines
    “brand” and why so many large brands did so poorly in search in spite of this
    bias) but simply in using logical fallacies like argument from authority to
    suppress the evidence that I presented. In spite of that, I never attacked him
    personally (as he did me), but simply defended my position. Learning
    more about him and observing his actions it’s clear to me that Wall’s
    definition of SEO and mine is very different, and that there’s not much about
    SEO that I will be able to learn from him and vice versa.

    Honestly, though, I’m not out here to make friends, or to
    gain more followers than more popular talking heads in SEO. I’m trying to help
    companies avoid alienating their users by following a design methodology that
    might not be right for their business. If I’ve done this at all then as far as
    I’m concerned there’s nothing about my tone to change.

    Do you frequently leave comments advising people not to
    argue with what you say? How is this not dogmatic?

    All I can say to you who think Responsive Web Design is a
    magic bullet for SEO is good luck competing against sites that are more
    relevant in terms of keyword usage and have better content that is contextually
    aware.

  • http://www.brysonmeunier.com/ Bryson Meunier

    I love you too Stephen. It’s hardly one-sided when I say that responsive web design is appropriate in some cases, as I have been saying for years. If you’d care to respond to some of the issues I bring up with regard to RWD and SEO instead of insulting me and Marketing Land and all of the reputable places like Smashing Magazine, Forrester, eMarketer and Search Engine Land that have published me, perhaps it might be more constructive.

  • http://www.brysonmeunier.com/ Bryson Meunier

    So you think I’m intentionally pushing principles I don’t believe in to get more inbound links to a site I don’t own or get paid to work for? Seriously?

    Matt Cutts was asked if there are any SEO drawbacks to using responsive design and he did not mention potential SEO drawbacks. If I asked you if anyone has been president of the United States and you neglected to mention any of the 44 people who have held that office in the past, your answer would be wrong. By not mentioning responsive sites’ tendency to not use relevant keywords and responsive sites’ inability to address a user’s context (as being on a mobile device) to provide more useful content, Matt Cutts gave a wrong answer.

    And do you really think all that’s necessary to rank for a competitive term is to use it once on your page? Have you seen the search results? Tightly-themed content wins this race, as it is more relevant, and is more difficult for responsive sites to get right. Also, I really would like to hear how responsive sites can address a mobile user’s context in the same way that Lowe’s and Sears have in the examples above without using RESS or some other type of dynamic serving, which Google doesn’t prefer. If you can, I seriously would reconsider my stance against using responsive web design in all cases.

  • http://www.brysonmeunier.com/ Bryson Meunier

    I made that point because of comments like this in the comment before yours that are still happening in spite of my pointing out that they are technically a logical fallacy: “Our first thought was who is Bryson Meuneir and why should we trust him over someone who actually works on Google’s interpretation of what makes a page relevant?” But I’m glad that you’re above all that.

    I’m glad you don’t think there’s an inherent issue with either of these approaches but having been at the heart of this issue for the past several years I doubt you would be able to find a consensus on that. What gets mentioned most often is that dedicated mobile sites are flawed because of split link equity and responsive sites are better because they use one URL. My point is that it’s not that simple and responsive sites can have issues with SEO and user experience as well that are a result of things that responsive sites often don’t or simply can’t do.

    Really amazing that you think this is an ego booster for me to have people like you insult my integrity. It would be a lot easier for all of us if the solution that’s the most popular right now, responsive web design, was the solution that was always the best for the search engine user. But unfortunately until these issues that I brought up yesterday are addressed thoroughly and dismissed (as of course you didn’t do), I’m afraid it wouldn’t be honest for me to recommend this approach in all cases to my clients and my readers. Given that these posts pointing out shortcomings with RWD are always my most popular and socially engaged, I’m guessing my readers are getting something from them and don’t want me to stop.

  • http://www.brysonmeunier.com/ Bryson Meunier

    Also, Matt Cutts makes the videos and he can make them longer if he feels he has something to address. Clearly his omission wasn’t just a matter of being constrained by time or video tape.

  • http://www.webcanvasdesign.co.uk/blog Andy Cresswell

    Responsive design is only a issue for SEO if you limit your designers / developers hours or think web design costs £500.

    Invest in the right places and SEO will never be an issues.

  • Eileen Burick

    I found this headline and post to be misleading and inaccurate. My personal experience is that my boutique digital design firm just launched a redesigned “Responsive” site 2 weeks ago and now rank on page one of Google for our target keywords, “microsite examples.”

  • http://www.brysonmeunier.com/ Bryson Meunier

    No doubt responsive web design can be SEO-friendly if it fits the business objectives and user goals, Eileen. Never argued against that. My argument specifically is that there can be SEO disadvantages if it doesn’t match your business objectives and user goals. Unfortunately Matt Cutts didn’t mention anything about this in his answer, and that’s what I have a problem with. If responsive web design is working well for you, more power to you.

  • Lukáš Doležal

    Yes, when the content you want to deliver to you users is device-dependent, for example games mentioned in the article, responsive design is probably bad way. But if your content is device-independent, I don’t see there so many problems with SEO. Like local plumber or so probably wants to be searched with the same keywords both mobile and desktop :) Of course there are still issues not regarding to SEO like amount of the data downloaded via mobile connection etc.

  • http://www.jeffalytics.com/ Jeffsauer

    I’m sorry, but the explanation for why Matt might possibly be wrong does not justify the sensational title and headline. I just don’t understand the point of this article or feel that Matt Cutts is proven wrong by the examples given. The author should take the “controversial” approach of writing articles that add value to the marketing world.

  • http://www.brysonmeunier.com/ Bryson Meunier

    Posted this prior to the Thanksgiving break but the Disqus commenting system swallowed it. Apologies if it appears again at a later date.

    Hi Tugboat Group and thanks for your comments. I know people have different opinions on this issue and I appreciate when people address actual issues rather than personally insulting me, as you have (mostly) done. I take it you offer responsive web design as a service, which is why you felt compelled to respond here. Keep in mind that I don’t offer responsive web design or mobile web services of any kind, and am really only trying to help companies pick the right solution for them. I’m sure you care about your clients’ success so I would hope that you wouldn’t insist on implementing responsive web design for them if you found that dynamic serving or mobile URLs could provide a better user experience.

    You make some good points but I hope you’d consider the following:

    1) It’s true that sites with mobile URLs sometimes don’t offer fully featured content but that doesn’t mean that they can’t. I know Moovweb offers a platform that delivers all the content on the desktop site on a mobile URL with bidirectional annotations, but allows the site owner to create content that wouldn’t be relevant for desktop searchers, and to change the information architecture of the site if it’s best for the user. If I were asked whether this type of site or a responsive site without the ability to change the information architecture when necessary or offer tightly-themed content to searchers were better for SEO I’m afraid it would be a no-brainer. But yes, some (not all) sites with mobile URLs have this issue as some (not all) responsive sites don’t use platform-specific keywords when relevant. There are many problems that sites with mobile URLs often have that are well-documented, and I wouldn’t suggest that sites with mobile URLs that have these problems are good for SEO any more than I would suggest that responsive sites that have the problems I mention are good for SEO.

    2) With regard to providing platform-specific content through JavaScript, I’m sure you’ve read Google’s smartphone guidelines thoroughly and understand that the implementation you’re recommending is not one that Google prefers. Using JavaScript with server side components is considered dynamic serving, and Google has workarounds for that, as they do for mobile URLs and dynamic serving.

    3) Again, when someone sends you a mobile link it doesn’t have to be a frustrating experience. Redirects are sometimes an issue, but not one that’s insurmountable. If you redirect correctly this is a moot point. Responsive sites as Google prefers them, however, cannot by nature include platform-specific content unless they use workarounds and become a kind of site that Google doesn’t prefer.

    4) I hope we can solve these issues with responsive web design and make it something better for all users, as I hope we can solve common issues with mobile URLs. We won’t solve anything, however, by pretending that these issues do not exist with responsive sites.

    5) Matt Cutts has said, as Pierre Far and others from Google have said, that developing mobile sites at mobile URLs is a valid approach if it’s best for the user. He also said that the split link equity is also hypothetical (i.e. doesn’t exist in the real world) and is only possible if those sites don’t use bidirectional annotations. As I’ve said in Marketing Land in the past, your chances of getting hit by Bigfoot riding a Sharknado are greater than the chances of you not appearing in search results because of mobile URLs.

    6) Mobify, or any solution that uses JavaScript and user agent detection is not Google’s preferred solution for mobile SEO and is no more or less valid than mobile URLs or dynamic serving. And I wouldn’t use a client list as validation for a product’s viability for positive SEO results. In an earlier column in Search Engine Land I mentioned a number of issues with one of the sites in their portfolio.

    Again, thanks for your comments and I’m sure that by acknowledging when there are issues with a mobile site configuration option we’ll all be able to find the solution that is best for our clients, search engines and search engine users.

  • http://www.brysonmeunier.com/ Bryson Meunier

    Obviously you offer responsive web design as a service. Responsive web sites as Google defines them cannot offer platform-specific content, and won’t be able to no matter how much you pay the web designers. Also, it’s clear from the Healthcare dot gov fiasco here in the states that throwing money at a web site is not necessarily going to solve all of its problems. Better to approach it with the user in mind from the beginning, and scope the redesign to best serve the user’s needs. This might be with a responsive redesign, and it might not.

  • http://www.brysonmeunier.com/ Bryson Meunier

    Jeff, if you read most of my articles you would know that they’re not controversial. This one’s actually not even that controversial as it uses Google’s definition of good SEO as a basis for the argument. Do you really not understand that responsive sites as Google defines them cannot use platform-specific content and could as a result offer less useful content than responsive sites? And that this contradicts Google’s statement that “creating compelling and useful content will likely influence your website more than any of the other factors discussed here”? For many companies that want to provide the best user experience to mobile searchers, understanding this point can bring them more qualified traffic from search, which many would argue brings value to those in the marketing world who are brave enough to buck trends and do what’s best for the user. As I said earlier in the comments, Matt Cutts was asked if there were any problems with responsive web design from an SEO standpoint and didn’t mention any of the problems that have been discussed in the past. This would be similar to someone being asked if anyone has been president of the United States and neglecting to mention any of the 44 people who have held that office. If you’re asked to give a list of known entities and fail to do so, you have given a wrong answer. Nothing controversial about that.

  • http://www.brysonmeunier.com/ Bryson Meunier

    Justin, I saw your follow up comment before Disqus swallowed it and I would encourage you to post it again if you can. Most of it as I recall was a lot of the same stuff that’s posted here but I wanted to mention two things 1) I’m not making this adversarial. I’m taking issue certain things about a popular movement in web design and development and people like you who offer it as a service to your clients are seeing it as adversarial because it seems to contradict what you’ve told your clients about responsive web design and SEO in the past. But chances are it probably doesn’t. I’m saying responsive web design can be fine if you consider the user, which is what Google has said in the past, but is not what Matt Cutts said in his video. If you are offering user-friendly, fast-loading responsive web design for a site that does not have vastly different search behavior across platforms, does not target users outside of the US, Canada and the UK, and cannot offer mobile-specific content to address the user’s context, what I’m saying here probably has no bearing on responsive web design’s effect on SEO. But if you can offer something valuable as Lowe’s and Sears have through separate HTML, and if you have vastly different search behavior across platforms and could benefit from a platform-specific information architecture, then responsive web design probably isn’t the best bet for SEO. This isn’t anti-responsive web design. It’s pro-user, which I’m sure you are too. I was just surprised that Matt Cutts didn’t mention anything about it in his video, as I’ve been talking about responsive web designs that aren’t user-friendly for a while, and Google supports other mobile configurations when responsive web design isn’t right for the user, which implies that responsive web design isn’t always the best solution for SEO.
    2) I’m not talking about the mobile context as Josh Clark and others define it. I agree that it’s difficult to assume a user’s physical context correctly from device usage as most smartphone usage is done at home. When I define the mobile context it is first of all defined by technologies that one platform might have access to that the other doesn’t (e.g. Flash on desktops and laptops but not smartphones, GPS on tablets and smartphones but not desktops, etc.) and secondly defined by a user’s queries based on their platform. As I showed recently in Smashing Magazine, mobile searchers mostly aren’t looking for coloring pages on their smartphones because most of them don’t print from their smartphones. A site like Disney Junior might serve a searcher better by offering the content, but by giving mobile searchers more explicit directions on how to print, or by making the option less prominent in their navigation. This message doesn’t resonate with people as much as if I put on a toy space helmet and claimed I knew the future, but it works for users better than applying the same information architecture and keywords to a site even when it makes it less relevant to users on a different platform.

    I appreciate your comments, even when your opinions differ from my own. I’m trying to facilitate a conversation here that foregrounds the user, not one specific movement. A lot of the reaction I’m getting is adversarial because it’s a popular movement, and Matt Cutts is a popular icon who is generally assumed to be infallible when it comes to SEO. When you point out that he’s contradicting what Google has said before about SEO, many people don’t like to hear that, and you get a lot of the comments that we’re seeing here. I’m really just trying to help by providing a different perspective. You’re free to do with this information whatever you see fit.

  • http://www.webcanvasdesign.co.uk/blog Andy Cresswell

    I dont offer responsive web design as a service, Its included free for every single one of my clients.

    From my experience many web design firms have no clue what so ever, they charge thousands and thousands of dollars / pounds for sub par websites. This normally happens because they got lucky and scored a big name company in the not to distant past.

    Splitting domain authoirty between a mobile and desktop url is just plain stupid imo.

  • http://www.brysonmeunier.com/ Bryson Meunier

    I didn’t say you offered it as a separate service. It’s worse if you offer it automatically without thinking about whether it makes sense for the user. You’re not splitting domain authority unless you use a dotmobi domain, but not even then if you use bidirectional annotations. Google has said a number of times that separate HTML is a perfectly valid way to build mobile sites if you use workarounds, including in this video. In cases where you can provide a superior user experience without responsive web design, why wouldn’t you? You lose nothing if you employ workarounds, and you could get more links and shares in the process.

  • http://www.webcanvasdesign.co.uk/blog Andy Cresswell

    There you go again assuming things Bryson, where did i say that i dont asses my clients situation and design and develop accordinly?

    You seem to have a very strong opinion.

  • http://www.brysonmeunier.com/ Bryson Meunier

    “I dont offer responsive web design as a service, Its included free for every single one of my clients.” If you don’t do responsive web design for all of your clients, don’t say that you do. Nothing wrong with having strong opinions if they’re supported by evidence. Have a great day.

  • http://www.webcanvasdesign.co.uk/blog Andy Cresswell

    That is just it, everyone commenting has pointed out you are wrong and i don’t see any real evidence at all, infact I just see a load of blog spam ment for one thing, link bait.

    You just try to bash matt cutts who knows more then you about RWD and its effects on SEO.

    Have a nice day.

  • Irwin

    It’s too late. Google already implemented the enhanced campaign in which it has something to do with responsive web design and Matt Cutts will have to support that direction. Which also means sacrificing the truth behind responsive web design.

  • Kyle Breckenridge

    My problem with most of what you said, as with a lot of posts I see around the internet is pretty simple. Bad code and design is bad code and design. Almost all of your points come down to the simple fact that most people and companies don’t take the time to fully plan out the full project. There was a whole lot of “this could do this” and “that could mean that”. Really disappointing, especially since posts on here and search engine land are constantly repeated to me by people who don’t fully understand all the technologies and methodologies at play, and therefore come out of this article saying things like “Responsive Design is bad!!!” Is that your fault? No, but your audience is certainly something you should take into consideration and make sure your readers are well aware that Responsive design is an interesting, valuable, and extremely useful.

  • http://www.brysonmeunier.com/ Bryson Meunier

    Kyle, I’m not sure you’re responding to what I wrote or to some general anti-responsive web design piece I didn’t, as you didn’t reference anything from my post in your comment. I will disagree with you that any of my points come down to responsive web design that’s not fully planned out, as my two points were faults with responsive web design as a methodology, not with a specific implementation of it. It is true that responsive web pages are not as tightly themed as platform-specific pages because they have to list every operating system that it might be relevant to, even when it’s not relevant to the searcher that’s viewing it. And it is true that responsive web sites, as Google defines them, cannot deliver specific content to specific user agents, even when it provides a better, more compelling, user experience. I’ve been very clear here and in my other writings on the subject that responsive web design can provide a positive user experience if the audience’s needs call for it, but if they don’t then not only is responsive web design not interesting, valuable and extremely useful for that client, it’s bad for the user and your business. As a designer who build sites for users, including users of search engines, you should be building sites that are best for the user regardless of methodology, and I’m sorry to say that responsive web design often isn’t as user-friendly or as competitive as alternative mobile configurations.

  • Gavin

    I understand your argument but some of your theories are a bit too in-depth. Not a lot of people will go back and search again in a special way for a term. But the main fact here is that I bet most people here would agree that they would prefer to use a responsive website over a non-mobile optimised website any day for whatever reason. I build, wap sites, responsive and just normal desktop sites on a developer and designer level for e-commerce. Sites that have a mobile optimised page converts more and also the visitors stay on the page for longer. I can’t tell you how stressful it is trying to pinch and zoom or having to enlarge text just to read.

    From just that last sentence you can see why Google (Matt Cutts) prefers mobile (responsive) sites over the rest.. there’s no redirects and… the user stays on the page longer. Which means your delivering the best user experience possible.

  • http://www.brysonmeunier.com/ Bryson Meunier

    Gavin, thanks for your comments, and I completely agree as a user that mobile friendly sites are preferable to desktop sites that require more work for the searcher. Many of the responsive case studies that are released that show an increase in conversions and engagement start from a site that’s not mobile friendly and are pretty impressive in that respect. I would prefer a responsive site over one that’s not mobile friendly, and in cases where the site is a blog or news site, a responsive site may be all that’s necessary. But Matt Cutts did say not to worry about SEO problems with responsive web design, and on that point I disagree. Responsive web design as a methodology does not allow for more than one information architecture, which may not be the best configuration for the searcher, and the methodology does not create tightly themed pages which do well in search. In some cases this is the best user experience possible and webmasters who are concerned about SEO and responsive web design should be taking these things into consideration instead of pretending that they don’t exist.

    Also, redirects aren’t an issue with skip redirect in Google, as bidirectional annotations get the mobile searcher to mobile URLs with no redirect and put the site on par with responsive sites or dynamically served sites in terms of speed and UX.

    Philosophically I’m not opposed to responsive web design as a methodology. I just think there are better alternatives in many cases, and that webmasters should be aware of these alternatives before they make the mistake of going responsive when it’s not the best solution for the user or SEO.

  • BTcraw

    It is very easy to serve some content just for mobile users with responsive design. With CSS you can control which HTML blocks should appear on which device category, hence you can display the “mobile quicklinks” or a link to “in store maps” just to the mobile users. As this is only text information it won’t bloat the loading times of websites.

 

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