Is Adaptive Web Design Or RESS Better Than Responsive Design For SEO?

Kudos to all of you smart marketers for keeping me on my toes. At SES San Francisco last week, I was asked three good questions that I hadn’t heard before and wasn’t really prepared to answer. The title of this post is one of them: When it comes to SEO, is adaptive Web design or RESS (Responsive Web Design + Server Side Components) better than responsive Web design?

If the person who asked the question had phrased it as, “Is dynamic serving better than responsive Web design for SEO?” it would have been an easy question to answer. Unfortunately, with so many new terms being used to describe these modern Web experiences, it’s sometimes difficult to keep them all straight.

It also doesn’t help when authorities in the space use the terms “responsive Web design” and “adaptive Web design” interchangeably when they’re really not the same. Even Google Search serves [responsive Web design] results with [adaptive Web design] results, since “adaptive” and “responsive” are synonyms outside of Web design.

So, what’s the difference between adaptive Web design, dynamic serving, and RESS? Adaptive Web design and RESS are popular design terms for what Google calls “dynamic serving.” Essentially, all use server-side components (as opposed to a client-side component like CSS, which responsive Web design uses) to deliver content to mobile users.

Adaptive Web design, as far as SEOs are concerned, changes to fit a predetermined set of screen and device sizes. When a user requests content from a server, it detects the device that they’re on and serves them separate HTML that is designed specifically for that platform or device. It uses server-side components to deliver this HTML, but the adaptive layouts use fixed break points instead of fluid grids, and the site is typically fully designed for the user agent it detects, rather than only serving different components to users on different devices. One example of adaptive Web design is Screaming Frog’s website, which offers different site designs when you resize the browser.

Screaming Frog’s site is an example of adaptive web design — a type of dynamic serving.

RESS, on the other hand, is responsive Web design with server side components, which uses fluid grids for layouts. it detects the searcher’s device server side and delivers features that are optimized for the user of that device. It’s not a full redesign, but components like giving a scan prices button to users with compatible phones would be one way to utilize RESS. Notre Dame’s new home page serves as a good example of a website employing RESS.

Both of these differ from responsive Web design in that responsive Web design (as Google defines it) is “a setup where the server always sends the same HTML code to all devices and CSS is used to alter the rendering of the page on the device using media queries.” No request to the server is made, as everything is done client-side.

Now that we’re clear on what these similar concepts are, can we say that dynamic serving is better for SEO than responsive Web design?

I know my colleague Michael Martin is a big proponent of dynamic serving and prefers it to responsive Web design or mobile URLs for SEO. I agree that it can be a great solution to a lot of the issues SEOs have with responsive Web design. Namely, it can be much faster with less work, and you can serve components based on the device’s native functionality that you wouldn’t be able to serve with responsive Web design. You can also do it at a single URL, which makes the bidirectional annotations workaround unnecessary.

The problem is, it’s still not Google’s preferred method of smartphone configuration, and there are still workarounds that need to be implemented if you want to make adaptive design or RESS work for SEO.

Namely, Google recommends that you use the Vary HTTP header to let Googlebot know that the site should be crawled by smartphone and mobile Googlebot. This can cause some additional traffic to your server if you have a content delivery network (CDN) like Akamai, as Akamai doesn’t cache different versions of the site based on user agent and will send the traffic back to your servers.

Google has said this should still be a best practice in spite of this, if a webmaster decides to use dynamic serving; but webmasters who do this with a CDN that doesn’t cache different versions of a web page based on the Vary header should be prepared for an influx of traffic to their own servers.

So, there are drawbacks to dynamic serving, as there are to all of the three mobile configurations that Google supports. But unlike responsive Web design, it can load quickly without a lot of work and display a version of the site that is optimized for a specific device, including mobile keywords and features that work in context. And unlike dedicated mobile sites on separate URLs, there’s no chance of Google splitting link equity because of a mobile site. (Although, as I mentioned earlier, the risk is so low that it’s basically a wash in my book.)

So, if you really want to pay attention to the mobile user experience and serve contextually relevant content to better serve your user and your business, yes, dynamic serving through RESS or adaptive Web design (or mobile URLs) is better for SEO than responsive Web design. There are still workarounds for both, however, so if you can make responsive Web design work well for your users and your business (which isn’t easy, as I’ve said many times before), it’s better to do that than adaptive Web design or RESS.

Thanks to the audience in San Francisco for the question. Keep the great questions coming when I see you at the Getting Mobile SEO Right session during the first day of SMX East!

About The Author

Bryson Meunier
Bryson Meunier 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.