Responsive Is The McDonald’s Cheeseburger Of Mobile SEO
In the past, I have pointed out the shortcomings of responsive Web design (RWD) when it comes to SEO, but I’ve always been more of a realist. Responsive can be a good solution for SEO if it makes sense for your users and business goals.
But that doesn’t mean that by going responsive there are no risks for SEO. A business owner has to weigh the potential SEO risks of a responsive solution with potential SEO risks from the other site configurations that Google supports. But in my mind, there are potential risks (and potential benefits) from all three.
I would even go so far as to say that it is possible for a skilled webmaster or SEO practitioner to mitigate all SEO risks associated with dynamic serving and mobile URLs. But only dynamic serving (including RESS) and mobile URLs allow the option of providing separate content for searchers when it’s appropriate. As such, it can be a less risky SEO solution overall for a skilled practitioner.
While not many were of this opinion when I spoke out against responsive at the height of its popularity three years ago, I have seen many since question Google’s preferred mobile configuration strategy for smartphones, including Brian Massey of Conversion Sciences in his great Marketing Land article last month.
Michael King of iPullRank and Mitul Gandhi of seoClarity both said recently in panels I’ve spoken on with them that they would prefer mobile URLs for SEO, since bidirectional annotations work so well today and there’s no chance of splitting link equity.
The problem is, the majority of the advice online on this topic is written for the novice, including Google’s guidelines.
Breaking Down Responsive’s Alleged Advantages For SEO
Let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages commonly associated with these three configurations, including what Google cites as advantages of responsive Web design to see if any of these risks can’t be overcome by an SEO professional who wants to use one of the other configurations Google supports: dynamic serving or separate URLs.
1. Responsive is preferred by Google.
In its smartphone guidelines, Google does clearly say that “responsive design is Google’s recommended design pattern.” It lists it as one of three options that it supports, the others being dynamic serving and separate URLs.
Google also very clearly says that it doesn’t recommend responsive design for content served to feature phones:
Our recommendation for sites serving smartphone users is to use responsive Web design if possible. However, since feature phones do not have the capability to follow CSS media queries, webmasters wishing to serve feature phones would need to configure their sites to either use dynamic serving or separate URLs to serve the feature phone content.
Who uses feature phones to access the Web, right? Most people in the United States don’t, it’s true. Though the great majority of mobile phones out there are feature phones (60% according to Mary Meeker’s 2015 Internet Trends report), only 4.3% of the mobile Web traffic that StatCounter has seen over 90 days in the US doesn’t come from iOS or Android. When you look at worldwide traffic, however, that number shoots to 31.2%.
Some of this traffic could come from smartphones, as a browser like Nokia could be used by smartphones or feature phones. That is still a lot of people, though, as Opera Mini, which is a feature-phone-only browser, only has 0.01% market share in the US and 0.03% worldwide, but claims to have over 300 million users globally. To put that in perspective, there are 321 million people in the U.S., which is the third most populated country in the world.
CSS3 media queries, which power responsive design, are supported by 95.47% of browsers according to CanIUse.com, including later versions of Opera Mini. So there’s little risk involved here for most professionals. But the only way to make content that is accessible to smartphones and feature phones and follow Google’s guidelines is to use dynamic serving or separate URLs.
Many times when this Google recommendation is introduced, it is to imply that there is some sort of ranking benefit to using responsive Web design over other configurations, but Gary Ilyes of Google dispelled this myth at SMX West in March.
Ilyes said that Google may have been a little quick to endorse responsive Web design as its preferred solution for mobile SEO, saying that the company recommended it at the time because it worked well for them, and they believed that the solution would work well for almost everyone. He also said that webmasters do not have to use responsive for mobile, as the other mobile site choices work just as well.
2. No risk of duplicate content with responsive.
If you create a responsive site, it uses the same URLs, so Google doesn’t have to take the extra step of trying to determine whether the content is intended for mobile searchers or desktop searchers.
However, if you use separate URLs or dynamic serving, Google gives you workarounds to help specify the intended audience. For separate URLs, it’s bidirectional annotations. For dynamic serving, it is the vary: user agent HTTP header. If you use these workarounds, there is no risk of duplicate content.
3. No redirects with responsive to slow a page down or frustrate users.
Faulty redirects are a common mistake that Google sees often, and they only happen with separate URLs or dynamic serving. What’s more, they can add to a page’s load time, increasing the time a user has to wait to see the content he or she requested.
While all of this is true in theory, the reality of the situation is that even the best responsive websites don’t handle images correctly, and 69% of them take four seconds or more to load on a smartphone, according to a recent study. (Google recommends sites load above-the-fold content in less than a second on a mobile network.)
It’s very possible to fix this with more advanced techniques, but the poor performance of these top sites clearly shows that going responsive doesn’t guarantee fast loading times on mobile devices.
In fact, data put out by the Search Agency suggest that dedicated mobile sites are faster on average than responsive sites. So while it’s possible to make fast responsive sites, fast dedicated mobile sites are much more common.
And good SEO practitioners or developers should be able to make pages that load in less than a second, even if they’re using dynamic serving or separate URLs with redirects.
4. Google can index more pages with responsive, since it doesn’t have to crawl multiple sites.
While this may be true, using the workarounds should make it a moot point, since Google will understand which pages are duplicates and which are not. Plus, webmasters can use sitemaps and other methods to index more pages quickly, regardless of what configuration they use.
5. Responsive makes it easier for users to share and link to your content with a single URL.
This only applies to separate URLs, as dynamic serving uses single URLs. Google mentions this as one of the reasons it recommends responsive Web design, but properly implemented redirects should make it a moot point.
6. RWD helps Google’s algorithms accurately assign indexing properties to the page rather than needing to signal the existence of corresponding desktop/mobile pages.
OK, but again, there are workarounds that make this a moot point. If bidirectional annotations or the vary HTTP header are used, that also helps Google’s algorithms accurately assign indexing properties to the page, so responsive Web design has no clear advantage here.
7. Responsive requires less engineering time to maintain multiple pages for the same content.
If you have a content management system that allows you to create content once and publish on separate URLs, this is no longer applicable.
Clearly, if you’re a blogger hand-coding multiple pages, it’s easiest to do it with a responsive WordPress theme. But if you have to deliver to separate URLs or use dynamic serving, it’s not going to slow you down. And it’s not an inherent risk for SEO either way.
8. RWD reduces the possibility of the common mistakes that affect mobile sites.
Notice Google says “reduces” the possibility, not eliminates. Many of these common mistakes can happen just as easily on responsive sites (like unplayable content), and some of them are even more common on responsive sites (like slow mobile pages), according to the available data.
Plus, you have to remember that this is a list of common mistakes that Google sees, and one of the biggest reasons why most of them have to do with redirects and other problems with dedicated mobile sites is that dedicated mobile sites are much more common than responsive sites, with responsive sites accounting for only 18.7% of the top 10,000 websites, according to Akamai.
Most importantly, though, all of these common mistakes can be eliminated by a professional SEO practitioner or Web developer using any of these configurations Google supports, and not just responsive Web design.
Adaptive And Separate URLs Have Advantages Responsive Does Not
I agree with Google and others who promote responsive thinking that installing a responsive theme is the easiest way for most bloggers to make their content mobile-friendly. The average small business owner or webmaster who just wants to make their content mobile-friendly has basically one choice in my mind: responsive Web design.
Responsive is like the McDonald’s cheeseburger of mobile Web design and SEO: it’s cheap, most people like it, it fulfills the goal of filling you up, and even a 16-year-old with no other skills can’t screw it up that badly.
But the average small business owner or webmaster isn’t the only person doing SEO for their sites. For other people, there may be other options with fewer risks for SEO.
If the definition of risk is “possibility of loss or injury,” and there’s a possibility of losing organic traffic or revenue by implementing responsive Web design, then that is an SEO risk.
Though it’s more difficult, skilled SEO practitioners can eliminate common mistakes with mobile sites, regardless of what configuration they use. They can achieve content parity by providing adaptive content to multiscreen searchers and eliminating faulty redirects.
They can make their above-the-fold content load in less than a second. This then reduces the risk to the same level as with properly executed responsive Web design.
But what SEO practitioners have with other site configurations that they don’t have with responsive is:
- The ability to get feature phone searchers as well as smartphone searchers while still following Google’s guidelines.
- The ability to customize their content by platform to give searchers mobile content and keywords that address the fact that unlike desktop, over 17% of US and Canadian smartphone searches take place on the go or in-store, and their context often changes the keywords they use and search volume associated with it.
- The ability to use smartphone-specific features like GPS, voice, accelerometer, camera and device pairing to enhance the mobile searcher experience. You can do this with RESS, but this is a form of dynamic serving that Google doesn’t prefer.
So to use the analogy I made earlier, if responsive design is a McDonald’s cheeseburger, other configurations could be made into Le Burger Bouchon, from Thomas Keller of French Laundry fame. It can’t be made by everybody, and it takes awhile to get right. But for SEO, it can be a lot more satisfying when done to its full potential.