Responsive Design vs Mobile Site – Google’s Viewpoint

Since the dawn of smartphones, ‘Mobile SEO’ has been debated throughout the industry: Which is best for helping your website to rank well in Google and give the user the best experience possible – A separate mobile site or a responsive design? There are pros and cons to both, and it really depends on the purpose of the site. However, Google has now declared their love for responsive design.

When re-designing some of their sites in order to optimise them for mobile devices, Google weighed up the options:

Creating two sites would allow us to better target specific hardware, but maintaining a single shared site preserves a canonical URL, avoiding any complicated redirects, and simplifies the sharing of web addresses.”

Google also stated that they wanted to fulfil the following three guidelines when re-designing their sites:

  1. Pages should render legibly at any screen resolution
  2. Only mark up one set of content, making it viewable on any device
  3. Never show a horizontal scrollbar, whatever the window size

So, it seems clear that they prefer responsive design over a separate mobile site. Whether this preference means that responsive designs are better for ranking well in search results however remains to be seen. As stated, there are no duplicate content issues with responsive designs, but they can be a lot slower to load on mobile devices which is thought to negatively affect rankings. In terms of linking – a large ranking factor in Google search results – having two separate sites is definitely not ideal as any link value will potentially be split between the mobile and desktop site.

To reinforce these views , a Google employee, posted the following on Google+:

  • Mobile sites are often lesser versions of desktop sites, and may exclude some content completely. It’s really hard to make sure the mobile version is well-maintained when it’s a separate site.
  • Sites who are interested in ranking well in Google don’t have to worry about canonicalization issues. There’s only one URL, so webmasters don’t have to worry about some people linking to the mobile version, and others to the desktop version.
  • Many sites are terrible at managing redirects. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to visit a link to an article on my phone and been redirected to the site’s mobile homepage instead of the correct article. That’s incredibly frustrating, and causes me to abandon that site in a heartbeat. Slightly less frustrating is visiting a mobile link on my desktop and not being redirected to the desktop version.

Clearly, canonicalisation issues are particularly important – both for SEO and usability – and utilising responsive design is the best way to avoid it. However, Google ends their article with some advice:

It’s worth bearing in mind that there’s no simple solution to making sites accessible on mobile devices and narrow viewports. Liquid layouts are a great starting point, but some design compromises may need to be made … Remember that 25% of visits are made from those desktop browsers that do not currently support the technique [media queries] and there are some performance implications.

So, it’s up to you and your business to decide whether the benefits of having a separate mobile site outweigh the negatives. It may be that you can’t afford to re-design your entire site to make it responsive, or that you feel customers using their mobiles have very different needs from desktop users in terms of gathering information or performing certain tasks.

Either way, responsive design doesn’t look like it is going anywhere – especially as Google has now jumped on the bandwagon – so if you are looking to re-design your site and want it to be both search engine and user friendly, a responsive design should definitely be a consideration.

Some examples of responsive design at Google:

www.google.com/about/
www.google.com/goodtoknow
www.google.com/culturalinstitute
www.google.com/events/sciencefair
www.google.com/intl/en/chrome/devices
picasa.google.com

What do you think? Does Google adopting responsive design mean that it’s a better option for SEO? Let us know in the comments.

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  1. Mark - Very interesting, thanks for writing this. I have to agree, I really like responsive designs, I just find them difficult …
  2. Responsive Design vs Mobile Site - Google's Viewpoint | Création site web mobile | Scoop.it - [...] Since the dawn of smartphones, 'Mobile SEO' has been debated throughout the industry: Which is best for helping your …

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