Responsive design is a way of building mobile websites serving the same HTML for all devices and using only CSS media queries to decide the rendering on each device. Ultimately it is one site for every screen, regardless if you shrink your browser or switch devices you will see the same version of the website.
In June 2012 Google stated in their guidelines for mobile SEO that responsive design is their preferred method of building mobile sites. However, there are quite a few arguments working against responsive design when thinking about SEO of pages created that way.
Sure responsive design is great because the website appears on all portable devices exactly in the same way as on a desktop and because it is displayed on the same URL on all devices all the links go to that one URL.
However with Google being able to understand which site should appear on a certain device regardless of the URL structure (thanks to the introduction of switchboard tags) the only argument giving responsive design superiority over other methods of mobile site building becomes easily undermined as well.
What then if not responsive design?
If mobile URLs (f.e. http://m.debenhams.com/) or dynamic serving (where the server responds with different HTML (and CSS) on the same URL depending on the user agent requesting the page) provides a better user experience, then Google does not suggest using site responsive design, but instead provides options to give you the same benefits of consolidated link equity on mobile URLs.
Google still support dynamic serving and mobile URLs if they are better for a user.
Responsive Design has been assumed to be the best solution because:
- It has been recommended by Google as their preferred way of building mobile websites as the industry best practice - one URL with the same HTML regardless of the device makes it easier for Google to crawl, index and organise the page.
- It offers great user experience - transitioning from mobile to desktop is nice and easy f.e. causal browsing for products in your free time can be finished in purchase done on the desktop when you return later to the desktop version of the page and easily locate found earlier on product.
- It makes managing SEO & content strategy easier - it saves us from having separate SEO& content campaigns.
- It preserves link juice and page authority -since there is one website for desktop and mobile the page preserves its original link authority, obviously separate mobile domains can also consolidate link authority when using rel="canonical" and rel="alternate" tags, but this is the simplest out of all of them all.
- It is easy to develop - the existing content of the website is styled to fit mobile browsers of various sizes.
When dynamic serving or mobile URLs is better for a user and superior to responsive design?
- When desktop website doesn’t have categories mobile searchers are looking for – if your page has got some serious site architecture issues and certain categories and pages are not easily accessible on the desktop page designing mobile equivalent of the page won’t help.
- When desktop website doesn’t use keywords mobile searchers are looking for - often mobile users are looking for local results, therefore it is important we adjust our mobile website to that types of searches accordingly and enhance mobile version of the website by commonly used local keywords such as for example ‘nearby’.
- When site speed is crucial for conversions on your site – responsive design requires more coding and therefore more time for the page to load and since speed is a ranking factor choosing responsive design especially for huge websites may be simply not the best option.
- When users primarily use feature phones – according to Google guidelines websites for users of featured phones (any other phone type than smartphone, still used across the globe) should not be built using responsive design.
- When user experience could be enhanced using mobile features not available on desktop (products which may be accessible only on a mobile, hence different version of the website is justifiable).
What has is the recommended solution: Dynamic serving or mobile URLs.
Both these solutions are equally good and one of them should be implemented opposed to the responsive design if they provide better user experience (in all the instances mentioned in the previous point).
The recommended solution depends however on individual to every page factors and therefore in some cases responsive design will be the best solution, whereas in some other instances dynamic serving or mobile URLs could be much better than responsive design. It really depends on the website in question.