Think back to the last time you paid a visit to a website you’d previously visited on a desktop from your smartphone. Your experience interacting with the site in question via a different device almost certainly fell into one of three categories: awful, ok or awesome. Now ask yourself, what exactly was responsible for your rating? If you’re anything like the other 271 million mobile device owners here in the U.S. (91% of whom keep their phones within arms reach 24 hours a day, seven days a week); your critical assessment probably depends on how good of a job that website did of serving itself to your smartphone.
If you landed on the same version of the website scaled and designed for your prior desktop visit, the experience was probably a little annoying. If you were redirected to an m.dot (mobile specific) version of the site that, as a result featured notably less information content than you were expecting, the visit was probably a bit frustrating. If, however, the website adapted itself to your device’s screen by reformatting its images, navigation and text size—thereby offering you the content information you were looking for in the best possible format, you were probably pretty pleased with your experience.
That last example describes both a responsive site design and an important truth for UX designers and SEO professionals alike. You see, Google’s search rankings determining algorithm does its best to assess websites just as you would. So when Google returns a site for a given search and you click in, then immediately click back out and away, your behavior negatively impacts Google’s opinion of that website.
In other words, designing your site so that if offers visitors a better user experience is a good SEO tactic.
Responsive Is Google’s Recommended Mobile Site Type
“Google recommends webmasters follow the industry best practice of using responsive web design, namely serving the same HTML for all devices and using only CSS media queries to decide the rendering on each device.” – Google
That’s Google doing you a favor; they’ve eliminated some ‘tea leaf reading’ from your search optimization needs. They’ve issued a series of pronouncements stating their “preference” for responsive mobile websites and describing how Google will deliver results to mobile/tablet users going forward. Google has flat out stated that responsive web design is their preferred mobile configuration and categorized responsive design as a mobile best practice. They’ve even stepped into the fray in a way they rarely directly do to A) end a burgeoning “Can Responsive Hurt Your SEO” debate by releasing a “No, Responsive Can’t Hurt Your SEO” video; and B) declare that sites that don’t meet their mobile standards won’t rank well in search.
Yes, you read that correctly. Google, the company that controls roughly 67% of all search related Internet traffic, has a clearly stated preference for ranking and delivering responsive websites: but why do they?
That’s actually pretty simple. Unlike m.dot sites (which is a duplicate of your site living on separate URLs) responsive sites are just plain easier for Google to read and rank accurately. You see, responsive websites only have one URL per page of content and the same HTML, regardless of device, and that makes them easier for Google to crawl and index. It’s also easier for users to interact with sites with responsive designs in the ways that Google defines as search rankings metrics. Content living on one URL is just easier for a user to engage with via social media or simply link to than content on a separate mobile URL.
Confusion between mobile and desktop is so common that I’m sure it’s something you’ve experienced. You’ve been on your laptop and clicked on a link shared onto Facebook from a friend’s phone and found yourself on a mobile-only website. Landing there didn’t just offer a bad user-experience to you, it was confusing for Google. Not just because of the emphasis they’re placing on usability as a search rankings factor. It was confusing at a basic “which version of the site should they give rankings credit for the link you followed?” level. That means ranking the website is harder for Google and harder for Google is always (always!) bad SEO.
Why Responsive Design is Better for Search Optimization
- It Eliminates Duplicate Content: When your site has a responsive design, every page of content has one URL; so unless you’re an e-commerce shop, duplicate content penalties won’t be an issue.
- It Can’t Suffer from Link Dilution (as in the example above): You’ve probably heard the phrase “Link Juice” before? Well, having a responsive website allows all of that SEO juice to flow into your website efficiently. Since you’ll only have one website, all your backlinks and social mentions (Facebook Shares, Tweets and ReTweets, Google+1s, etc.) will be aimed at one website.
- It Offers “Instant” Mobile Page Authority: Because your responsive website won’t need to be ranked separately there won’t be lag time between launch and when it benefits from the equity your brand already has online.
- It’s Specifically Tablet Compatible: In addition to their statements promoting responsive design generally, Google’s been unusually direct about how it ranks and returns search results to mobile/tablet users of late. Saying for instance, that users with mobile devices that can’t read Flash will no longer see websites that use Flash in their search results. It hardly requires a Ouija board to see how policies along those lines will be applied to sites with tablet specific versions vs. those without. With responsive that won’t be an issue, since every category of device can be covered, tablet users can be offered an experience that’s just as fulfilling as phone or desktop users.
- It Leverages UX as a Rankings Factor and Eliminates Backlink Confusion: There will only be one site for Google to send phone, tablet and desktop users to for a maximal user experience and only one set of links and social rankings signals pointing back to it to measure and rank based upon.
In short: Google recommends using responsive design because it allows a single website to offer a visitor an optimal user-experience regardless of their device or its screen size. It also leverages typically ignored SEO factors while making it easier for Google to assess a website for standard search rankings metrics. Having a responsive website might not fix all of your optimization issues, but it has to be a central component of any mobile conscious SEO strategy.