Responsive design is obviously a big deal; such a big deal that Mashable has hailed 2013 as “the year of responsive design.” Most web professionals understand this — responsive design is changing the way that the Internet looks, feels, and works.
There’s something less obvious going on, though. Responsive design also changes SEO. When we look beyond the CSS of responsive design, we see a major shift in search practices that is exerting an impact on both mobile and desktop searches.
What are the SEO issues brought about by the advent of responsive design? Here are five.
1. Google likes responsive design, meaning that search results will likely favor sites that employ responsive best practices.
While we hesitate to declare baldly that Google is in love with RWD, we can identify a strong affinity for RWD best practices. After Google's blog post about Responsive Design, SEO Round Table published an article outlining the reasons why Google likes responsive design. The three reasons — non-duplicated content, no canonical URL issues, and no redirect problems — are all part of a strong SEO arsenal.
When Google flinches, everyone jumps. So it is with responsive design. Since Google actually wrote the Mobile Playbook, it only makes sense to give them due respect for their mobile and responsive proclivities. As algorithms continue to be tweaked throughout 2013 and beyond, we will probably see more and more nods to sites that successfully employ responsive design.
If Google prefers responsive design, that's a huge game changer for search.
2. Mobile users crave a good experience, and responsive sites deliver optimal site quality for mobile users.
That point above is a bit convoluted. Nonetheless, it's an important point for SEO. Here's how it works.
More and more users are mobile. Your website is now receiving more mobile visitors than ever before. Trust me; check the analytics. All those mobile users need a good experience. The better their experience, the better your SEO. Here's why.
Site quality is an important SEO factor. High bounce rates can be a big strike against site quality. The better your user experience, the greater your SEO value. When a mobile users visit a non-optimized or responsive site, there is a greater likelihood that they'll bounce, gradually degrading your site quality. This point about quality and UX is pretty much the whole argument of Kristina Kledzik, whose article in Moz makes the case that every site should make the responsive switch.
As SEO goes, this is the most significant responsive issue. In their discussion of responsive design, Smashing Magazine states, “the most important metric is how functional the website is for user,” and insists that responsive sites are essential.
In order to better serve a growing mobile audience, you must give them the user experience they need. It's the only way to preserve site quality and gain better search rankings.
3. Responsive sites get better indexing, and thus, higher search results.
Thanks to Google's intuitive algorithms and switchboard tags, sites are served up correctly to mobile users. Nonetheless, responsive sites are the best choice for a clean, quick, and accurate indexing process.
Google's indexing procedures seem to favor sites employing the pure responsive approach, those “sites that serve all devices on the same set of URLs, with each URL serving the same HTML to all devices and using just CSS to change how the page is rendered on the device.” This is part of Google's guide to “building smartphone-optimized websites,” which you can basically translate into “search engine optimized websites.” What's more, they plainly state, “this is Google's recommended configuration.”
If you want your site to be indexed by Google in the quickest and best way possible, you might as well take their word on the issue: use responsive design. Follow their advice, and they'll treat you the right way when it comes to indexing and search rankings.
4. Content and content positioning are more important than ever.
Responsive design is all about trimming the excess fat from a website. “Trimming fat” is dangerous, though. You've got to be careful not to trim the SEO while you're cutting and snipping.
In order to retain a site's SEO value, all relevant content should be pushed toward the top of the page. The reason? To retain maximum SEO value, the site should have above-the-fold content on both mobile and desktop versions. Search engines evaluate content placement as well as the content itself. Position is important.
Many responsive designers and developers love graphics, sliders, and space-hogging menus at the top of the page. Such clutter can pose a problem for SEO. More and more sites are favoring the minimalism and simplicity of content-driven sites. Awwwards has defined “content first” as the number one web design trend of 2013. It makes pure sense for SEO, UX, RWD, CRO (and just about any other acronym you want to throw out there). To keep things ship-shape, bring that precious SEO-loving content to the top of the page.
5. Mobile URLs, instead of a responsive site, are still an option for SEO.
Despite the pandemic rush to RWD, some practitioners are still advocating a mobile URL approach. Bryson Meunier makes his case clear in his Search Engine Land article: “Responsive Web design still seems to have the undeserved reputation for being the best option for SEO. In reality, mobile URLs could be the best option for SEO.”
Yeah, that's pretty much a huge can of worms. [Enter pundits vociferating upon their preferred position.] Thankfully, Google can now differentiate site versions. Thus, the one-URL insistence for SEO purposes is a non-argument, thanks to the introduction of switchboard tags.
Meunier makes the case that mobile users are searching differently and are looking for different information, distinct from the desktop users. (I'm skeptical.) Thus, he states, they may be best served by a site that is created specifically for them and their needs — i.e. a dynamically served site. Additionally, Meunier stresses the potential importance of a separate mobile site from a standpoint of site speed and UXD, emphasizing again the different audience of one's mobile market.
Determining the SEO value of responsive design is dependent upon one's audience. Even though RWD is oft-touted and widely hailed as the SEO Holy Grail, some companies may opt for an SEO strategy that involves mobile URLs instead of a strictly responsive approach. As a general rule going forward, however, the responsive solution seems best suited for SEO power. After all, retaining the chronological authority of your original URL, simplifying your approach, and streamlining your content management are all SEO best practices that are part of the responsive design package.
Everyone understands that SEO is a constantly changing field. New information and sometimes contradictory information is published on an hourly basis. No one is shocked that responsive design is changing SEO. The real surprise may come in how significant such changes really are. In order to truly succeed in search, sites must face up to the responsive revolution, and do what it takes to make the responsive switch.