Mobile Responsive Designs and SEO

Written by: Jason Bayless | June 11, 2016

If there’s one concrete rule of the mobile web that almost every SEO professional and site administrator is aware of, it’s this: Desktop-designed websites don’t play well or rank well in a mobile setting. Indeed, Google strictly cautions against serving mobile users with a hard-to-use desktop experience. The company has punished websites that take this approach in the past, and it’s easy to see the company’s guidelines getting stricter in the future. With a clear preference toward responsive web designs that adjust to mobile users, Google is on a mission to create a faster, more efficient, more mobile-friendly experience on small devices.

Responsive Design: What Is It, Exactly?

Before examining the relationship between responsive websites and SEO performance, it’s important to clarify exactly what a responsive website is. Currently, web designers have three key options in front of them when designing for the mobile web:

  • Completely separate mobile sites, which exist alongside their desktop counterparts but do not contain the same HTML code, CSS styles, or even the same content.
  • Adaptive designs, which detect a device and then serve a custom-generated website template that accommodates that devices viewport and overall size.
  • Responsive designs, which use grids and responsive positioning to “break down” a website into larger and larger columns as the accessing device gets smaller and smaller.

Google has stated that their preference is for websites to embrace responsive design, and their reasoning makes perfect sense. In essence, the company believes that crawling responsive websites is far more efficient. It’s hard to argue the point: A responsive website is just one single website, which breaks out its columns as devices get smaller. Google’s crawlers don’t have to crawl a version of the website designed for every major device, nor do they have to access, index, and regularly crawl a separate mobile site on an ongoing basis. For Google, responsive sites mean less effort, better results, and more consistency across the board. What’s not to love?

Responsive Design and the Impact on SEO

Google’s preference for responsive design is understandable, but what does that mean for search engine optimization and overall rankings? This is a surprisingly hard question to answer. There is no requirement that sites be responsive in order for Google to rank them favorably, but there does seem to be evidence that responsive websites are treated better by the Hummingbird algorithm than their counterparts with an adaptive design or a separate mobile site for cellular devices.

The search engine optimization blog V9SEO recently conducted a bit of an experiment with one of their clients. The client had been using a separate mobile website for several years, but ranked pretty decently in Google’s mobile search results despite this divergence from Google’s recommended type of design. Upon switching to a responsive design, however, V9SEO notes that the company’s organic search ranking actually increased quite a bit. While this is just one case, and it may be anecdotal at best, it shows that Google’s “preference” could very well be a key factor in overall rankings performance for mobile sites.

Responsive Design is Something to Pursue

Let’s face it: When Google states a preference, SEO professionals are wise to take note and start moving in that direction. That’s certainly the case with responsive design. While Google isn’t actively punishing non-responsive mobile designs, it does seem as if this stated preference has at least an anecdotal impact on a site’s organic search performance. If that’s true now, imagine how much more aggressive Google will be as the mobile web continues to become more popular, and their parsing of search result for mobile users is required to become stricter in terms of recommending the truly best sources of mobile content.