How Common Are SEO Problems With Responsive Web Design?

It seems people have strong feelings for or against responsive Web design. My thanks to those with open minds who responded to last month’s column on SEO problems with responsive Web design with either praise or reasonable criticism. While I answered the most common criticisms already, one recent comment from Google’s John Mueller stood out to me.

When he posted Luke Wroblewski’s results of sites that have seen success with responsive Web design to Google+ with the caption #rwd #ftw, I wanted to remind Google and other responsive Web design advocates that responsive Web design, while great for some sites, is not the right solution for others.

john mueller responsive googleplus

This was great feedback to get, as I tried to get an official response from Google to the post last month, and this acknowledgement from a Google representative is at least some indicator that responsive Web design can have problems for the user and isn’t the right solution in all cases.

So, are these extreme examples that don’t apply to the majority of sites in question, as John Mueller says, and many responsive Web design advocates seem to think? Let’s look at the data by issue and see.

Unfortunately for SEOs and site owners, there’s not an exhaustive list of sites whose information architecture does not match their consumer demand somewhere to easily prove if this holds true.

Instead, for the next two proofs, I’m going to use three examples from .Net magazine’s list of the top 25 responsive web sites of 2012: Starbucks.com, Microsoft.com and Disney.com. If these sites that are held as paragons of future-friendly Web design have these issues, this should at least demonstrate that these are not edge cases, but less extreme problems that we need to address today.

1.  Many Top Responsive Sites Have Poor Information Architecture

Last month I referenced an audit that I did of Mercedes’ mobile site in which the traditional website had site architecture issues that prevented the transcoded pages from appearing in mobile search results, as well. Because the same content is used in responsive Web design, these problems would exist with retrofit responsive sites. Microsoft, Disney and Starbucks all have IA issues that their responsive redesign (or retrofit, in most cases) didn’t solve.

For example, Starbucks did a great job of highlighting the local aspect of their website, as search data shows the great majority of users are looking for a store, especially if they’re using the site on a mobile device.

Starbucks does a nice job at highlighting the Store Locator given their users' tendency to search for a store near them, but their information architecture has other problems when it comes to searchers.

Starbucks does a nice job at highlighting the Store Locator given their users’ tendency to search for a store near them, but their information architecture has other problems when it comes to searchers.

The rest of the website is not as friendly to searchers and users, however. You can see from the data below that the priority based on search volume is not aligned with the prominence of each feature on the mobile site.

Comparing Starbucks responsive site architecture to searcher interest reveals potentially profitable gaps.

Comparing Starbucks responsive site architecture to searcher interest reveals potentially profitable gaps.

I’ve explained the methodology of this chart in detail earlier at Marketing Land, but what I’ve basically done here is categorize branded keywords where the total volume is 1,000 or more searches per month and compare them with the features on the site.

Sometimes, the search intent is aligned closely with the prominence on the website, but in many cases, it’s not. For example, coupons are absent from the home page, but you can find expired ones through search. And, more people are looking for Starbucks jobs than are looking for anything around the brand except stores and coupons. Yet, the feature is buried at the bottom of the page. These may have been features that Starbucks chose to suppress for business reasons, as search volume can’t be the only driving factor when considering what goes on a site, but for features like calorie counters and order recommendations, this doesn’t seem likely.

As I said in the last column, these problems could be fixed with a complete redesign, responsive or not, but the point is that responsive sites can and often do have major information architecture issues that will prevent them from being visible in search engines. So, if you’re saying “responsive sites are better for SEO,” as many do, and your responsive site has major information architecture issues, what are you really saying?

I haven’t done the same exercise for Microsoft or Disney, but it’s clear that they also have issues when it comes to aligning search behavior to information architecture.

Disney, for example, has major problems when it comes to the concept of games. We know from a recent investor event that games are important to Disney’s business, but it’s hard to tell from looking at their site. A searcher entering [disney games] in a search engine will go to this page, where they are compelled to play games like Mickey Delivery Dash, or Phineas and Ferb:

Disney's responsive site entices mobile users to play a game that they have no chance of playing.

Disney’s responsive site entices mobile users to play a game that they have no chance of playing.

However, when they try to play the game that they’re told by the graphic to play, this happens:

For a site to be responsive, it should work everywhere. Not so for this critically-acclaimed responsive site.

For a site to be responsive, it should work everywhere. Not so for this critically-acclaimed responsive site.

And sometimes even this happens:

Sometimes responsive sites provide less than responsive user experiences.

Sometimes responsive sites provide less than responsive user experiences.

When you return to the Games page and click on Online Games in the footer, it redirects you to the top of the page; and when you click on Video Games in the footer, this happens:

Our quest to play games on a responsive site ends with this, as would quests from the majority of mobile searchers.

Our quest to play games on a responsive site ends with this, as would quests from the majority of mobile searchers.

I can’t play video games on my phone now?

This is an award-winning, future-friendly site, but if you were one of the people who did one of the 30,000 searches a month from a mobile device on Google, Bing or Yahoo! on [Disney games], you’re probably not going to think it’s that great. And you’re certainly not going to think of it as being responsive to your needs regardless of what platform you happen to be using.

Microsoft has a similar situation if you navigate to Downloads on their site. Very popular category, but don’t be misled into thinking you can actually download anything if you click there. If you can figure out that the three lines and three dots in the upper right-hand corner is a menu, you get a category with downloads like this:

Microsoft's responsive web site offers free downloads to mobile searchers that mobile searchers can never receive.

Microsoft’s responsive web site offers free downloads to mobile searchers that mobile searchers can never receive.

Windows downloads weren’t relevant to my Android phone, so I clicked on Free downloads and was taken here:

This page was presented when I clicked on Free downloads in my mobile web browser, not my PC.

This page was presented when I clicked on Free downloads in my mobile web browser, not my PC.

Get the most out of my PC? What PC? I thought I was supposed to be getting some free downloads, and that this site was responsive to my needs. Again, a poor user experience and content that’s platform-specific and not labeled as such is not good for the searcher experience, and not good for SEO.

So, I profiled three large business websites that have gone responsive and found problems with all three, which tells me these information architecture problems in responsive sites are probably more common than some people think.

And, for those of you who still say responsive Web design is best for SEO, this is award-winning responsive Web design, and nothing about it is good for the searcher experience, or SEO.

2. Many Top Responsive Websites Don’t Use Mobile-Specific Keywords

Not everyone understands how to use the new keywords that searchers are putting in mobile devices to their advantage, and that’s fine. It’s a relatively new phenomenon that some of us are finding success with, but not everyone’s there yet. I’ve written a pretty extensive guide for those of you who may be new to the subject.

Those who do understand this may see the same opportunities that I do when I look at Starbucks’ keywords that come primarily from mobile devices. When we sort our master keyword list by mobile percent of total volume and look at those keywords where more than 70% of the total volume comes from mobile devices, we see a lot of people en route to a Starbucks.

Amazingly 46 people a month ask their desktop computer to help navigate them to a Starbucks.

Amazingly 46 people a month ask their desktop computer to help navigate them to a Starbucks.

Many local businesses say that most of their revenue comes from driving a lead to a store, and so, these keywords that indicate a searcher’s intent to go to a physical Starbucks location are probably some of the most valuable leads that the website gets. But, with responsive design, the opportunity is squandered.

Many of these searches lead to Google pages to specific directions, and the website will never get credit for the lead. In cases where directions don’t show up, such as [drive thru starbucks]:

Some queries with local intent don't include maps in mobile results.

Some queries with local intent don’t include maps in mobile results.

Or worse, when incorrect information shows up, such as [24 hour starbucks] (I’m in Chicago):

Not going to walk to San Francisco from Chicago for a latte, Google.

Not going to walk to San Francisco from Chicago for a latte, Google.

Starbucks has the opportunity to provide a better user experience to people who are looking for these things, and to get a valuable website lead in the process.

How do we do this? How about a crawlable page that lists all 24 hour Starbucks locations and another that lists all locations with drive thrus? Right now, there is no page like that because the site relies on search filters, which aren’t crawlable (see problem #1 above). If we created that page and used HTML5 to tap into the phone’s GPS, we could provide them with the nearest location of these types as soon as they clicked through to the page.

As it is, it sends a searcher to the Store Locator page, where the searcher will hopefully recognize the small funnel shape is a filter icon, and then click on it. When that happens, you can select the type of Starbucks that you’re interested in, and then click Apply. When that happens, you go back to a map, where you need to zoom in or hit the scope button to find your location, and hopefully it shows the location nearest you.

But why would Starbucks want to make their most valuable leads go through that experience when they could show them what they’re looking for with one click? They might be able to do this with a responsive design, but it’s kind of unlikely that anyone would, since advocates so often argue against the mobile context and wouldn’t be looking for opportunities like this in the first place. Smart SEOs can avoid the same mistakes and get more converting traffic from natural search in the process.

Disney also has keywords like this in mobile content like games, apps and wallpaper. They do have their mobile apps listed on their site, but as we saw above, the keyword “mobile games” isn’t mentioned, and they don’t list mobile wallpaper or have wallpaper on their responsive website, it seems. This is a big miss for SEO, as there are thousands of searches for games and wallpaper, and Disney won’t get any of them with this “responsive” site.

Non-branded games searches have as much search volume on mobile devices as many of Disney's most popular brands.

Non-branded games searches have as much search volume on mobile devices as many of Disney’s most popular brands.

There are also plenty of issues on all of these sites, not just with mobile keywords, but with keywords that become meaningless in a mobile context. Examples from Disney and Microsoft make this clear in point 1 above, but Starbucks is not immune at dealing with these adaptive content issues.

Here’s what happens if you’re one of the people who has done one of the 8,500 searches per month for [Starbucks coupons] from a mobile device in the US. Not only do you not get what you’re looking for (again, possible business reasons that may make sense), but you’re told to click the Print Coupon Button to redeem the nonexistent coupon:

 

Starbucks responsive web site asks you to print out a coupon from your mobile phone, and gives you how-to instructions that you'll never be able to follow.

Starbucks responsive web site asks you to print out a coupon from your mobile phone, and gives you how-to instructions that you’ll never be able to follow.

It’s like one bad user experience piled onto another, and it’s all due to making a site responsive without understanding how that changes the meaning of the content and the relevance of the queries.

Could all of these issues be resolved using responsive Web design? Maybe. But, because responsive Web designers and SEOs are not currently looking for them, this is likely to be an edge case, if it happens at all.

3. Many Responsive Websites Are Slow

Yes, to all of you who commented that responsive websites can be fast if done correctly. I agree with you; but, that’s not the point. The point is: “fast responsive website,” while not exactly an oxymoron, is certainly an edge case.

I’m not the only one saying this, either. Most of you are, in fact, as the majority of commenters who objected to this point in last month’s article told me it’s the developers’ fault, not responsive design’s. But, as an SEO, I don’t care whose fault it is, only that it happens. If responsive websites are slow, as many are, they could be bad for the searcher experience and bad for SEO.

And, as I said in the comments, it happens a lot. According to Akamai performance evangelist Guy Podjarny, “You can’t escape this fact. A responsive website tuned to perform optimally would not be as fast as a dedicated mdot site tuned equally well. Or, more realistically, an average responsive website would always be slower than an average mdot site.” In other words, slow responsive sites are not the exception, but the rule.

4. Responsive Websites Are Losing More Than 10% Of Global Mobile Web Traffic

As a marketer, do you frequently avoid the potential to connect with 158 million visitors and 98 billion page views? Because this is currently what you’re missing if you ignore global feature phone users on just the Opera browser, as of December 2012.

According to their most recent State of the Mobile Web report, Opera reported that 229,000,000 visitors had 143,000,000,000 pageviews globally from either Opera Mobile or Opera Mini. They also said that 68% of their visits come from something other than a smartphone. If you do the math, you get the figures mentioned above.

Given that Opera has 15.4% market share, we can extrapolate that this is 10.63% of total mobile Web market share worldwide.

You can make a business decision about whether ignoring 10% of the global mobile Web traffic is something you’re willing to do, but this is certainly too large a number to be an outlier.

As some of you said in the comments last month, build a site mobile first, and responsive would give some sort of experience to feature phone users as well. But, there are two problems with this:

  • it’s not recommended by Google, which recommends separate sites or dynamic-serving-only for a site that works on feature phones and smartphones
  • building mobile first may make you future-friendly while alienating a lot of primary desktop users in the present

Many companies you would think would be mobile first, like the Weather Channel, don’t see mobile first as being a viable strategy for another couple of years.

5. All Responsive Sites Don’t Delight Users With Mobile-Only Features

By nature, this last one is not an edge case, as responsive design is about making the same content available to all platforms, not about adding functionality depending on what devices are supported.

As explained last month, we have the ability as marketers to use mobile-specific features like GPS, camera, accelerometer, etc., to create app-like experiences on the Web that will rival what’s possible in native apps, but be seen and enjoyed by everyone, regardless of platform.

And, I still don’t know why we as marketers are content to do without this so we can make our sites responsive. One Web is a good start, but we should be doing more.

I had a discussion with the Thunder Tech user experience team on their blog last month, and they argued that these experiences belong in apps and not websites. However, this is the difference between User Experience and SEO. As SEOs, we should want to make the experiences that people really find engaging as visible as possible, and the Web, unlike native apps, has 100% reach.

With  HTML5, we can make increasingly app-like experiences available on the Web, and this kind of content is likely not just to bring qualified traffic, but also links, shares and all of the signals that Google relies on to understand that our sites are authoritative. How is it better for SEO when we’re content to leave all of these things at the door in order to make our sites responsive?

I don’t know how common the practice of building app-like experiences on the Web is, but I did find an example of one brand that is seeing great results after building a more app-like mobile Web experience through dynamic serving. Hopefully, more of you in the future will follow suit.

According to Nielsen and Business Insider, consumers spend more time in apps than on the mobile web. While games and social networking are part of the story, how much are webmasters to blame for not making web experiences more app-like?

According to Nielsen and Business Insider, consumers spend more time in apps than on the mobile web. While games and social networking are part of the story, how much are webmasters to blame for not making web experiences more app-like and engaging?

If you’ve made it to the end of this post, you have seen many instances where the five things I discussed last month are evident, and definitely not outliers. Google may still consider these things edge cases, but if you see that searchers are getting stranded, confused and unable to convert, it could help your business and the user if you fix it.

So, the next time someone tells you that responsive Web design is always best for SEO, you now have examples of many responsive sites, some of which are critically-acclaimed, that are not helping themselves at all with SEO. I think you can do better.

TL; DR Recap

Problems responsive websites have with SEO are common because:

  • Several critically-acclaimed responsive we sites have major information architecture issues that are preventing searchers from completing a task, and businesses from generating revenue from these leads.
  • These same websites ignore keywords that are most important to mobile searchers, to the detriment of the business and the user.
  • Though responsive sites can be made fast, most of them aren’t.
  • Google doesn’t recommend responsive Web design for capturing feature phone traffic, and that is more than 10% of the total mobile Web traffic available.
  • Responsive sites can’t by nature allow for content that’s not multi-platform, and these experiences can often help users, build organic links and generate revenue for a business.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Google: Mobile | Google: SEO | Mobile Search | Search Engines: Mobile Search Engines | SEO: Mobile Search

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About The Author: is the SEO Director at Vivid Seats, is an SEO veteran with more than 14 years experience both agency and in-house, and is a thought leader in permission marketing as a columnist and a frequent speaker on SEO and mobile marketing.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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  • Andrew Shotland

    Hey Bryson. If I was a comment spammer, I would say something like “Holy smokes Dude! This post is mind-blowingly fantastic. I am going to share this with everybody. Respect!” Since I am not a comment spammer, I will just say “awesome post”.

  • http://www.brysonmeunier.com/ Bryson Meunier

    Ha. It’s true. Andrew Shotland, whom I have met before and who also writes a column on Search Engine Land, is not a comment spammer. :) Thanks for the feedback Andrew! Hopefully the LSA audience responds well to a similar message in two weeks!

  • http://twitter.com/haraldengels Harald Engels

    Interesting post although most of the described problems are more content presentation strategy mistakes than caused by a responsive design which I understand as a technique to adjust the content to surfing devices with different specs.

  • Andrea Pernici

    Hi Bryson, nice post but! A big but!

    Why you don’t compare bad Responsive designed website with bad Mobile only designed website?

    I think you will find the same issues over and over again so here you are offering a one-way vision of the reality.

    When you say:

    “But, as an SEO, I don’t care whose fault it is, only that it happens”

    here I see your bigger mistake. You as an SEO should find a way to make that website become better…and it’s not a Responsive porblem. As I said above you can find the exact same issues on a mobile only website.

    Considering some point of the article you are ignoring that (for example) in the Microsoft case you would find in any case all those issues. Microsoft has a HUGE website and the alternative to a first-step responsive website would be no mobile version at all OR in an hipotetic case a first-step mobile version with the exact same issues as the RWD version.

    Said that when you consider the 25 list of RWD website you are missing the point cause from a design perspective and techy view they are orginal and with very good approach to a new way of shaping the web.

    Issues are everywhere when coming to a new technology, but on the web we must make experiments to evolve.

  • http://twitter.com/nathanziarek Nathan Ziarek

    I’m trying to understand your comment “responsive design is about making the same content available to all platforms, not about adding functionality depending on what devices are supported.”

    Responsive design is the practice of identifying features and functionality of the device & adjusting the experience accordingly. A “Find a Store” page can ask the device if it has geolocation capability and enable that site functionality. A photograph can inquire as to the pixel density of the screen and send higher resolution bits. A site can check if touch inputs are available and make interactive elements a little bit bigger. Or, a video can check the available bandwidth and scale its bitrate accordingly.

    The revolution of Responsive Design is that we can do that all from the same content by (finally?) separating content markup from design. As we see more and more device types enter the market — 5″ “phablets” that stretch the definition of phone or tablet, ultra-high resolution laptop screens — we’ll see more and more websites that add capabilities to the site based on the device.

    Your points on user experience still stand. Users on different platforms have different needs. Utilizing the same content on all platforms might make it impossible to accurately cater to those needs. Interactive elements (especially based on Flash) are especially tricky, as are web applications that are heavily AJAX’d, preventing Google from accurately crawling the site.

    …in any case, thanks for the article and making me think a little!

  • http://www.brysonmeunier.com/ Bryson Meunier

    Hi Andrea,

    Thanks for your comments! Your point is well taken, but the
    point of this post and last month’s was not to provide a failsafe solution in
    all cases. I’m not sure that solution exists, honestly. It’s true that
    dedicated mobile sites and dynamic serving can have their own problems, but
    they can also be a good solution when responsive web design is not the
    appropriate design methodology for the project. The point of this post was to
    give specific examples of this, and the point of last month’s column was to
    give people a decision tree so that they can decide which of the three mobile site configuration methods that Google describes in their smartphone guidelines is most appropriate for their businesses and their users.

    Of course, if I were to build a dedicated mobile site, I
    would seek to avoid a lot of the issues that dedicated mobile sites that aren’t
    fully featured have today by starting with a One Web foundation and customizing the experience based on what we know mobile searchers are looking for that isn’t platform-agnostic. And I don’t think this solution has to fit the dichotomy of adaptive content vs mobile content and responsive design vs dedicated mobile web sites that so many are framing it as today. Microsoft, for example, could have finished the job and actually fixed their information architecture and researched how mobile keywords differ from traditional keywords and provided the best user experience possible with responsive design, dynamic serving or dedicated mobile sites, but they didn’t. Experimentation is fine, but are we really so starved for innovation that we will give awards for experimentation that leaves the user behind? Because this is what these sites, in many cases, have done.

    But the real discussion of better alternatives is for future
    columns. For these last two I was just seeking to combat the notion that I see
    so often in the popular SEO and web design press that responsive design is best because it’s best for SEO. This just isn’t true. There are many considerations that webmasters need to think about before starting a project like this, and just doing it because Google likes it or everyone is doing it or it’s cheaper is often a disservice to the reason these sites exist in the first place—the users. It doesn’t sound like you disagree with this, so hopefully you’ll tune in next month for better solutions for mobile SEO. In the meantime you have the
    decision tree that I presented last month that helps marketers choose between
    the three alternatives that Google has presented today. Thanks again!

  • http://www.brysonmeunier.com/ Bryson Meunier

    Thanks, Harald. I understand people have different definitions of responsive web design, but since this is an SEO column I stuck with Google’s definition of “serving the same HTML for all devices and using only CSS media queries to decide the rendering on each device.” By serving the same HTML and only changing the rendering of a page, responsive sites by Google’s definition are very likely to exhibit content presentation strategy mistakes, as the same content is presented regardless of platform. If we used JavaScript to present different content it might not be an issue, but by Google’s definition it wouldn’t be responsive design either.

  • Neal Stammers

    Hi Bryson,

    I have to agree with Andrea with his point about the Microsoft Site – It’s massive! Responsive design takes a really long time to implement properly, so trying to redesign/retro-fit to an existing site the size of Microsoft’s would take a huge amount of resources and financial investment.

    You mention “since advocates so often argue against the mobile context and wouldn’t be looking for opportunities like this in the first place”. I personally believe that the majority of advocates would argue against providing a separate mobile experience, but not against tailoring the content/experience. This is totally different. When feature detection becomes more available we’ll be able to really tailor the experience, but it still shouldn’t require a totally different site. The majority of people I speak with get frustrated with the ‘limited’ set of features they’re often given on a ‘mobile’ only version. More often than not they would prefer the ‘normal’ desktop version zoomed out (and yes they often go for the ‘show desktop version’).

    Over time content can be created for helping users achieve their goals when using a mobile device, but this would have to be done anyway if you were going to create a separate mobile site.

    You have pointed out a number of very valid user experience issues, but many of these aren’t the ‘fault’ of responsive design. Many of these could be improved by offering alternative methods; Download voucher, email voucher, etc (voucher would be presentable via the phone screen). As developers we’re dealing with a completely new playing field, touch, performance & technical constraints. And it’s changing at an incredible pace.

    Performance is a major issue, but this has been slowly introduced as bandwidth and technical capabilities have increased. All of a sudden we’re needing to bring things back to the bare-bones, and then progressively enhance for the more capable devices. Again it’s still early days and developers are having to completely change the way they approach designing websites – This has a major financial implication. It’s also more technically challenging – This raises the bar much higher for new developers.

    When building a site it’s much easier to make smaller/basic sites responsive, but trying to retrofit will often have major pitfalls. And we’re also trying to deal with legacy content (tables, etc) which just don’t play nice! But again, however you choose to approach the issue you’d have to do the same responsive or not.

    Going responsive is often a much better alternative than trying to ‘sniff’ what device your serving. With the ever expanding list, devices purposely reporting incorrect device information, link consistency issues (being redirected from mobile to desktop and vice-versa and possibly losing the parameters), the list goes on…

    Responsive is still in its infancy and will only improve over time. Having ideas challenged is always important, but my fear is that with articles such as this it’ll dampen people’s willingness to experiment and invest in trying to find the best possible methods.

    I don’t think it’s an SEO issue with responsive design – just a usability/new technology one.

    Best regards, Neal.

  • Colin Guidi

    Hey Bryson,

    Solid stuff, always love listening to the other side of the coin, really helps you second guess everything you’re doing and choose what’s best for your client.

    What I’m gathering, and have known, is that mobile users will find your website in different ways (mobile optimized keywords), and engage with different on-page elements vs. desktop users.

    In doing so, very strong insights can be pulled via your analytics package to see how mobile users are interacting with your site, (prior to a RWD move) to choose what elements your want defined by CSS to shift based upon the appropriate @media queries for the various screen sizes.

    Could you not simply have a strong understanding of your mobile analytics, coupled with page content themes aiming at keywords which try and seamlessly combine some “mobile-optimized flare” if you will?

  • http://www.brysonmeunier.com/ Bryson Meunier

    Hi Neal,

    Thanks for your comments! Many of the responsive design advocates that I know argue against the mobile context entirely (e.g. this guy: http://globalmoxie.com/jhc/prez/mobile-context-myth-fowd.pdf), so that’s where I was coming from. It’s great if you provide a better user experience with JavaScript or server side detection, but there are many responsive advocates who think it’s condescending to assume you know what they want, even when it’s supported by data. Also, if you are using JavaScript or server side detection to tailor the experience, it’s not how Google defines the responsive web design that they prefer, and you’ll still have to take steps to make it search-friendly.

    Great that Microsoft has an enormous website, and I understand that Rome wasn’t built in a day, but if I’m looking for free downloads and I end up on that page, I’m probably not going to care. And if I’m in an industry where a competitor offers a similar paid product and they provide me a better user experience, responsive or no, I may not need Microsoft’s web site for much longer. Companies like Microsoft should be concerned enough about the lost revenue experiences like this create to do things right the first time.

    No doubt many of the user experience issues could be fixed if designers thought about how being on a mobile device changes the user experience; but this clearly isn’t happening all that often. I think we would all be better off if it did.

    Fine if responsive web sites get better over time, but I haven’t seen any call for that from the web design community for sites like this that are responsive but provide a poor user experience in many cases. Instead, they’re being named to best of lists. There’s something wrong there that we as a community should fix.

    Totally understand that mobile sites have problems of their own. I think these are well publicized. Responsive web design, on the other hand, is often treated as a superior alternative in all cases—especially for SEO reasons—and this is the misinformation that I’m trying to combat. Responsive web sites can and often do have UX and SEO problems of their own, and it’s important that businesses keep this in mind before starting a responsive project. Had Microsoft, Disney or Starbucks done this, maybe they would have done things right the first time. As it is, they’re receiving accolades from the web design community for their pioneering work in frustrating users in new and interesting ways, and they have no incentive to get better. As I said, I think that’s our fault for not demanding it of them.

    So we really have a difference of philosophy when it comes to innovation. It’s great if companies want to experiment with new design methodologies, but I don’t think they should do it if they’re going to risk alienating their users and losing revenue. And with huge sites like Microsoft that’s very likely given the breadth of content that they have. They should have planned for this before launching, and not launched something that was half-baked.

    We also seem to have a difference of philosophy when it comes to SEO. I understand that others in the SEO industry may have a different opinion, but SEO can’t be separated from UX in search results anymore. If you think this is a user experience and technology problem and it has to do with user experience in search results, then that is my definition of an SEO problem.

    I would also be careful
    with predicting the future when it comes to web design. For years Flash was the
    future of web design and we all know what happened there. For all we know the
    future of web design and SEO could revolve around a methodology that hasn’t
    been invented yet, and we will have to redo our sites again when it does. In
    the meantime I’m planning to help my clients get as much relevant traffic as
    possible today, which in many cases doesn’t come from responsive web design.

    I do appreciate the discussion!

  • http://www.brysonmeunier.com/ Bryson Meunier

    Hi Nathan,

    Thanks for your comments, and for reading the
    whole way through! :) Again, since this is an SEO column I am using
    Google’s definition of responsive web design, which is “serving the same HTML for all devices and using only CSS media queries to decide the rendering on each device”. If you’re using something like JavaScript or server side user agent detection to serve different content, Google doesn’t prefer it, and doesn’t define it as responsive web design. So yes, we can use these things to make the experience better for users and search engine users, but in most cases we’ll have to use the vary HTTP header anyway, which has the same problems that dynamic serving or mobile URLs do for SEO. With Google’s limited definition it doesn’t allow for more app-like experiences that can really make our mobile sites more engaging. Plus, with responsive web design we’re not going to create an entirely different web app on a separate URL specifically for one platform; but in many cases I think that provides the best user experience for users of that platform and is the right thing to do. So, yes, I know that progressive enhancement with Modernizr or some other technology is pretty common with responsive sites (Starbucks used it, for example); but there are still instances when we can provide a better user experience to searchers with dedicated mobile sites or dynamic serving.

    Glad you agree that
    getting the user experience right is tricky with responsive web design,
    particularly with interactive elements. The point of the whole piece was to make
    people think twice about the notion that responsive web design is always the
    best solution for SEO, and I’m glad I was able to do that in your case.
    Appreciate the comments!

  • http://www.brysonmeunier.com/ Bryson Meunier

    Hi Colin,

    Yes, having a strong understanding of your site’s
    analytics can help understand user behavior, but of course you’re only seeing
    what you’re already optimized for– and not what you should be optimized for.
    For this reason people like me always do keyword research in addition, using
    Google’s and other keyword tools. But to answer your question what I’m
    suggesting is that you do understand what your users are after (both in analytics
    and in search outside of your site) and then build your site accordingly. You
    might be able to do this with a responsive site if feature phone traffic wasn’t
    important to you and you’re not going to attempt to build an experience that
    other platforms can’t handle; but it should be done one way or the other.

    Love the discussion! Always great to talk to people
    who are pro-”providing great experiences to users and for the business”,
    regardless of what side of the responsive web coin they are ultimately on. :)

  • Andrea Pernici

    I think this is a really good discussion.

    When you say:
    “For these last two I was just seeking to combat the notion that I see
    so often in the popular SEO and web design press that responsive design is best because it’s best for SEO.
    This just isn’t true.”

    And I strongly agree with you, but the problem is People and not Responsive. In the SEO field as you know anything is best for SEO cause IT depends :D

    The great part of SEO is that as a discipline SEO shape a website for the user needs (making it also friendly for SE) and looking a website from a UX point of view RWD is fascinating and can really be emotional.

    Some of the UX issue you point in the post and in the comment (to Neal) probably aren’t UX issues, but simply Usability issues. UX is wider tha Usability and probably has nothing to do with Mobile Only or RWD if taken as the main point for User Experience.

    Talking about Microsoft again I think you didn’t understand what I want to tell you. What I want to say is that the alternative to a first step Responsive Webiste is NO Mobile at all.

    Look for Example Apple or Ubuntu! Where is the mobile experience?

    Microsoft has so many products and services, probably developed in different Programming Languages & in different times, by totally different business departments and so on…

    I can give you 2 examples:

    - 1 on my own experience

    - 1 looking SEL.

    *1 on my own experience*

    In Italy we have a famous and quite old community where we use various CMS and various custom Project and Layout. During the years different people worked on the various project and different approaches was taken.

    The very first pages was written using static files (probably millions of them) for 3-4 years.

    Well I start re-organizing everything and uniforming the Webiste Usage Experience, but it was a n-step approach and everybody in the team knew that for a medium to long period the user perception would have been not so good, but the alternative was to NOT doing anything.

    Probably the Microsoft case is n^n times bigger from a technical point of view.

    *2 looking SEL*

    I see many sites in the SEO field (also here on Search Engine Land) that a Standard Mobile Plugin/Theme for WP is used to serve a Mobile Friendly version of the website, BUT where is User Experience?

    I’m sorry to tell you, but this is NOT a Good User Experience…this is Not User Experience at all cause they are standardizing the experience and transforming all the websites in the same bottle.

    Uniforming this can be useful from a Usability perspective, but absolutely negative from a Brand/UX perspective.

    Try your own using SEL mobile version and you will find a lot of issues…SEO and not SEO that you want!

    For me SEO is aspiring the Best, but looking first to the real possibilities that a company has toghether with all the possible techy fault they can have.

    Sometimes SEO is a common sense approach to the problem of everyday life. Nothing is perfect and everything can improve…not only in SEO and not only in RWD.

    Today I think RWD is a Must and is a great choice everytime and everywhere cause it doesn’t have CONS.

    TIPS: Remember above all that a RWD version of your Website doesn’t prevent you from serving a mobile specific one ;)

  • Neal Stammers

    Thanks for the reply Bryson,

    I’m not suggesting completely different content for mobile – more that suitable menus, image sizes are used, content conditionally loaded. JS and the like should be used to enhance the experience for more capable devices.

    However by creating a separate mobile site you are almost 100% assuming what ‘mobile’ users would want. And a major issue is that by tailoring the experience focusing around ‘mobile’ keywords we’re assuming that the person is actually not sat in their home using the phone instead of laptop/tablet.

    By making the content device agnostic and focusing on tasks and goals of the company and user we can create suitable content and make it available and usable regardless of device accessing it.

    I agree many designers don’t consider the changes in behaviour/tasks of someone who ‘might’ be mobile. But this is a challenge we face regardless of technology implemented.

    I guess my main point is that I don’t believe responsive design is responsible for SEO issues. UX possibly.

    Blaming poor SEO on responsive design is a bit like blaming the paint shop for not fixing the engine when they sprayed your car, but then I see SEO and UX separately :)

    All the best, Neal.

  • http://www.brysonmeunier.com/ Bryson Meunier

    Andrea, I agree this is a good discussion and I
    appreciate people who argue the issues rather than pledging allegiance to dogma, whether they’re for responsive design or against (or like me, somewhere in between).

    You’ve presented a lot of issues, so I’ll respond to
    what I can:

    1. I don’t agree that the alternative to not having
    a responsive web site is not having a mobile presence at all. In fact,
    Microsoft, and other businesses facing this decision really have three options as defined by Google: responsive web design, dynamic serving or dedicated mobile sites. All of these configurations have their own issues, but not making
    a site responsive doesn’t mean not doing anything at all. Just because Apple has chosen for whatever reason to forgo a mobile experience doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t get a lot more conversions from search traffic if they had a
    mobile experience of some sort. Besides, at the end of your post you recommend having both a responsive site and a dedicated mobile site, which clearly shows you understand it’s possible to create something other than a responsive site.

    2. As for faulty responsive designers versus
    responsive design as a methodology, I don’t recall Brad Frost and other responsive cheerleaders making this distinction when they created WTFMobileWeb and WTFQRCodes. Rather convenient that so many rwd advocates are bringing it up now that I’ve produced examples that might be on a WTFResponsiveWeb Tumblr. But
    really, if there is one type of responsive web design that exists in the real world where designers, developers and information architects commonly make terrible mistakes and another kind of responsive web design that exists in theory inside the head of responsive web design purists, which responsive design is the real responsive design? The fact is, companies like Microsoft, Starbucks and Disney think that they’re making responsive web sites, and Starbucks even announced on their blog that their new responsive web site is “now easier to use on a wide range of devices and
    screen sizes.”(http://www.starbucks.com/blog/starbucks-com-goes-responsive) What’s more, SEOs– the people that have created this decision tree where responsive web design is preferred over dynamic serving and dedicated mobile sites– aren’t
    recognizing a distinction between what’s ideal and what’s real. To them, and to .Net magazine (disclaimer: I write their monthly SEO column), who named these three of the top responsive sites, these are sites to emulate, not fix. If you want a philosophy discussion you might have a point, but this is a business issue, and I’m a businessman, and I help clients avoid losing money over “responsive” web sites like these. Also, this argument only applies to the first three points of the five point argument.

    3. Re: usability versus user experience, if user
    experience is the umbrella term that encompasses usability, using the word user experience rather than usability should be logical in English. But your point is well-taken and I will be more specific in the future.

    4. Re: Search Engine Land’s mobile version, you
    have a point. I know Danny Sullivan said at SMX West that Search Engine Land is going responsive eventually, and given their content and their user base I think that makes sense for them. But I only write for Search Engine Land. I’m not used as a consultant. If I were used as a consultant I might have done things differently. As it is it’s a moot point.

    5. I totally agree that nothing’s perfect when it
    comes to SEO or other web design tasks. But I disagree that responsive web design is any more perfect in theory or in practice than any of the other options.

    Love the discussion! Wish I could do it all day, but alas. :) Have a good one!

  • Miklin SEO

    Responsive design is critical and Google
    rewards you for implementing it in a website. Google will demote a domains page
    rank if the website is not considered to be “universally accessible.”
    Also with Google Analytics, you can see which platforms are the most prevalent
    when people view your site. A decent SEO will always ensure a page is built
    with responsive design. Lynda.com provides a bunch of great tutorials which
    focus on website design and responsive design. If you don’t have the time to
    learn, or you don’t have the latest DreamWeaver; purchase a WP theme that is
    responsive. Hope this helps!

  • Colin Guidi

    Ah, cheers on the response here Bryson, great communication! Yes, I currently have clients moving towards RWD and my main ticket is to ensure we’re keeping the most association between UX and SEO as possible from the current site to the new site, seeing how UX and SEO should ideally be married together.

    Thanks again for the response, much appreciated.

  • http://www.brysonmeunier.com/ Bryson Meunier

    Carl, I appreciate the comments, but I think we’re
    pretty far off on a lot of these issues.

    1. Re: information architecture, I did say in the
    article that the problems I mentioned could probably be solved with
    responsive web design, but the point is that SEOs can’t say that responsive web design is the best configuration for SEO, period. Because responsive web sites inherit the same site architecture problems that the traditional web site has, many responsive web sites have these issues. I was never trying to say that all responsive web sites have these issues– only that they’re very common among responsive web sites.

    2. If nobody cares about mobile SEO then nobody will make
    money from it except my clients and my readers that do. That’s your prerogative
    if you want to be left out. As for it not being a real thing, that’s insulting
    and ignorant, frankly, and I addressed it in detail in December: http://searchengineland.com/mobile-seo-is-not-a-myth-8-popular-claims-refuted-141386. And Starbucks not having a page with all 24 hour Starbucks on it has everything to do with responsive web design because they’re relying on the crawlable pages on Starbucks.com for the pages that appear to mobile searchers, and their Store Locator is not crawlable.

    3. Akamai’s performance expert said it, and again most of
    the commenters on the post did as well. Again, was never saying that all
    responsive sites have this issue so I won’t defend something I didn’t say.

    4. If you’re targeting people in India or a global audience
    in general and you’re not taking feature phones into account, you’re going to
    be leaving a lot of money on the table. As an SEO, my job is to help people
    make money, and not ignore opportunities. Obviously people are choosing to ignore feature phones, but that’s often misguided.

    5. Seems we agree on this last one. Mobile sites might not
    be taking full advantage, but at least they have the ability. And I’m glad you
    agree that responsive sites have drawbacks. They’re often presented as an ideal solution, especially for SEO, and the reality is that they may or may not be a good solution, depending on your business and your user. Not sure why this is so controversial—especially when there’s more evidence of responsive sites with a poor user experience than there is ranking problems because of mobile URLs.

    I appreciate your comments.

  • http://www.facebook.com/nathan.blackburn Nathan Blackburn

    Over at http://www.nathanblackburn.co.uk and http://www.easywebsitenw.co.uk I run responsive web design, and I’ve always gotten my clients sites to number one on google without a problem. In fact, I’m making NathanBlackburnOnline responsive CMS at the moment because of the success.

  • http://www.longislandmarketingcompany.com/ Long Island Marketing Company

    There are sacrifices that are made when choosing responsive or mobile. Mobile may very well provide a better user experience when done correctly. It does come at additional cost. Responsive web designs especially those built on wordpress are much easier to maintain and provide a similar look and feel to the desktop version.

  • Jane Parker

    I have a WordPress website at
    present and am thinking about having a WP Responsive Websites built. I have
    been reading about the pros and cons and there seem to be quite a few cons.

    This is what I want to do:

    The main function of my new WP RW
    would be the new gallery. I want to sell artwork on the site and was thinking
    responsive might be the way to go. But if had, say, about 200 pictures of
    artwork listed and people wanted to view several of them – would the download
    be slower than a conventional site – if so, by how much? The word ‘slow’ worries me. I think that the
    idea is right for me as I want to attract mobile users…but.

    I also see comments to the effect
    that ‘slowness’ could be attributed to designer building the site in the first
    place. Confusing for a non-technical person such as me.

 

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