Responsive Design Alone Is Not Mobile SEO

responsive design alone not mobile seoFinally, Google and Bing have both made it official that for mobile search, it is best to have One URL to Rule Them All, something I have been advocating for over 2 years.

At the recent 2012 SMX Advanced iSEO session, Cindy Krum stepped in to represent the “one URL” approach in the session’s debate vs the m. strategy.

Although the one URL approach with responsive design is preferred by the search engines, that alone is not Mobile SEO.

Using responsive design to render for different devices under one URL is a great first step, but that means assuming the same keyword trend and intent applies to all devices.

This article you are reading on Search Engine Land uses simple responsive design via the WP-Touch plugin for WordPress, as it simply changes the presentation for smartphone viewers while retaining the exact same content and the exact same Meta information targeted toward desktop searches…this approach works fine for news and blogs.

For products and services, the search behavior and intent changes, as a user searching for a product on a laptop is more inclined to be looking for the best price and shipping options while the same search on a mobile device has the intent of looking for the closest location and whether it is in stock there – this is when true Mobile SEO is needed.

Understanding user intent on different devices is even more important now that singular keyword search terms have increased nearly 20% from last year and long tail terms are decreasing according to a recent Hitwise report.

The key to Mobile SEO is to make sure, along with adjusting the design and content to focus on each device type’s search behavior and intent, that it is further amplified in your Title Tag and Meta Description (as well triggering the proper DocType) under that one URL, using dynamic serving* rather than just a responsive design approach.

This can be accomplished by using dynamic serving on the same URL as Google details how to properly setup this approach. A developer is even trying to coin the term as the RESS methodResponsive Design plus Server Side components – with his own templates. There are plenty of open source templates that do the same thing as it would allow HEAD section flexibility with responsive design while reducing load time.

As a commentor in Tony Wright’s recent article stated, “I know people from some agencies who talk about things like Mobile SEO for instance, and have NOT implemented any of the best practices or even had good quantifiable case to prove their points – yet they are “experts” in the matter.”

So now that proper design and practice have been clarified for Mobile SEO, in my next article, let’s look into actual implementation and achieving higher rankings in smartphone vs. desktop search results.

*Editors’ Postscript: After the initial publication of this article, Google provided the following statement to clarify the difference between responsive web design and dynamic serving, which are actually two different configurations that Google supports:

Both of these configurations serve requests from smartphones and desktops on the same URLs, and the difference between them is:

1. If the site serves the exact same HTML to both smartphones and desktops and uses only CSS to change how the site looks, this is called responsive web design.

2. If the site serves different HTML to smartphones and desktops, or uses client-side Javascript to change the HTML, this is called dynamic serving.

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

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


About The Author: is a SEO Manager at Covario, SEO course instructor at San Diego State University, contributor to The Art of SEO : Mastering Search Engine Optimization published by O’Reilly and owner of Mobile Martin based out of San Diego, California.

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  • Takeshi Young

    Dynamic serving defeats the point of responsive design.  If you are serving different CSS and HTML, then you are no longer using responsive design (Google’s preferred method for mobile site) you are using dynamic serving.

    There is also no point in changing the title and meta description for pages… the post title and description of a page should reflect the content of the page.  Since the content of the page doesn’t change (even if user intent is supposedly different), then don’t change the page’s title.  If you’re changing content based on device, you are approaching cloaking territory.

    Bottom line, stop trying to make “mobile SEO” more than it is.  It is exactly the same as “desktop SEO” and “tablet SEO”.

  • Michael Martin

    Dynamic HTML serving under one URL is a form of responsive design since the design layout changes based on the device type but its a semantic argument.

    The search engine’s have affirmed this is not cloaking if its consistent across all mobile devices of that type, hence why Google has a smartphone and feature phone bot to confirm this is the case…this is even explained in Google’s own Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide.

  • Eider Vasconcelos

    Nice initial article Michael. I was really looking forward to the implementation portion of it, but I will have to wait and see what you come up with. I will do some testing on my side.

    I agree. A site for mobile users should not be treated the same. The way mobile search works is very different because the attention span variates, the user focus is different, so hence, things should be treated differently. Great job!

  • sharithurow

    Hi Michael (or is it Mike)-

    My favorite article quote: “…means assuming the same keyword trend and intent applies to all devices.”

    That is a rather large assumption, and it’s nice to read it. Though I tend to agree with Takeshi’s POV, mostly because I see all of the preferred interface variations among desktops/laptops, tablets, and mobile devices. Preferences certainly differ by target audience.

    I understand responsive design, but as a usability professional and an SEO, I’ve observed too much variation in searcher goals and behaviors to label my point of view (POV) as pro-responsive design. 

    Maybe when the interfaces for mobile devices is less varied? I might change my POV.

  • dipuit

    HTML 5 is still in the making but for any SEO expert, who tries to look ahead, some knowledge about HTML 5 and how it will impact SEO is not unnecessary information. It is true that the changes and the new concepts in HTML 5 will impact Web developers and designers much more than SEO experts but still it is far from the truth to say that HTML 5 will not mean changes in the Organic SEO policy.

  • John E Lincoln

    Hi Michael,

    I thought this was a great post. I appreciate people who understand the subtleties of Internet marketing and the massive impact they have on the various traffic generation landscapes and conversion process. I would agree 100% that user intent and site functionality has huge implications in your mobile strategy, and of course we can never forget important SEO considerations. Strategies > Traffic > Conversions – Nice read. :)


  • Design_Ninja

    Responsive Web Design is not a HTML 5 feature, or concept or any. It is an approach to building websites that use media queries which are a css3 thing. Its true foundation came with fluid based layouts. 

    And the semantic markup changes to HTML in future drafts will greatly effect everyone

  • Michael Halunen

    How are we able to qualify ‘intent’ of mobile users? Is every mobile user ‘hurried’, ‘on-the-go’, ‘distracted’, and only interested in location-based information?

    Is that what we are saying?


  • Michael Martin PMP

    That’s the broad assumption, but for your site/business it can be qualified in your analytics.

  • Michael Martin PMP

    Correct, this is part of the Mobile Semantic Web 3.0 we are going toward.  HTML5 elements do help with semantic markup and device layouts in tandem with CSS3.

  • Vi Wickam

    It seems likely that the trend in less long tail searches may at least be in part attributable to google adding the autocomplete function, and displaying results before you are done typing your query. 

  • yonowillis

    Mobile SEO is gaining much attention as traditional search. Now a days it really doesn’t matter how the site will look on a pc if they found a some useful piece of information.

  • Catherine Lockey

    Optimize for intent – so true and now something all of us who work with responsive must keep in mind. Determining metadata is creative and thoughtful work.  :)


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