Could Mobile Responsive Website Design Hurt Your SEO?

Allow your jaw to become unhinged at this statistic:

There are over 1 million more mobile devices activated every day across the world than there are babies born.
Yeah, mind = blown.

Indeed, designing with a mobile-first mindset becomes more important — quite literally — by the day. As does answering burning questions related to mobile design best practices.

For example: Is mobile responsive web design good for SEO or not?

Depending on where you look and what you read, you might come away thinking that Responsive Web Design is in perfectly fine shape regarding SEO … or that it creates a mess that’s going to destroy your search results.

Is it possible that the real answer i s more complex than either of these?

What would Google do?
You might have heard that Google recommends utilizing mobile responsive design on your website. Any article you read touting the SEO benefits of responsive design typically starts here.

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.

One of the oft-cited SEO benefits of responsive design is the ability to present a single URL for a page, rather than a separate mobile URL (e.g. copyblogger.com vs. m.copyblogger.com).

Theoretically, this should help the overall SEO of your site and pages by channeling all present and potential link juice into a single URL, instead of splitting it.

Google’s recommendation above fits this premise.

But that statement from Google is just bullet point #1 of two bullets beneath the heading “Overview of Google’s recommendations.”

Bullet point number two says: “If responsive design is not the best option to serve your users, Google supports having your content being served using different HTML.”

So Google — they of the 67% search market share — recommends responsive web design first, while quickly noting that it’s okay if responsive web design is not used … if there’s a better option for serving your audience.

The bots can handle it, Google assures us, if you choose to offer different sites for desktop and mobile users, separate URLs and all.

As explained by noted responsive web design-for-SEO critic Bryson Meunier of Search Engine Land, Google provides “webmasters with the option of consolidating link equity in separate URLs with bidirectional annotations or switchboard tags.”

The level of sophistication needed just to understand that sentence suggests that Option #2 is the more complicated of the two. But hold that thought, we’ll come back to it.
What’s most important here is the big picture point, which is a vital one:

This is yet another example — straight from the horse’s mouth in this case — of how the best SEO strategy is to simply create great content and present it in the most user-friendly way possible.

Maybe that’s with a responsive design … and in certain cases maybe it’s not.

When should you not choose mobile responsive design?
But what about when responsive isn’t the right choice? Such cases are out there.
Disney’s responsive site is one of the examples.

The site is visited often via mobile devices by people wanting to play one of the number of games they make available. Unfortunately, the games cannot be played on small screens, which is going to disappoint the 30,000 users each month who wind up on the site by searching for “Disney games” from their mobile device.

The negative SEO impact of this is obvious: a poor experience will lead to a quick bounce by mobile users. For related keywords, this will likely harm the site’s mobile SEO.

Does this mean that Disney is necessarily wrong to have gone with a responsive site? No. This example just highlights one area of the site where being responsive is not as beneficial as having a separate mobile site — for its games — might be. For all we know, going responsive has had a net positive impact on Disney.com’s SEO strategy.
The point is that there is much more to take into account when deciding if a site should be responsive than cherry-picked anecdotes suggesting an isolated negative SEO impact caused by a responsive design.

Among factors that can tilt a publisher’s decision away from responsive web design:

1. Features.

As with Disney’s videos, responsive design may not be for you if your site has features that will not be able to load without being handled by a mobile-specific site.

2. Content Relevancy.

This is rare, but do your mobile users look for a significantly different experience than desktop users? A mobile-specific site may be better if highlighting specific mobile-preferred content is necessary, as opposed to just rearranging the normal site content.

3. eCommerce.

If mobile commerce occurs frequently on your site, you may want a mobile-specific solution for browsing products as well as a shopping cart.

So, while having a separate mobile site that can serve up different mobile keywords for a page may be beneficial, it is far from the silver bullet many make it out to be.

The point here is to not think of this question — to deploy responsive web design or not — in terms of SEO impact first. It’s to think of it in terms of content and audience-friendliness first (which, by the way, is just good SEO … and which, ahem, is how Google wants you to do it anyway).

Think about your content and think about your readers. What’s the best way to display the content? What will your audience expect and enjoy the most? Committing to deliver the best experience possible for the greatest number of site visitors is going to be the most beneficial long-term SEO strategy.

And in most cases the way to do that is with mobile responsive web design.

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