Responsive web design is an approach that aims to build sites that provide an optimal viewing experience regardless of the device it is being viewed on. This provides a number of benefits, such as a reduced need to zoom in or out of a page, or having to scroll from side to side as opposed to top to bottom. However, while more and more sites have been using responsive design, there have still been a few concerns about whether there was any SEO impact when using responsive design over developing a separate mobile-only site.
That’s something Google’s head of search spam chose to address recently in a YouTube video. The question posed to him was:
Is there an SEO disadvantage to using responsive design instead of separate mobile URLs?
First of all, both methods are entirely valid for developing for mobile. SearchEngineWatch.com recounts:
Cutts said that both ways of doing it are proper ways of dealing with mobile traffic, and that they have a lot of help documents available to webmasters to ensure they are doing everything correctly, particularly ensuring rel=canonical is being used for mobile versions of sites.
While there’s nothing wrong with either method, responsive design is still the smarter way to go. Responsive design automatically adjusts itself depending on the screen it’s being viewed on while a more traditional mobile site allows for fewer elements to be loaded on smaller screens, but requires separate development. This means, it’s easier to screw things up. According to Distilled.net:
Whenever you build a separate mobile site, you need to add code to both your desktop site and your mobile site to show that they’re the same page. And this is on a page-by-page basis. If on that mobile site you’ve significantly change the content or you messed up that connection, that’s going to break. And now your mobile site is acting as if it’s a completely separate site, and it’s starting to compete with all of the other websites out there that either have responsive design or have properly implemented the connection between their mobile sites and separate sites, and you’re probably going to lose in the ranking game, unless you’re a gigantic brand. So it’s really important that you connect those two well.
Also, with a mobile site, you essentially have two sites to maintain. And it’s very easy to stop prioritizing one for the other. Maybe the mobile site isn’t bringing in as much traffic as the desktop site or vice versa. With a responsive site, everyone sees the same site, but in a different configuration that’s been optimized for the screen size they’re using, and thus, fewer chances of screwing things up.
In general, I wouldn’t worry about a site that is using responsive design losing SEO benefits because by definition you’ve got the same URL. So in theory, if you do a mobile version of the site, if you don’t handle that well and you don’t do the rel=canonical and all those sorts of things, then you might, in theory, divide the PageRank between those two pages. But if you have responsive design then everything is handled from one URL, so the PageRank doesn’t get divided, everything works fine.
With most sites being on WordPress, Blogger, and other theme-able content managements systems, it’s easy to just slap on a responsive theme that you can get for a few bucks. If you’re not on those platforms, development will be more expensive though compared to developing a separate mobile site. However, it’s ultimately worth it because fewer tweaks are needed to keep the site up to date for next generation phones and newer browsers.