Does Google really prefer responsive sites?

This article first appeared in issue 232 of .net magazine – the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.

Believe it or not, Google did not just tell you to make your sites responsive. It seems many people heard that and only that coming out of the iSEO session at SMX Advanced in Seattle on 6 June of this year, but that’s not entirely what they said.

I was on the panel with Pierre Far of Google and Cindy Krum of MobileMoxie and while Google did express a preference for responsive sites, what they ultimately recommended is what they always recommend – to build a site that makes sense for your users. If you determine that responsive design would provide an inferior user experience to mobile URLs or dynamic serving, then they want you to use either of these two other mobile configurations they also support.

Let’s review Google’s guidelines for developing smartphone sites:

  1. 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.
  2. If responsive design is not the best option to serve your users, Google supports serving your content using different HTML. The different HTML can be on the same URL (a setup called dynamic serving) or on different URLs, and Googlebot can handle both setups appropriately if you follow our setup recommendations.

Notice there are two points. The first says they prefer responsive design. The second that responsive design may not be the best option for your users, and if it’s not, they support two other configurations: dynamic serving and mobile URLs.

To me it seems very clear, but I’m apparently in the minority, as I keep hearing SEO experts and others who think the headlines say that we should make our sites responsive because that’s what Google prefers. This is a problem, as many webmasters are listening to this advice and making their sites responsive because that’s what Google prefers, often regardless of what their users prefer. Most SEOs should understand that any SEO strategy that doesn’t take the user into account is not sustainable (see: Panda, Penguin). If you make your site responsive and it doesn’t fit your user base, your users aren’t going to like it, and neither will Google.

So when might responsive design not be the best option for your users? In their guidelines, Google allows for this possibility, but unfortunately they don’t give webmasters much guidance on when other configurations are more appropriate. One piece of advice they gave us more recently: it’s best not to build responsive sites if the audience you’re trying to reach doesn’t have smartphones. If you want to design your site in a way that will be accessible to smartphone and feature phone users, the only two options available in both Google’s smartphone and feature phone guidelines are dynamic serving and separate URLs. If you look at Google’s recently released guidelines for designing feature phone content you’ll see that responsive web design isn’t an option for mobile SEO for feature phones.

This makes sense, as Opera Mini, which is designed for feature phones, only supports media queries in its current version, and many feature phone browsers don’t support them at all. If you’re designing a site intended for global users or a site intended for an older or less affluent demographic, you probably shouldn’t make it responsive. In short, don’t take sides and listen to dogma, but let the users determine which configuration is best. Sometimes that’s responsive design, and sometimes it’s not.

It’s easy enough to lose that message in an environment where both sides are taking Google’s position and using it to justify their own approach, but it’s an important message to hold on to. Not doing so could not only be bad for your SEO, but bad for your users, and your business.

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