Should You Really Trust Google About Responsive Web Design for SEO?

Travis Bliffen
by Travis Bliffen 28 Mar, 2017

Mobile online marketing is easily one of the most exciting and profitable lead generation and sales funnels available today - but it's also one of the most frustrating and misunderstood.

For example, if you have a website only a year or so old, and you made sure it was built to be "responsive" to mobile visitors, is that enough? Could you be doing something more to take advantage of the fact that it all starts (for Google) with mobile?

Before we get too far, we understand that it is Google's recommendation to use responsive design. What we intend to look at is which is actually better for site visitors and how that correlates to other ranking factors. Besides, with all the changing value Google gives to the 200-plus factors, how important could any single topic be anyway? After all, some of the very reasons Google recommends responsive design is to save itself resources.

Let's start by clearly defining the difference between mobile responsive and mobile first.

Mobile Responsive

It was first to arrive at the party a few years ago, when the term was coined by Ethan Marcotte who identified the key aspects websites would need to adjust in order to better meet the Internet 'surfers' using phones, then tablets, instead of the traditional laptop/desktop computers. 

Included in those key factors where:

            1. Fluid grids that flow and adjust based on the screen size of the device

            2. Pliable/flexible images that hold site content together at any resolution

            3. Dimension breakpoints to plan for viewing at multiple sizes

This was great for its time because it drastically reduced the need to swipe, slide and frustratingly attempt to navigate a website built for a desktop monitor on something as small as your first-generation iPhone.

It also helped usher in popular phrases like user interaction (UI) and user experience (UX) and a few other buzzwords that would need another entire article to explain. We can however summarize a lot of them simply by paying closer attention to how easily your site traffic can click through your site on each and every device. Game consoles, then watches, then larger smartphones all helped to make "responsive" the hot trend of the last few years.

Fast forward to present day, and suddenly the tide is starting to turn on "responsive" in favor of its newer stronger adaptation. Now, admittedly, I understand the temptation to roll your eyes and let out a silent mental groan the first time you hear about it. You may hear a sarcastic thought in your mind like, "Hooray, a new aspect for an already overly talked about topic."

I had the same thought after a fast first look, but then I took a second look and realized this wasn't some new level to "responsive design."

It also isn't a new standard someone came up with as an excuse to write more online marketing articles or push something else on a business tired of drowning in industry jargon.

This was a complete shift in priority and importance about how websites for any business need to be built from now on. And truthfully, it's a good thing, but let's keep it simple and start with the definition before we break down and compare the two.

Mobile First Design

A design philosophy credited to Luke Wroblewski, based on the idea that user experiences need to be developed with mobile as the main priority. This was a major shift to say the least, and one that not many people seem convinced is worth getting onboard with. Luke had a few powerful points though to help make the argument, which include:

1. Millions and millions of more people own a mobile device. More than 85 percent of which are online capable. More people equals more sales, more views and more leads. 

2. Demands greater focus on functionality of websites as physics prove pretty quickly that it's easier to take any group of items (images, calls to action, logo, navigation menu, contact forms) and spread them out, than it is to fit all those same items neatly together and then jam all of them into 80 percent less space.

Making mobile the top priority also created a much-needed jump in importance for developers to make certain a website was fully functional for all traffic, increasing engagement, page views and session duration.

3. Opens the door to innovation because the shift in priority resulted in more mobile and searcher-friendly technology such as click-to-call, geolocation, and an endless line of downloadable apps for every online occasion and situation.

Look at it this way, "mobile responsiveness" was an attempt to help make sure someone coming to your website on a phone could gain access more easily to all the same content on a website that had been designed mainly for anyone sitting behind a computer keyboard.

Mobile first changed that. It kicked desktop off its throne as the most prized and catered to searcher, and justifiably took the position of primary importance.

Even better, by doing so it greatly improved the overall user experience and resources available on most sites today. Options and designs that allow for the majority of online traffic to experience full site function in a way that couldn't happen when mobile was secondary in importance to site design instead of first.

But it gets even better when you understand how this shift could impact SEO

WHY SEO loves Mobile First [And Why That Should Make You Happy]

The clear connection between mobile first design and SEO can be more easily seen by doing something as simple as listings the main priorities of each:

Modern SEO:

- Improved Site Navigation

If the majority of your visitors comes from mobile, and your site isn't designed to specifically provide them with best layout for efficient site navigation, Google can tell, and it doesn't like it. Responsive by its nature guarantees that mobile traffic gets the "second best" version of any website.

Winner: Mobile first

- Full website functionality

Responsiveness was great for providing an upgrade in terms of which content was lost when viewed on mobile, but it was never considered a solution to the problem. It was a step up from mobile being ignored completely. Even when it was applied, there were a certain number of images lost and valuable content which would go unseen.

Mobile first attacks and corrects this flawed approach to the single largest source of search traffic by making that source the primary concern from very start of the site design.

Winner: Mobile first 

- Increase in Valuable Content

Shifting the focus on site content toward providing more content, with more resources, all providing an increase in engagement is the natural result of upgrading the importance of mobile versions being equal in every way to the desktop counterparts.

Winner: Mobile first

- Traditional analytic factors for overall site user experience (please note the following info is from internal research, looking at data across a few hundred locations switching to mobile first design): 

            a.Session Duration (Winner: Mobile first)

            b. Pages Viewed (Winner: Mobile first)

            c. Bounce Rate (Winner: Mobile first)

            d. Time of Page (Winner: Mobile first)

            e. Conversion Rates (Winner: Mobile first)

You get the idea. This isn't a serious debate.  At best, it's a "slow to embrace" response from a segment of the online business world being careful not to jump to quickly through another hoop. Especially in an area like "mobile," which many of us remember adjusting not so long ago.

Final Thoughts

Would it make sense to illogically keep designing sites that aren't designed for the best experience for the majority of their traffic?

And if you can see the logic in that pivot, wouldn't it make sense for us to trust Google (about technical SEO at least) about what Google wants in a high-ranking site (regardless of its responsive request)? 

About the Author

travisTravis Bliffen is the founder of Stellar SEO, a Web design and marketing firm located in Spring Hill, TN. Travis and his team are equipped to handle any size SEO project and have helped numerous businesses to date build a rock solid online presence. When you are ready for more leads and sales, it is time to get #stellarized. Connect on Facebook or Twitter @theseoproz.