It has already been announced by the online community that 2013 will be the year of responsive web design, and in large part this is mostly true. The adoption of responsive as the new de-factor baseline from which to build sites is proof enough. Fur
thermore, the idea of “adaptive web design” is starting to take hold, which layers on consideration for device capabilities when building responsive designs. But does Google even care and will this help your SEO strategy? The short answer: yes.
Responsive Design: The New Benchmark
Aside from reaping gobs of cash from search & media advertisements, Google’s stated goal is to catalog the web in a convenient way for web searchers. Along with this is a focus on user experience and serving up the best possible results. Web queries on mobile or tablet devices often have a very different context than desktop searches. A certain amount of local intent is almost inherent in mobile searches, as consumers are physically on the move and perhaps in a closer position to purchase a product, find a restaurant, check on travel plans, etc. But this is not limited to location-based queries, as searchers do not often self-identify intent in their queries.
In December 2011, Google announced the new Googlebot-Mobile crawler that would function similar to the traditional Googlebot crawler (discovering web pages, indexing & ranking them) but with specific attention to the mobile experience. From the official announcement: “The content crawled by smartphone Googlebot-Mobile will be used primarily to improve the user experience on mobile search. For example, the new crawler may discover content specifically optimized to be browsed on smartphones as well as smartphone-specific redirects.” The fact that Google would create a dedicated crawler indicates their seriousness on the future of mobile and its place in the index.
Making Google’s Job Easier
So we know that Google cares very much about user experience at a device-specific level. If webmasters were to provide content uniquely suited to mobile/tablet/desktop, that would make Google’s job much easier. Google even released their official opinion in June 2012 with a very direct point that responsive “is Google’s recommended configuration.” So if your site requires a horizontal scroll bar on a mobile device or otherwise loads poorly on non-desktop browsers, rank decreases on these devices might occur, with a potential dotted-line to decreased desktop ranking under the penalty of general poor user experience.
Adaptive Web Design Considerations
The concept of “adaptive” web design is relatively new to the scene. This approach not only changes design based on device screen size but also considers the capabilities of that devices, such as touchscreen motions, geo-location or other native features. This might involve scrolling through pages with a finger-swipe or pinching to close a window; actions that currently responsive design does not take into consideration.
The Future of Mobile SEO
While the initial rank impacts affected searches with local intent, Google has indicated the future should include device consideration, and we should expect rankings on desktop/mobile/tablet to begin deviating based on device UX. Catching the early train on adaptive web design could offer additional benefits as this becomes part of Google’s consideration set as well.
Progressive design for the sake of progress alone can be a risky strategy, though with Google publically endorsing responsive design, and a large number of brands adopting as a new baseline of the web experience, it’s a safe bet that responsive (and adaptive) will continue to impact SEO well into the future.